When I think of mental discipline as it relates to emotional intelligence , I specifically focus on two simple yet significant tactics deployed when you sense you’re about to venture down a dangerous path :
- Recognizing an unproductive emotion or line of thinking when they arise.
- Immediately interrupting that unproductive emotion or line of thinking upon recognition.
Because these two things are relatively simple (though not easy) and carry with them subtle, significant implications, I can’t help but relate the idea to the Broken Windows Theory. The idea is that when small things go unrepaired, untended, or unenforced they send signals that bigger things will go unnoticed or unenforced. There are many examples of the theory in action, yet the best example I know of was Mayor Rudy Guiliani’s continued enforcement and strict punishment of turnstile jumpers during and immediately after 9/11. It is easy to think that surely valuable law enforcement officers had more important things to do that day than chase down some turnstile jumpers. Yet during these tragic, catastrophic days and nights, the goal was to decrease pandemonium and the odds of rioting and looting and increase cooperation and orderliness. Thus, having law enforcement tend to the little offenses sent a signal that bigger offenses would not go unnoticed, unenforced, or unpunished.
In this same way, the recognition of an unproductive emotion or line of thinking when it’s happening coupled with the ability to interrupt the emotion and thinking are small, fundamental things that signal (to oneself and to others) bigger things like mental discipline, respect, consideration, and trustworthiness. Plus, it’s mental discipline that creates the space to pause when emotions are high.
So now the question is, “How the heck do I do this mental discipline stuff? How do I stop the dominoes from falling when they feel like two ton concrete slabs with their own momentum and trajectory?”
First, before I give you my answer, know that mental discipline is something you cultivate and practice; there is definitely no easy button and it can feel frustrating, repetitive, and down right uncomfortable. Yet, this messy, dirty hands-on work is absolutely necessary to emotional intelligence. Second, remember that emotional intelligence is about learning to use your emotions productively and thoughtfully so that you can respond in a manner informed (but not dictated) by your emotions. This requires jumpstarting your upper brain’s executive functioning, which gets suppressed during strong emotional moments. Mental discipline is the energy source of that jumpstart.
Ok, so here’s the tactics that I deploy when I catch myself getting hooked by a strong emotional reaction or engaging in an unproductive line of thinking, which I learned from Pema Chodron.
- I kindly and patiently say to myself a non-judgmental CODE WORD that serves as an intentional interruption, words such as “emotion” or “thinking”.**
I do this every time I catch myself, even if that means I say it to myself 10 times in 10 seconds. The idea is to say it (aloud is preferable) then let it go. Again and again. No more, no less. Don’t berate yourself and don’t give in. The key is to stop struggling against your emotions, stop repressing them, stop grasping at and indulging them, and instead relax into any discomfort and realize that the point isn’t to get rid of the emotion, but to see their true nature: data providers.
- I deploy a pre-determined PLAN.
When I’m emotional, my plan includes visualizing a metaphor for how I’m feeling (a tempest in a teacup), taking a deep breathe, and intentionally reminding myself that like all storms, the emotion will pass. I actually purchased a photo by Madelyn Mulvaney that spoke to me so clearly of how I feel when I’m emotionally hooked and hung it in my bedroom; this is the specific image I visualize. The mid-term part of this plan is that I know and trust that if the emotion is sending significant data, I will follow up and pursue that information when I’m not hooked by or buried under it. When I’m interrupting an unproductive line of thought, my plan includes implementing a 5-why on my thinking, doing a Kastanza (whereby I consider exactly the opposite of what I’m thinking to be true), or I get active.
**It’s important to note that many times our unproductive emotional reactions are happening in the presence of someone else, someone who may even have been the trigger. So what do you do in those moments when you’re emotionally hooked in an interaction? The same thing you do on your own.
Usually in emotionally charged interactions we don’t stop ourselves when we sense we’re about to charge off a cliff like a scared elephant; we just stampede right off that cliff because the moment is intense and overwhelming, or we feel justified, or we’re itching for a fight, or we just want to have the last word or win. I think you all know how that usually ends up. SPLAT!
Try this next time you find yourself in a similar situation. Instead of getting hooked, catch yourself and engage with the person differently. It might sound something like this: “Jenny, I just realized I’m getting angry and about to say something unproductive. I need to stop now and take a bit to cool down and gain my composure. Let’s talk about this later.”
Notice that I didn’t ask permission to talk about it later; I set a clear boundary. This is important in these moments because emotions are contagious. The other person may be just as emotionally hooked as you are, but less aware, and feel the immediate need to continue. Your mental discipline and transparency in that moment may at first feel awkward, and that’s ok. The other person may get more emotional, and that’s ok. That’s their trap.
Mental discipline relates to the self-management component of emotional intelligence. Practicing it when it’s challenging, messy, and uncomfortable is a powerful signal (to oneself and to others) of emotional intelligence and trustworthiness, which we’ll get into next week!
As always, I love to hear your thoughts, stories, and questions.
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