Foundations of Leadership Presence: Mindfulness of Emotions

Oct 1, 2017

As a child, I lived for many years in an environment where only certain emotions were allowed.  I was told early on that “boys don’t cry,” an untruth that, for a sensitive child who would cry easily, sent the message that I needed to “toughen up” and hide my emotions.  For years I wouldn’t let myself cry or show my sadness.  I held in and distanced myself from most of my emotions, which then created an emotional distance from both myself and other people. I created a protective wall around my heart.

This happens to many of us, for many reasons.  When we have lost touch with our emotions we may be driven by them; we may react to the emotions of others, unaware of their influence on our own.  So, in adulthood, I needed to learn to allow my emotions to flow again.  This process started by simply recognizing and acknowledging that I have emotions, progressed to allowing myself to recognize what they feel like in my body, and finally to sharing them openly with others.

Here’s an example:

A few days ago, I was scheduled to provide a mandatory training to a group of employees.  I knew from past experience that this type of training can be challenging and had arranged for the plant manager to kick off the day and provide context around the value of this session.

Shortly before the training began, I was told he wasn’t going to be able to attend.  I started the training and was met (as I feared) with anger, frustration, and skepticism from the participants.  I began to respond emotionally:  I felt my blood begin to boil, my stomach start to clench, my chest get tight, and my thinking become confused.  These is what anger feels like for me and if left unrecognized, it causes me to begin to withdraw from the group – the opposite of my purpose.

How did I choose to react?

As I felt myself getting angry I first had to acknowledge that emotion.  This allowed me to manage myself and avoid acting from a place of anger.  I also know that my anger is often rooted in fear — I was angry because what I feared had come to pass – and I realized that what I needed was help and support to gracefully manage the situation. Recognizing what I was feeling – and that I wasn’t getting support from the plant manager – I began reaching out to others for support.

Being mindful of my emotions allowed me to take the necessary actions as skillfully as possible in the moment.

But, what does it mean exactly?  Why is it important and how do we start?

How do we define being mindful of our emotions?

Being mindful of emotions is being able to identify and name the emotion that is happening in the present moment – being able to step back in order to observe and feel it versus having it run under the surface unacknowledged, or hijack us into acting without thinking through the impact of our behaviors. While we pictured our thoughts as a stream, I think of emotions like waves on an ocean – happiness, sadness, and anger first rise, then recede.

This powerful ebb and flow is a natural and healthy part of our consciousness, when we are able to recognize its influence.  When we can watch the waves without being swept away we can choose to respond with skillful reactions that move our organizations and ourselves forward.

“If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.” – Danielle Goleman

Why is it important to be mindful of emotions?

I find this particularly relevant right now. Between the 24/7 way we work and the baseline anxiety in the world at this time, people’s emotional strings are wound tight.   We are more likely to react in harmful ways rather than responding thoughtfully and mindfully, taking our impact on others into account.

Emotions are flowing beneath the surface of everything we do whether we are conscious of them or not. The emotions then drive us to act – sometimes in effective ways and other times in less effectively.

As a case in point:

I am working with a client now who didn’t recognize his fear of failure at work.  He was afraid of what a job loss would mean for the security of his family and this fear was driving him to interact and lead in certain ways.  He developed a hard driving style that pushed others too aggressively for the culture of his organization.  He now realizes that without knowing it, he was creating the very situation he wished to avoid, putting his job at risk by being swept away by emotion.

This happens for people around the good things as well. I often get excited when a new business opportunity comes my way and if I am not mindful of my response I rush to act without careful consideration of the up-sides and downsides.  My excitement and optimism can lead me away from my plans and into other work that isn’t good for my business or in line with my goals.

One of the most common topics I am called to work on with clients is emotional intelligence. This term has many components but at the core it is about recognizing your own emotions and managing yourself in the face of them.  This is essential to developing social awareness, that is, the ability to read other people’s emotions and engage effectively with them.  This emotional and social intelligence is the root of effective leadership—if we can’t manage ourselves and engage with others we can’t create followership.

“Emotion is more powerful than reason. Emotion is the driving force behind thinking and reasoning. Emotional intelligence increases the mind’s ability to make positive, brilliant decisions.” – Dr T.P.Chia

So how do I achieve mindfulness of my emotions?

Researchers who write on this topic say there are six primary emotions:  happy, sad, angry, afraid, surprise, and disgust.  There are many that are more nuanced and spread from there – gratitude, excitement, disappointed, etc.  As in our discussion on Mindfulness of Thought, our goal is not to stop the waves of emotion, but to recognize them, their patterns, and how they affect us.

It takes practice to recognize and name these feelings.  A great place to start is by pausing to ask yourself “What am I feeling right now?”  This is particularly helpful when you are feeling tense and are unsure of the cause, but it is often easier to build up this muscle when you are NOT in a tense situation.

Ask yourself:

“What emotion am I having right now?”

  • Once you recognize you are feeling emotion, name it.

  • Take note of what it feels like in your body, for example, when I feel JOY I feel as if my chest is warm and expanding, making my breathing easier.

“What emotions keep coming back?”

  • Once you start to name your emotions you can start to pay attention to the patterns they habitually follow.   My go-to’s are gratitude when things are good and anxiety/fear when things are bad. I still struggle with allowing myself to feel anger – this is an ongoing area of growth for me.

By paying attention in this way we can start to understand the underlying emotional currents of our life, which provides us opportunities for growth and change should we choose it.  We develop empathy and understanding for and of ourselves, and apply it to the emotions of those around us.  As leaders we can harness our own feelings in positive ways, choose how we respond, and engage more openly as we live, lead, and grow our leadership presence.

What is your feeling?

  • As you go through the day – what are the predominant feelings you experience?

  • What is the effect of those feelings – what do they feel like in your body? What thoughts are associated with them?

  • How might they have caused you to respond if you had remained unaware?

“Never speak out of anger, Never act out of fear, Never choose from impatience, But wait…and peace will appear.” – Guy Finley