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1 Give yourself permission to feel whatever you feel
However inappropriate or unworthy it might seem let it arise and pass away, resisting the temptation to attach great significance to it.
Grief is non-linear – one day you might feel fantastic, and the next furious, and the next exhausted, and so it will go on.
When you are bereaved, whether by a death or another kind of ending in your life, it is as though part of your soul moves into the underworld. The time-scales of the underworld are very slow, and care nothing for the efficient productivity of the bright light of day. For most of us this is massively inconvenient, as we need to get on with work, family life, etc, but we just have to let it work its way through at its own rate. Be kind and patient with yourself – it might well take longer than you think it should or want it to.
What would you suggest to help someone who has been bereaved?
I have been meditating for nearly 20 years, and the more I meditate the more important awareness of the body seems to be. This isn’t the way I was originally taught to meditate, however this approach to teaching meditation is now the one that is followed by most of the meditation teachers that I know.
We live in a busy world. Most of us live in urban areas and receive huge amounts of stimulus from adverts, people, music, noise, television, ipods, phones – I could fill the rest of the page with this list, so let’s leave it there. When we look at the lifestyles of humans through most of their evolution, we can see that they had much simpler and less stimulating lives. It seems likely that we have not evolved to deal with the high levels of stimulation that we currently receive – no wonder so many of us feel overwhelmed so much of the time.
There has also been a huge change in what we do with our time, with a continual move away from activities that involved our whole bodies towards work that involves only our heads and our hands. Although this process has accelerated during the last century, we’ve been losing touch with our bodies for quite some time.
So what? Well the big problem is that if we lose touch with our bodies, we lose touch with our emotions. They still underlie (and so effectively control) our thinking, but if we can’t feel our feelings we can’t take them into account, make allowances for them, or compensate for them. You only have to observe how venomous and irrational many academic disputes are to see the way that denied emotionality complicates things enormously.
During the period when the founders of the great religions taught there was no need to teach about emotional intelligence – everybody was in touch with their emotions – they just had to teach about which emotions to support and cultivate and which emotions were unhelpful and should have energy withdrawn from them. For many of us, there is a lot of work to do in connecting more honestly with our emotions and feelings, as only then can we begin to transform them. If we don’t, then we run the risk of deluding ourselves, and will struggle to connect effectively with others.
The simplest way to do this is to learn to notice the subtle sensations in our bodies, particularly in the front of the body: the heart, the belly, and the crossroad of nerves between them called the solar plexus. Although we’re all familiar with carrying emotional tension in our shoulders and other muscles, it is in this tender front of our bodies that we can most fully connect with our feelings and emotions.
There’s no need for me to go into the philosophy of this stuff here, but everybody is familiar with Descartes’ famous dictum “I think, therefore I am”. I believe it would be much more helpful for us to be able to say “I think and feel, therefore I am”.
This is another in the series of pieces on emotions that I ghosted a few years ago for a book on The Inner Work of Leadership, which I don’t think was ever published. Rereading this piece I’m reminded how much of the material was simply stuff we all need to address in the process of personal and spiritual development, just with a few phrases inserted to highlight its pertinence for leaders in organisations. I guess that’s why I feel it’s worth publishing here.
Loneliness and Aloneness
We all feel lonely from time-to-time. Humans are social creatures, and we need to have a sense of connection to other people in order to be fully human.
Ironically, the experiences of disconnection and isolation that loneliness engenders have a tendency to distance us from others, so that we send out signals that drive people away at the very time when we most need connection. You will need to develop the ability to reach out to others, both when you are being rebuffed by someone in distress, as well as when you feel lonely yourself.
It is important to be able to distinguish between loneliness and the existential experience of aloneness, because this experience of aloneness is often accentuated for leaders. In your work there will be many problems, challenges and successes that you are not able to share with anyone else in a meaningful way: confidential and business sensitive matters, and things that others will not fully understand.
To lead effectively, you need to be able to step away from those seeking to influence you, as well as to be aware of your extrinsic motivations – your tendencies to look to others for approval and guidance, and to seek recognition and reward. It is unlikely that all of your motivations will be intrinsic to you, and so it is essential that you are aware of these extrinsic motivations so that you can take them into account and take advantage of them, make allowances or compensate for them as appropriate. If you are not able to stand alone in this way your decision-making processes will always be compromised.
It’s true that it can be lonely at the top, and you need to be able to balance your human need for connection with the resourcefulness to make best use of your aloneness.
This is another in the series on emotional competence from a book on the Inner Work of Leadership that I worked on a few years ago, but (as far as I know) was never published. There are links to the other emotions that I’ve posted at the bottom.
Jealousy and envy are another pair of related feelings, both of which can be seen as evolving from competition, and rooted in the competition for love and care in our early family environment. The distinction between them is unclear so that they are often confused, with the terms used interchangeably; indeed most definitions of one word include the other! As mentioned previously, as long as you are not trying to discuss them with someone else (in which case you will need to ‘rectify terms’ as Confucius put it), what you call your emotions is less important than your capacity to distinguish between them. This being the case, the descriptions presented here are offered as practical aids rather than authoritative definitions.
Jealousy can be seen as having two aspects, one anxious and one acquisitive. The anxious aspect is the fear that another will take from you something that you value or cherish, so that we speak of someone ‘jealously guarding’ a secret, a treasure, or a sexual partner. The acquisitive aspect describes the desire one has for something that another has, perhaps the same treasure that they are jealously guarding.
Envy has been described as ‘a peculiar combination of both desire and resentment fused in bitterness’. One way that envy can be distinguished from jealousy is in desired outcome: you seek to acquire an object of jealousy, but the goal of envy is simply to deprive the other party. It could also be argued that one feels acquisitive jealousy about something that someone else has, but that one feels envy towards someone who has something that you do not. The distinction being that jealousy is felt towards the object first and the person second, whereas this order is reversed in envy.
Envy can be seen as having four key aspects that make it up.
- The first and most significant is a sense of deprivation: that in some way you are being deprived of the pleasure or fulfilment that an item, relationship, talent or reputation would give you.
- Secondly, you must perceive someone else as having and benefiting from whatever it is that you believe yourself denied. The relationship between these two items is significant, in that we seldom desire something until we see that someone else has it. The underlying experience of lack that so many people carry can thus be triggered simply by the knowledge that someone has something that you do not, even if it is something that you have not previously conceived of as being of any benefit to you. Such is the basis of many thousands of marketing campaigns!
- The third aspect of envy is a feeling of impotence in the face of the perceived inequality, and it is this feeling that introduces the resentful aspect of envy.
- The final aspect is the unfounded and illogical, but deeply felt belief that it is because the other party has what we desire that we do not have it. It is this introduction of an entirely spurious causal relationship that characterises envy: a belief that life is a zero-sum game, and that if you have love, happiness, wealth, prestige, or success then I can not have it.
Such a belief is a deeply damaging one for a leader, as it can easily divert you into false competitions that are wasteful and destructive. It has been observed since at least the 15th century that comparisons are odious, and the tendency to compare oneself with others is usually not just a waste of time and energy, but positively unhelpful. The obvious exception being those occasions when you are directly competing for a role or position. When you allow your tendency to compare to slide into a desire to compete you have lost your initiative, and your energies will be directed away from your long-term goals.
Both of these emotions are painful, and if you have not felt the torture of sexual jealousy then you are a lucky person. However, jealously can trigger ambition and thus be a stimulus to action, whereas envy is an intensely painful and ultimately humiliating experience, a self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating form of masochism.
The other emotions that I’ve posted on so far are:
On my Buddhist Coach Facebook page I just posted a link to this piece on mindfulness of the body, observing just how much emphasis has been placed on mindfulness as a primarily mental (i.e. thinking/ cognitive) activity. However, as the author elegantly puts it, “what we translate as “mindfulness” cannot properly be understood as a purely mental activity.”
I’ve been very struck by the huge cognitive bias in the way in which mindfulness is being promulgated, and I suggest that a key reason for this is that the people who research stuff are very heady, and that’s how they make sense of the world. I’ve been delighted to see the results of all the research that has been undertaken into meditation and mindfulness in the last few years, and at the same time there’s a little bit of me that complains “we’ve known this works for nearly 3,000 years, why do we need a a CAT scanner before anyone believes us?”
However, this isn’t just a modern phenomenon, the same process is evident in the Pali canon, where emotion-based practices such as the cultivation of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity (the Brahma Viharas) were downgraded as practices by the monks who transcribed the Buddhist oral tradition. That’s because the kind of people who want to write down and tabulate an oral tradition are the kind of people who make sense of the word primarily through the medium of ideas, and so don’t really understand or value body-based emotional experience.
The biographies of Tibetan teachers often show them as being expert scholars, who then have a spiritual crisis of some sort that forces them to recognise that they have to go beyond the intellect – Naropa being a classic example. The important thing for us to remember is to avoid the temptation to swing to the pole of rejecting rational thought altogether – as happens sometimes, especially in New Age circles) – we need to be mindful of both the mind and the body.
This stuff is important to me because it has been, and continues to be, my working ground. I came to Buddhism with very little awareness of my body or my emotions, and the longer I practice, the more important I understand the body to be. I have a lot more to say on this issue, but I’ll leave it there for now.
Anger and fear are primal survival emotions, with roots deep in our evolutionary past. Guilt and shame are also key emotions supporting survival for humans as social animals. However there are other, more subtle feelings that indicate to us that all is not well, and these feelings can be difficult to pin down and define. Although we all have a clear sense of what someone means when they tell us they are upset or hurt, we may well find it hard to be more specific about what this means, and if we do get down to details we may find that our definition disagrees with theirs.
The names we use for many of these feelings make direct connections between our psychological and physiological experience, so that we describe ourselves as being bruised, hurt, wounded, etc. without anyone being confused that the place of the injury is somewhere in the flesh. Alternatively we use metaphors for disorganisation or disturbance, such as shaken up, mixed up, rattled, etc. suggesting a destabilisation or loss of equilibrium.
The descriptions below do not seek to be definitive, and you may find that you would give a different name to the experiences that are described. This is not important; the way you choose to describe your emotions will depend mostly on your beliefs about yourself. What is important is that you are able to recognise and identify your individual feeling patterns, and that you are able to respond to them in a way that keeps you free to make creative choices.
Hurt and Upset
These two words can be catchall phrases to describe an experience of emotional difficulty, and as such can mean everything or nothing! They can also be dismissed as irrelevant all-too-easily by a busy leader, or denied as being unworthy or signs of weakness. This is a mistake. Such feelings are a sign that something you value is under threat or has been lost or damaged, or that your resources are diminished. Such information is valuable and to deny or ignore it is foolhardy. This is because they provide powerful indicators of what is important to you, and if you deny them then you will be unable to learn from them.
The desire to negate such feelings may be rooted in a desire to avoid seeming weak or vulnerable to yourself or to others. However we all have vulnerabilities, and accepting your vulnerabilities so that you can make allowances for them is the best way of adapting to reality. To deny feelings of hurt and upset is a declaration that you do not care sufficiently about yourself, and if you do not care about yourself it is unlikely that you will be able to genuinely care about anyone or anything else.
To accept one’s vulnerabilities also means to be open, and it takes great emotional maturity to be able to do this without quickly moving back into defensiveness. This kind of maturity requires you to have a profound knowledge of yourself, knowing your strengths and weaknesses without believing that either mark you out as particularly special, and having a deep trust in your own resourcefulness.
Clearly there will be circumstances when it is appropriate to protect yourself, as certain individuals or circumstances will call for you to exercise appropriate self-defence. However such protection needs to be a conscious choice in response to particular circumstances, as protection takes up energy. The habitual denial of your weaknesses and vulnerabilities to yourself and others will be a waste of energy, meaning that it is not available to you for other more constructive purposes.
The denial of vulnerability is a manifestation of self-delusion, an attempt to see oneself as perfect. This process is much more subtle than it sounds when written down in black and white. Coming to know oneself fully is a lifetime’s work, and you need to be constantly seeking to learn more about yourself. One particularly useful way to do this is by noticing the little hurts and upsets that one experiences on a day-to-day basis. The things that ‘press our buttons’ or irritate us about our colleagues and competitors are, almost without exception, aspects of our own personality or behaviour that we deny or fail to recognise. This presents a fantastic opportunity to learn more about yourself, and so to integrate the denied and projected aspects of your personality. There is a certain irony in the fact that one of the qualities most commonly projected in this way in the workplace is vulnerability, as evidenced by the feeding frenzy that can be stimulated when an individual is overwhelmed by stress or manifests incompetence in some way.
Of course not all hurt is the result of projection. One other significant cause is the experience of not getting what you expected, especially in terms of care and support from those closest to you. Once again it is easy to see this feeling as being too trivial to take seriously, but once again it is the source of useful information, in this case about the kinds of support, acknowledgement and appreciation that you need. While it is essential to be able to look to yourself to validate your work and achievements, we all need some external validation as well. While it may not always be possible to get such validation, to deny the need for it will result in emotional ossification, and so you will need to ensure that you have appropriate support systems by way of mentors or confidants to meet such needs, at least to some degree. Acknowledging such feelings may also present the opportunity to learn more about their roots. It may be that there are issues of self-worth underlying them that can be addressed directly and so reduce the need for external supports.
An associated feeling is that of feeling slighted. This arises when you are not shown the expected level of respect, esteem or appreciation by others to whom you are not particularly close. This will inevitably be the case from time-to-time, as few others are able to fully witness the real achievements of a leader, and so you must bear the hurt and move on. In can be the case that as a leader you may be in receipt of a great deal of positive projection, with some people seeing only the best of themselves in you. You will inevitably fall off this pedestal in time, and so it is best not to allow yourself to be seduced by excessive appreciation, and definitely to avoid becoming dependent upon it. Leaders often receive unreasonable amounts of appreciation for their good qualities, and unreasonable amounts of criticism for their failings. Allowing yourself to develop a sense of entitlement to support or appreciation will inevitably result in you experiencing much hurt and disappointment.
Feeling upset can also arise as a secondary response to the more primal emotions. In this context it may well denote that an emotional experience has left us with fewer resources to address the issues of our lives and work. An example might be that you have been angry with a colleague about something they have done, and this upsets your equilibrium so that you are more easily raised to anger by issues that would not normally bother you. It is common to describe this kind of upset as irritability, which in its technical sense means having a high sensitivity to stimulus. This also demonstrates the way that feelings of upset can act as a gateway or catalyst to the primary emotions in addition to manifesting as a consequence of them, reminding us of the feedback loops that operate in our emotional systems.
The destabilising emotion may be guilt, which can result in defensiveness, or fear leading to a nervous or edgy feeling. Each of these suggests that an issue is not fully resolved or assimilated. This may be because there has been a strong experience that has had a substantial effect on the psyche, or conversely that the original stimulus was insufficient for it to have made an impression on us at a conscious level. If you find either of these experiences happened to you on a regular basis then some further investigation is likely to be necessary. To feel upset is to receive a warning that one’s emotional thresholds are lowered, and it is wise to heed such a warning.
Another section from the Emotional Competence section of the book on the Inner Work of Leadership that I worked on a few years ago. Re-reading these pieces I’m reminded how difficult I found it to write in someone else’s voice, using source material that they had suggested. If I found these pieces somewhere other than on my hard drive I would not know that I had written them – perhaps I’m a better ghost writer than I realised!
On the whole, psychiatry has paid more attention to dis-ease than to wellbeing; perhaps it is easier to be clear about how things have gone wrong than how they have gone right. As a consequence it can be hard to clarify what it means to feel good. We all know that we feel good when we are relieved of anxiety, freed from despair, or recover from being upset, but we also know that to feel good is much more than just the relief of not feeling bad.
The characteristics of feeling good are very broad and can include experiences of lightness, buoyancy, aliveness, optimism, peace, relaxation, hope, connection and involvement. Perhaps the easiest way to summarise the pleasurable aspect of feeling good is to say that when we feel good we experience an expanded and enhanced sense of self.
Feeling good may arise as a direct result of a success or positive experience, and yet we all have experiences of feeling good for no apparent reason. We also know that our expected sources of pleasure can be rather fickle, sometimes failing to provide the pleasure we have expected, usually when we have tried to pursue pleasure as a way of avoiding some unpleasant aspect of our experience. Nevertheless we can identify a number of different ways in which we can come to feel good.
The first and most primordial of these is the gratification of our senses. We can feel good when we touch and are touched, and when we have the opportunity to see, hear, and taste things that are enjoyable to us. Perhaps this is the most obvious area in which the misguided pursuit of feeling good can easily lead to excess.
The second thing that can create a feeling of wellbeing for us is learning and discovery. Here the experiences of the senses are combined with the intellect, as we see in the delight of a child when it discovers something new, or our pleasure can be born simply from intellectual discovery. The fortunate amongst us retain the capacity to find delight in learning new things, however ‘useless’ they may be. It is a sad indictment of our educational system that so many people come to see learning as a boring or even painful experience, rather than one of pleasure and expansion.
The pleasure of learning about is the forerunner to the pleasure of learning how. Here the sense of self is expanded through the development of a new skill, or expertise, or through problem solving, leading to a sense of accomplishment and mastery. There must be some degree of challenge and difficulty in a task for it to provide pleasure in the completion, a task easily achieved offers little gratification. In this respect the cliché that there is no gain without pain is true, showing that pleasure and pain are not simple opposites.
The fourth type of experience that can help us to feel good continues along the same line as the previous two, where the mastery of a skill moves into the expression of creativity. To know that one has brought into being something that did not previously exist, be it a painting or a corporation, can be a tremendous source of delight and satisfaction.
Not only this, but the very act of creation can be one that provides us with a fifth source of pleasure: that of immersion. When all of our energies are fully aligned and engaged in a task so that there is no conflict or distraction, this ‘flow’ of effortless concentration is deeply pleasurable.
A sixth way in which we feel good is when we experience our connection to others. We can experience this collectively through playing sports or music with others, or working together in a team. Singing in a choir provides the metaphor of harmony that encapsulates this experience. We also experience this sense of connection individually in our intimate relationships with loved ones.
In connecting with others we experience an expanded sense of self through including others in our sense of who we are. Perhaps we feel the most good when our sense of self expands to include the whole of existence. This seventh category of pleasurable feeling has been described as ‘peak experience’ or ‘oceanic feeling’ and is characterised by a comprehension of the universal order of things, great joy and delight, awe and wonder, groundedness as well as limitlessness. It is possible for each of us to experience such states, and they tend to have a profound effect on us, sometimes being interpreted as mystical or religious experiences. They can be triggered by intensely positive experiences of nature, art or love, and occasionally by acute trauma, and they can also be actively cultivated through practices such as meditation and deep reflection.
It is regularly observed by people travelling in the developing world that people who have very little often seem happier than their wealthy counterparts in the developed world. While it is also these people who experience the greatest risk from climate change and other natural disasters, it is a salutary lesson for us that we often overlook in our busy and ambitious lives. To fully feel that one is alive is one of the greatest pleasures in life, and one that we are usually too busy to appreciate.
Here are links to the other emotions that I’ve posted so far.
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.