If you cannot control how you feel and avoiding your feelings has negative consequences, the only resource you have left is to manage your emotions. This involves understanding not only how you feel, but what use you can make of your emotions.
Like the emotional granularity theory, the theory of emotional intelligence is one that helps you to understand how to make the most use of your feelings. Once you accept that emotions are valid, it’s tempting to think that expressing them in every instance is the way to go. Like the famous gag in the television show Seinfeld, to indicate your anger or frustration, you could go around screaming, “Serenity now!” Unfortunately that’s not what is called for when you accept the validity of your emotions. Emotional intelligence means understanding what your emotion signifies and the appropriate and helpful ways in which you make the emotion work for you.
Categories of Emotion
One useful way of thinking about emotions is to divide them into categories based on how they help us to perform. We could assign one category for emotions that always help us to perform well. Emotions such as enthusiasm, confidence, tenacity, and optimism would fall into this category of high performance emotions. These high performance emotions are characterized as being high arousal emotions and as being emotions where our focus is wide and open.
Another category of emotions becomes obvious. If we have a category for high performance emotions, then it follows that we should have a category for emotions that always interfere with high performance. These are called blue emotions, and they include such emotions as dejection, depression, boredom, and disappointment. These emotions are marked by qualities of low arousal and a narrowed and closed focus.
A third category for emotions would cover those emotions that can either improve our performance or impede it. These emotions include anger, anxiety, and frustration, and they are called swing emotions because they can swing either way into motivating better performance or interfering with good performance. Take anxiety for example. If someone preparing for a test was to feel anxious about that test, this could lead either to that person studying harder or freezing up. If the anxiety led to more studying, we could say that the emotion caused the person’s behavior to swing into the realm of high performance. If the anxiety made the person freeze up, than obviously, that person probably did not do too well on the test, and the effects of that emotion led to decreased performance as if the emotion were a blue emotion. Swing emotions are characterized as being high arousal emotions but with a narrowed focus.
A fourth category of emotions does not get discussed much because we often don’t recognize emotions in this category as emotions, seeing them more as neutral states. However, low arousal and wide focused emotions such as calm and satisfaction can be high performance emotions as well.
If you’ve ever felt depressed, you can probably understand why raising your arousal level might be a helpful way to go. The trick to emotional intelligence, then, is to recognize how you are feeling and determine what needs to be done in order to feel a different way. Fortunately, in the case of blue emotions, there are numerous ways to increase your arousal levels and thereby put your emotions into more of the high performance category where you’re feeling enthusiasm or optimism.
While increasing your arousal level can be an excellent way to effectively deal with low arousal emotions, feeling high levels of emotional arousal is not always helpful. The key is to understand the valence of the high arousal emotion. If it is on the pleasant side of the spectrum, there’s no need to change anything, but if you’re emotion is unpleasant, then you probably need to lower your arousal level. In the example before about anxiety and test taking, too much arousal could make a person freeze up. This is why when someone feels anxious or angry, it’s common for another person to tell them to calm down. Unfortunately, while this may be obvious from a rational standpoint, it’s easier said than done when you do feel angry or anxious. Since swing emotions tend to feature both instances of high arousal and a narrowed focus, activities that can lower the arousal level, widen the focus, or both are desirable. A lower level of arousal allows you to reassess your situation and a wider focus allows you to explore possibilities that wouldn’t have occurred to you in a state of anger or frustration.
This post is from April’s topic on Improving Self-Awareness.