The ability to identify, understand and regulate our own emotions is the key to unlocking the mystery behind our feelings and moods, and better responding to the people and world around us. It’s also the secret to finding our own happiness. When we figure out what influences our moods, good or bad, then we can seek out, avoid, or work-around those situations in the future.
Starting with awareness
Self-awareness and self-regulation are two of the five key components of emotional intelligence. Without them, we end up in emotional turmoil. Picture a young toddler having a temper tantrum at the grocery store. That little person doesn’t have the mindfulness, let alone verbal skills, to say “I apologize for my behaviour, I’m really out of sorts. I didn’t have a nap yet today, I’m hungry, bored, and also so hot in this coat! I just want to go home. Thanks for understanding.” Self-awareness skills kick in when we are young, and we learn over time how our emotions (and behaviours) impact us, as well as those around us. This is all part of having emotional intelligence; some people are better at it than others, but for the most part, we can all be thankful that we don’t have to experience too many adults having temper tantrums.
It’s important to recognize that self-awareness is not the same as self-regulation. The awareness piece is exactly that – simply recognizing the behaviour or mood and labelling it for what it is. It’s about understanding whatever it is you may be feeling or doing, and what factors may have caused it. It doesn’t, however, mean you will necessarily change that behaviour or mood. That’s the self-regulation component, where we adjust ourselves accordingly, sometimes for the benefit of others. It doesn’t imply that we ignore the mood or emotion permanently, but we can modify it at least temporarily. For instance, if we are upset about something going on in our personal lives, we will likely control our emotions about it when we’re at work, but then regulate those emotions less in the solace of our homes or with certain people we are most comfortable with.
Evaluating our various negative moods seems to take up much of our energy, but what we really should be investing in is our ability to draw connections between the external and internal factors that elicit positive emotions and increased happiness. When we dwell on our mistakes and misfortunes, and constantly beat ourselves up, we are moving away from happiness instead of towards it. I went through a good portion of my life living with anxiety, severe social phobias, and eventually depression. I often felt lost in my own mind – constantly trying to diagnose and figure out what was causing the terrible feelings. The more I tried to think about and focus on these emotions, the worse they got; much like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Eventually, through years of studying the human mind and educating myself on my own inner thoughts, I was able to break free of those negative emotions. Tuning in and developing my own emotional intelligence was a critical part of that recovery, as was self-acceptance and not fighting the feelings.
We are often fearful or negative about things we don’t understand, but as we learn, grow and understand ourselves better, those fears slowly dissipate. As humans, our “fight or flight response” isn’t just about physical dangers, it also can cause us to flee from our negative emotions and avoid trigger situations. Although in some situations this is definitely beneficial, this approach can cause un-faced fears to multiply. This was certainly true in my experience when I would avoid situations that I believed would result in anxiety or panic. What’s important to personal success and growth is to pay attention to our emotional patterns, learn from them, regulate them when needed, but don’t fight them. Happiness is out there, let’s go get it.
“Self-awareness involves deep personal honesty. It comes from asking and answering hard questions.”