Mindfulness – A Pathway to Emotional Agility

Dr. Susan David in her 2017 TEDWomen’s Talk, spoke about the gift and power of emotional courage – the willingness to face our emotions in all their diversity and strength.  She stated that research demonstrates that denying or suppressing emotions leads to strengthening emotions and can make people aggressive. Other research shows that such denial or suppression induces unhealthy coping behaviours and contributes to serious mental and physical health problems. Sometimes we suppress emotions because we think that this is what we should do – we take our cues from social norms or established unwritten rules operating in the workplace.   

In her book, Emotional Agility, Susan argues that radical acceptance of our emotions, however difficult, is essential to be able to bounce back from setbacks and lead a productive, happy life.  Her main premise is that denial of emotions develops personal rigidity – the inability to be flexible and move with the ups and downs of life.  She maintains that, on the other hand, radical acceptance of emotions builds resilience and “emotional agility” – the capacity to deal with the complexity of an uncertain and ever-changing world. 

Susan warns us about the “tyranny of positive” – the social expectation that we do not express what is viewed as negative emotions – such as anger, frustration, sadness, disappointment or envy.  We are expected in many situations “to put on a brave face” and deny how we really feel.  She discusses the “destructive power of denial” not only in terms of being injurious to health and well-being but also in disabling us and preventing us from developing effective or creative responses to our situation. 

How to overcome rigidity and build emotional agility

In her presentation and book, Susan offers several suggestions that can assist us to develop emotional agility:

  • Stop labelling emotions as “good” or bad” – they are just feelings that we experience as a result of our perceptions and are a part of normal, daily living
  • Change your mindset to accept that “discomfort is the price of a meaningful life” – a way of living that is designed to make a difference for ourselves and others. This is a part of accepting “what is”.
  • Name your feelings but do so accurately and specifically – so instead of saying “I’m stressed” (a generic state), identify the real feeling in all it’s intensity and contours, e.g. “I’m bitterly disappointed because I missed out on that promotion” or “I am continually very resentful that Joe caused me so much work and embarrassment by his words and actions”.  We tend to fudge the emotion to take some of the heat and negativity out of it.  Accurate description and radical acceptance of our emotions lead to a genuine release and frees us to explore productive ways of thinking and acting.  This may entail a progressive realisation of the true nature of our feelings as we reflect or meditate, e.g. by undertaking the R.A.I.N. meditation
  • Recall Susan’s statement that “emotions are data, not directives” – we can establish control over our emotions through meditation and by developing self-regulation.  The starting point is naming and accepting them. 
  • Ask yourself, “What is my emotion telling me about my current situation” – e.g. “Is it informing me that my current job is destroying my motivation and/or deskilling me?

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of the true nature of our feelings, name them accurately and accept them as part of trying to live a life aligned with our values and what is meaningful for us.  It sometimes takes time to unearth the real nature and intensity of our feelings because we so often disown them.  Persistence in our self-exploration and self-compassion opens the way for us to be more emotionally agile and more open to life’s experiences, including the potentially challenging aspects of moving outside our comfort zone.                      

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Image by Holger Langmaier from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Reduce Resentment through Reflection

In previous posts I provided meditations to deal with the thoughts and judgments associated with resentment and the feelings precipitated by the words and actions that you are resentful about. Sometimes resentment runs so deep and is aggravated by other intense emotions and/or related events, that it is difficult to sustain your focus during a meditation. Some relatively isolated event could even surface resentment that has lain dormant for many years. You might find that your emotions are so stirred up and your related thoughts so rapid or random, that meditation is extremely difficult.

One way to overcome these difficulties is to combine reflection with journalling – in other words, writing or keying responses to a series of reflective questions. The very act of writing down or keying up your responses to these questions enables you to get your thoughts “out of your head”, understand what you are thinking and why, name your feelings and begin to view the conflicted situation from the perspective of the other person. There is nothing like empathy, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, to dissipate resentment.

In the following sections I offer a series of reflective questions covering a range of topic areas related to unearthing and reducing resentment. If a question or series of questions do not resonate with you at this point in time, do not worry about it or try to force a response – just move on. Sometimes it takes only one question to break down the wall of resentment.

Reflections about events that resurface your resentment

  • What was the catalyst for the re-emergence of your resentment? Was it a specific event, news report, social media comment or interaction with, or sighting of, the other person involved?
  • What was your behaviour when the catalyst occurred? Did you spend your time talking to others, recalling the precipitating event from the past and intensifying your agitation by re-telling the story? If it was an interaction or sighting, did you express your anger, act curtly towards the other person or avoid them entirely for fear that either you or they would act inappropriately?
  • Are there other external events or interactions that reinforce or intensify your feelings? For example, the precipitating event in the past may have involved misrepresentation of facts and/or false accusations. Untruths or misrepresentations reported in the press or false accusations made about another person on social media, may intensify your feelings of resentment (even though the misrepresentation or false accusation reported may have limited direct impact on you).
  • Do you experience a desire for revenge – wishing some misfortune for the other person?

Reflections about the initial, precipitating event or interaction

  • What was the initial precipitating event or interaction? What actually happened? Sometimes just recalling the situation may diffuse your resentment because, in the light of hindsight, the issue may seem so trivial now. Alternatively, being accurate about what actually happened, not your interpretation of the event or interaction (nor your assumptions about the other person’s motivation), can help you become more clearly focused on your thoughts, judgments and residual feelings.
  • What was the impact of the initial event/interaction for you? What happened as a result? How did you feel at the time – embarrassed, angry, defensive, distracted, antagonistic? Did you have a strong sense of injustice, unfairness or dishonesty? Did insensitivity from the other person compound your feelings of hurt and resentment?
  • What identity issues were playing out for you? Was your integrity unfairly challenged? Was there a baseless claim that created a situation where you had to publicly defend yourself? What impact did the event/interaction have on your personal and/or professional reputation? How did it impact your sense of self and achievement of your purpose in life?

What sensitivity on your part was aroused by the precipitating event/interaction?

  • Is there anything in your early family experience that made you particularly sensitive about what happened during the precipitating event/interaction? Did you feel abandoned, criticised unjustly, neglected (your needs not being met), isolated, unsupported or abused? How did these feelings tap into any prior experience? Did the event/interaction uncover what was a “blind spot” for you?
  • Were your words and actions at the time disproportionate to what the other person said or did? Did your response highlight a particular personal sensitivity?
  • What judgments have you formed about the other person? Do you consider the other person thoughtless, lazy, dishonest, ungrateful, mean, disrespectful or revengeful? Do you believe that they would lie under any circumstance or that they believe “the end justifies the means”? Do you think they are a freeloader or that they trade on their family/business name? What do these thoughts/judgments say about your own values?
  • What assumptions have you made about their motivation? What is the basis for these assumptions? What do these assumptions say about you and your goals? Are you a competitive person?

Reflections from the perspective of the other person

There are several ways to explore the perspective of the other person. Here are three areas for reflection to gain a better understanding of what it all meant for them.

How they experienced the precipitating event/interaction – their concerns, feelings and identity issues

  • What happened for the other person in the initial interaction/event? Did they consider themselves exposed, threatened, embarrassed or under attack? Were their words and actions designed to achieve self-protection? What potential loss could they have faced in the situation? Were they trying to “save face”? [Tim Dalmau, when explaining the perspective of NLP, stated that the starting point for understanding others is to realise that “their behaviour, however self-defeating, is self-caring”]
  • How do you think the other person felt? They may have felt locked in, unable to think of another way out of their dilemma. They could have felt vulnerable, insecure or exposed. They may have felt that they had failed in some respect. They could have been experiencing non-specific anger and lashed out at the first person they interacted with. They could have been depressed, anxious and wary. What feelings do you think could have been at play for them?
  • What identity issues were involved for the other person? How were they trying to protect their sense of self-worth? What was at stake for them in terms of their sense of competency, their perception of their own goodness and self-assessment of their lovability?

Pressures and stresses experienced by the other person

  • What kind of stress was the other person experiencing? Did they have marital/relationship problems, financial difficulties, job insecurity, illness in the family or personal ill-health? Did they have a carer role?
  • Were there parental pressures, peer perceptions or social/work expectations at play for them? Were they just modelling the behaviour of their hierarchy? Was parental acceptance and financial support dependent on their achieving “success”? – a conditional parental love? What would happen to them if they were cut adrift by their parents and/or left without social support? How would they cope mentally if their external source of self-definition was removed? Did they grow up in a family where there was no moral compass or a morality dependent on what was needed to achieve a desired outcome?

Putting yourself in their place – empathy and forgiveness

  • In what way were their words and actions designed to be “self-caring”?
  • Have you ever engaged in the same behaviours that you ascribe to the other person? Empathy and compassion flow from honesty with yourself – if you maintain the “moral high ground”, despite evidence to the contrary, then you will have real difficulty in being empathetic towards another person.
  • Can you forgive yourself for your own behaviour during the precipitating event and, subsequently, when you have “maintained the rage” and indulged in resentment? Self-forgiveness may take a long time to achieve and repeated attempts at a forgiveness meditation.
  • Are you able to forgive the other person? Forgiveness is easier when you have built up your understanding of the other person and their actions.

Turning intention into action

You might intend to be less resentful, but how are you going to put this intention into action? There are four questions that can help you in this process of translating intention into action:

  • What are you going to do more of? – e.g. reflecting on what it meant for the other person and what are their driving forces/influences (trying to understand their perspective in all its elements – thoughts, feelings, consequences, identity issues).
  • What are you going to do less of? – e.g. this could be less re-visiting of the precipitating situation and/or less negative judging of the other person’s behaviour.
  • What are you going to stop doing? – e.g. telling other people your side of the story and/or “bad mouthing” the other person (elicits support and sympathy for your perspective and reinforces your resentment).
  • What are you going to start doing? – e.g. approach the other person with an open mind and heart.

I am not suggesting that overcoming resentment is easy – but reducing resentment is possible with persistent effort, e.g through the suggested meditations and reflections. Resentment is typically a very strong emotion that is deeply rooted in our psyche and held in place by our assumptions. Unless resentment is tackled, it can eat away at you and lead to physical and psychological health problems. It is important to chip away at resentment, to dig up its roots and to break down the walls that it creates. Persistent personal work will lead to lasting results.

As we grow in mindfulness (particularly inner awareness) through meditation and reflection we can gradually reduce our resentment and develop self-forgiveness and forgiveness for others. Compassion grows out of a deepening understanding of the other person.

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Image by FarfOuille from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Mindful Leadership: Empathy

 

The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute draws on Evan Thompson’s (2001) explanation of the nature of empathy that identifies two key aspects:

(a) The ability to experience and understand what others feel

(b) while maintaining a clear discernment about your own and the other person’s feeling and perspectives.

(Empathy and Consciousness, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8, 1-32)

So the first aspect of empathy is the capacity to experience what the other person is experiencing from their perspective.  It is like, metaphorically, standing in their place, realising and understanding what they are thinking and feeling.  It is not trying to provide a psychological solution or judging the emotion of the other person.  At the heart of empathy is understanding both intellectually and emotionally what is involved for the other person.

Secondly, it is the discernment ability to separate the other person’s emotion from your own.  It is not owning the other person’s feelings as if they were your own. This ability to differentiate yourself and your feelings from the other person and their feelings is critical.  An inability to do this means that you will eventually suffer from empathy overload, which can be harmful to you and reduces your capacity to help the other person.  Total identification with the other person is not the goal of a healthy approach to empathy.

There are a number of ways to enhance your empathy.  Here I will discuss three strategies:

1.Understanding and appreciating similarities

Foundational to empathy is self-awareness and the ability to recognise similarities between ourself and other people.  When we focus on differences, we are less able to empathise with others and are more inclined to make assumptions about others.  It is interesting, too, that we tend to judge ourselves by our intentions and judge others by their presumed motivation.  We all know that there can be a huge gap between intention and action.

2. Empathetic listening

Empathetic listening involves not only attending to what someone’s is saying (the words), but also the feelings (the emotions) behind the words. It includes the capacity to not only reflect back the content of the other person’s communication, but also the ability to reflect back the emotion and depth of emotion  involved.  This is often very difficult to do, given our busy lives and our tendency to run away from emotional encounters – either withdrawing physically or psychologically by tuning out.  As we grow in mindfulness, we are better able to stay present to the other person and listen empathetically.

3 Kindness

Simple acts of kindness, helping another in difficulty, builds empathy as it relies on awareness of another’s predicament and a willingness to take some action towards assisting that person.  If you are looking for inspiration for your own acts of kindness, here are some websites that may help:

Random Acts of Kindness

Kindness.org

103 Random Acts of Kindness

As you grow in mindfulness you develop your capacity to be empathetic, as empathy requires you to be present on purpose and non-judgementally.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay