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Another in the series of explorations of emotions – this one’s a bit shorter, so hopefully it can sustain your interest!
There are two different modes of boredom: the first is an active form, a kind of agitated dissatisfaction with our experience or the task we are undertaking; the second is a passive form that is more like a resigned dissatisfaction with life itself, which I will call ennui in this analysis. One way that you can distinguish these two forms from each other is in the way in which you describe them to yourself. The active form is usually accompanied or signalled by the declaration “I’m so bored!” often spoken aloud even when no one else is present. If you can even be bothered to offer any description of your experience in a state of ennui, then it will be far from a declaration, and the word ‘bored’ may sound tired and drawn out.
Boredom can arise when we lose touch with the reason that we are doing whatever it is that we are doing. If this is because the task we are undertaking has little or no inherent interest and is largely a means to a greater end, then it means that we have lost touch with the connection between the current action and the end towards which we are striving. In these cases you need to find a way to remake the connections, so that you can have not only an intellectual connection with your task, but also an emotional one.
The correlation between the loss of a sense of meaning and the state of boredom is reminiscent of the development of depression, and the more passive form of boredom has been described as a melancholic languor, making this connection explicit. Ennui is an aspect of depression, showing the same characteristics of disengagement and disinterest, and a resigned acceptance of a meaningless and pleasureless existence.
We can also become bored because we are so used to experiencing high levels of activity and entertainment that we cannot stand a reduction in our level of stimulus. It may be that we have developed an ill-founded expectation that the world should consistently engage and entertain us, and if this is the case then it is important to undermine this expectation and take responsibility for your own experience. This is one of the issues addressed in Chapter @ where we look at intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.
Boredom is another warning feeling, signalling dissatisfaction with your experience and through its very discomfort providing a stimulus to action. However, a note of caution should be sounded here. Boredom of the more agitated sort can be a mask for painful, difficult or inconvenient feelings, seeking some sort of distraction from the underlying emotion. Here the desire to distract yourself from the emerging painful experience may well manifest in similar behaviours to those that we use to distract ourselves from anxiety. While the experience of boredom is a call to action, it is important to remember that the required action may be simply to pay more attention to yourself.
Another section from the chapter on Emotional Competence in the book on The Inner Work of Leadership I worked on a few years ago. Rereading these pieces I’m struck by how dense they all are – they could do with a few stories and a loosening of the language to make them a little less intense, and in the context of a blog, a few images. Nevertheless I think the material is useful, so I’m putting it out.
Like anxiety and anger, guilt and shame are twin emotions, although in this case the distinction between them is not temporal in nature, but social: we feel guilt individually and we feel shame in relation to others. It is also true that like many emotions the experiences of guilt or shame can be a wholesome sign of a healthy emotional life, or the unhealthy manifestation of neuroses. This complexity has led some commentators to dismiss both guilt and shame as unhelpful and unhealthy, whereas a sensitivity to them can be a useful guide in decision making – if only to alert one to the likely reactions of others!
Guilt is the experience of falling short of our values and of the standards of behaviour that we expect of ourselves. It is the sense or feeling that arises when you do something that you feel or believe you should not do. Complexity begins to arise because the reason for feeling guilt or shame may be well or ill-founded, and may be compounded by the fact that certain behaviours may be culturally taboo without being morally reprehensible. Such complexities can make these feelings difficult to recognise, especially as they are likely to be mixed up with other feelings.
One near enemy of guilt is that of guilty fear, which is the emotion felt when we fear being caught for something that we know is not accepted, but about which we feel little personal concern. A good example is the swirl of nausea we feel when we see a police car with its lights flashing in the rear-view mirror when driving a little over the speed limit. If the feeling passes when the police car zooms straight past then it was guilty fear, as genuine and healthy guilt requires expiation to disperse.
Such expiation seems to require confession, and such confession must be to someone who can receive the confession appropriately, usually a wronged party or a superior. If you feel a genuine sense of guilt at having manipulated an expense claim in your own favour it will not clear your conscience to confess to an embezzler. What it might do is subvert the feeling of guilt through rationalisation – if he does it then why shouldn’t I? – and the desire to do this is testament to the level of discomfort that the feeling of guilt engenders. Another attempt to sidestep guilt (and shame) is seen in the passing of the ‘hot potato’ of blame. Leaders must avoid getting caught up in such games, and accept or allocate responsibility appropriately without colluding in a blame culture.
Unhealthy guilt has also been described as the result of anger turned against oneself, perhaps because the catalyst of the anger is someone who you feel you should not feel anger towards. It is important to clear the air as soon as possible in such situations, as there is a risk of a feedback loop creating ever-greater feelings of incapacitating guilt. On those occasions when you do act in a way that causes another harm or pain, take responsibility for your actions and where appropriate apologise and make amends – while remembering that how another person feels is primarily their own responsibility.
Shame is the feeling we have in response to the public exposure of wrongdoing, and as such is strongly culturally determined. Highly homogeneous cultures, those with high standards of civic responsibility, and groups seeking to define themselves strongly against perceived threats to identity will be likely to have strong shame cultures. Those in more individualistic and heterogeneous situations will be likely to experience less shame, as there will be fewer collectively held values.
Shame is perhaps most familiar to us from our adolescent years, when any minor divergence from accepted group norms is the cause of genuine anguish. It is both a product of strong group identity, and also a force that encourages it. As such it can be an effective way for a leader to engender good practice within an organisation. Of course the near enemy of this is collusive group-think, where a folie a deux becomes a folie a corps such as we have seen in a number of corporations in recent years.
In order to be able to work effectively with these feelings you need to have a clear sense of your own value system, and of the ways in which your values might come into conflict with the value systems of the organisation for which you are working, those of your upbringing and those of the broader culture. Such a sense of values will be constantly evolving as you learn, develop and mature. Leaders are constantly making choices, and almost all of these choices will disappoint or adversely effect one party or another. While it is important to remain sensitive to the human consequences of your decisions, if you allow yourself to be hobbled by guilt or shame you will cease to be a leader.
Like my previous post on Tiredness, Grieving and Depression, this piece is part of the chapter on Emotional Competence from a book on the Inner Work of Leadership that I worked on some years ago.
Walk into pretty much any bookshop in the developed world and it will soon become evident to you that there is a very substantial body of contemporary literature on anger. This fact probably reflects both that anger is the emotion with which we have the most complex relationship, and that it is the feeling on which the widest range of perspectives is held. These opinions range from the view that you should seek to express anger fully so as to avoid bottling it up and doing yourself damage whatever the damage to others, through to the belief that anger is completely without justification and should always be avoided. While there are doubtless times and individuals for whom both of these extremes are true, the former perspective runs the risk of you simply creating more and more anger so that you are constantly angry, blow your top at the slightest thing and are a nightmare to work with. The latter risks denial and repression that can result in illness and unacknowledged and destructive shadow expressions of anger. In the same way that you need to develop your own model of leadership, you will need to develop your own model of how to respond creatively and constructively to your emotional experience, and to do this you will need a clear idea of how to work with anger in yourself and others. Consequently this is an important issue for leaders, and it may well be the case that it is more important for you to read this section if you do not believe you have a problem with anger than if you do!
Physiologically anger is effectively the same experience as anxiety. Under a perceived threat the body releases hormones such as adrenalin that prepare it for fight or flight. The distinction between the two arises depends on the perceived nature of the threat: if the threat is in the future and so has yet to fully present itself then the experience is one of anxiety, if the threat is present in the here and now then the response is one of anger. This distinction makes evident the fact that there is a cognitive role in the development of anger, whereby your body produces hormones that develop a somatic affective response, and your cognitive faculties make a decision about how to respond. This ‘thinking’ aspect of anger is a feedback mechanism that leads to the production of more of the hormones associated with anger, and allows you to feel angry about things that have happened in the past, and also to develop feelings of anger with some degree of selectivity. The positive aspect of this is that it gives you the opportunity to choose whether you feel anger or not, and offers you the possibility of reprogramming your responses to be more helpful to us, so as to ensure that when you feel angry it is both appropriate to the circumstances and open to you to choose how and if you express it.
Our cultural ambivalence to anger, and perhaps to emotionality in general, can produce two apparently contradictory consequences. On one hand, many people’s family and cultural conditioning place a taboo on anger, so that their expressions of anger have received such a negative response that they eventually cease to express it, and ultimately deny to themselves that they even experience it. In this case anger is often expressed very indirectly and unconsciously, in things like passive aggressive behaviours or through inertia as the blocked energy in the anger results in the person shutting down. On the other hand, some environments accept or even encourage anger but do not accept grief or distress (‘big boys don’t cry’), so that distress is manifest inappropriately as anger. One example of this might be kind of anger a parent might show when their child has been put in danger, so that a mother may scold her son for falling and injuring himself as she unable to fully feel and express her fear and concern.
Many of us need to do a lot of work in order to be able to fluently understand the language of our emotions, as our usual methods of understanding are largely conceptual and our emotions speak to us in an entirely different way. The first stage is to learn to experience and recognise your emotions, and there will some tools to work on this later in this chapter. Anger has a huge range of levels of intensity and euphemisms and it is important to recognise that irritation, annoyance, feeling miffed, being teed, pissed or anything else-d off, irked, etc. are all the same experience at root. It is important to be aware that you also need to develop the capacity to be in relationship to your emotions and feelings in a way that allows you to fully accept and acknowledge them as part of your experience, yet without getting lost in an emotion so that it becomes the whole of your experience and you have no choice other than to express it.
Having this kind of perspective on your emotions allows you to choose the most effective and appropriate mode of response to the circumstances you are in. This degree of emotional competence offers you six possible ways of responding to an emotional experience:
- You might decide to control your feeling of anger (or any other emotion) to allow you to accomplish the task you are engaged in, or to allow you to interact with another individual or group This is a conscious form of suppression, in contrast to unconscious repression.
- You might chose to redirect the angry energy into problem solving or vigorous activity such as competitive sport.
- You can choose to switch your attention to another aspect of your experience, which will drain the energy from the anger and allow you to focus on another activity or state. This brings out the important point that emotional competence allows you to experience your feelings in a broad perspective so that when anger arises it does not dominate your experience – you experience anger but do not ‘become angry’.
- In certain circumstances you might choose to sublimate and refine the anger to a subtler state. This form of transmutation is related to spiritual practices, and is unlikely to be something that is a regular choice in most working environments.
- If the anger triggers issues from the past or touches other issues, it might be appropriate to express the emotion in a process of catharsis – the conscious discharge of painful emotion.
- The final option is that of a simple expression of your experience in a way that connects you to your own and other’s humanity.
The case for managing anger is a strong one, with clear links established between those who have a propensity for anger and increased likelihood of high blood pressure, heart disease, and digestive problems. It is also linked to reductions in creativity and flexibility, isolation and diminished self-view.
While there is a range of choices to be made in the moment about how to deal with anger or any other feeling, there is also investigative work to be undertaken to explore the nature of the experience, what you can learn from it, and how you can utilise this learning in your continued development as a leader and an individual. It has been suggested that anger is an appropriate response to frustrated volition: when you are unable to act in the world in the way that you would choose then anger arises. From this perspective, anxiety can be seen as a response to frustrated comprehension, manifesting when you are unable to understand or to make yourself understood, and you can see grief as a response to a frustration of the need to express and receive connection, affection and love. Like all models, this is of course a simplification, not least because it is seldom the case that these things happen quite so neatly – to be frustrated in one’s capacity to act inevitably includes a degree of experience of personal negation and a sense of being misunderstood, so that all emotional experiences are a complex mixture with anger being fully recognised as an important stage in the process of bereavement or change. Nevertheless it can be helpful to use this simple schema to look at your experience, because if you notice that you have a predisposition for feeling misunderstood to the exclusion of other feelings, for example, this provides you with an indication that some further work in this area would be useful to free you to respond more effectively.
When we display anger in response to circumstances that do not appear to warrant it there can be a host of different causes and underlying processes, and there is a wide range of strategies for simplifying and clarifying your experience. Much unhelpful patterning is rooted in irrational and archaic beliefs and thinking patterns which we have developed through our lives. The section on personal myth offers one way of working with these self views, and we will move on to looking at some straight-forward ways of ensuring that the messages that you give yourself are ones which are accurate, rational and helpful.
Anger can be seen as a way of avoiding stress through distracting or blocking difficult experiences. These can include:
- painful emotions like fear and anxiety, loss, depression, hurt, guilt and shame, and feelings of unworthiness and failure.
- physical sensations such as physical pain, muscle tension, overstimulation, tiredness and overwork
- frustration resulting from blocked needs or want, things not being the way they ought to be or how you would like them to be, or the sense of being forced
- the experience of threat created by being abandoned, overwhelmed or attacked
The problem with the use of anger as a defence against these experiences is that it clouds the issue, making it more difficult to address the causal issues directly and straight-forwardly. One useful perspective to maintain is that you and you alone are responsible for your emotional experience. Whatever happens in the world or anyone does to or around you, the way that you feel and respond is entirely up to you.
Another great book summary from my friends at Coaching on Call which explains the consequences of a lack of mindfulness.
- Increase in technology – remote distractions and modes of communication (email, texts, messaging, internet searches, etc.)
- We’re hard wired to respond to social messaging and expanding our awareness of the group(s) we relate to – so we unconsciously scan for information all the time
- We crave information because it makes us feel more comfortable – multiple sources of confirmation increases our confidence in our choices
- The illusion of achievement – the buzz of activity makes us feel productive and needed
- Consciously approach one task at a time and stick with it. If the task is too large, chunk it down into sub-tasks and aim to complete these one at a time
- Take regular short breaks – preferably in the outdoors as frequent exposure to nature is shown to enhance receptivity and even increase IQ
- Know when to close your door to avoid interruption and use this time to focus intently on the task in hand
- Be clear about what information is useful and be on guard against just seeking more and more confirmation of what you have already decided in order to make you feel good – rather, seek out information that challenges you and therefore helps you make better decisions
- Check email / voice messages at pre-determined times rather than being constantly interrupted by them throughout the day