The ability to regulate your emotions in a way that is socially accepted and appropriate will always give you the upper hand in complex situations, both in business and in your personal life. Master this ability, and you are better able to choose the appropriate actions and move things towards a good outcome. Even better, you avoid higher emotions and conflict, and people around you will also feel good. Rep. Ted Yoyo was not able to regulate his emotions both on the stairs of Congress and the days after. Although mastery is dependent on your genes and upbringing, it is possible to train yourself to better emotional self-regulation.
We all feel vulnerable. And when we feel attacked, misunderstood, opposed, rejected, humiliated, or ridiculed, we respond with negative emotions. You may question your own worth or are uncertain about the image of yourself: Am I good enough? Do people see me as the person I want to be seen as? Is what I do, or wear, or say, the right thing to do, wear, or say?
Or you may be confident in the image of yourself, but quick to react if you believe you are misunderstood and the image you want others to have of you is threatened. If you hurt somebody, intentionally or not, and you are met with criticism that portrays you as somebody different than the image you have of yourself, your emotional response may make it difficult to acknowledge your mistake. You are more likely to defend yourself by blaming others or things outside your control. Just like Rep. Ted Yoyo did after talking to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a way that was not only unacceptable, but also clearly in conflict with the image he had of himself. He was not capable of regulating his emotions and see his words for what they were, and he was thus not able to make a sincere apology. So, instead he rejected the wrong-doing and argued that since his self image was as a family man, he couldn’t possibly have said what he did!
Think about the situations that make you react emotionally. Regardless of how confident or successful you are, there are things that will trigger negative emotions. Is it when somebody gets hurt by something you do or say and you feel they have misunderstood you? Or maybe when somebody at work wants something or does something that will negatively impact what you want? Or is it when somebody makes a joke about you? There are literally thousands of things that can touch that sensitive nerve where you feel vulnerable.
Step 1 in training yourself to regulate your emotions is: Understand what is happening. You need to understand what the trigger is and what the trigger does with you emotionally. Reflection may not be possible there and then, at least not in the beginning, but there is always a pattern. After an incident where your emotions run wild, you should reflect about what your underlying vulnerabilities are. I have a tendency to define a circle of people around me as “mine” and when others do things that can impact them in a negative way, my “protection alarm” goes off. The people I want to protect can be my team at work, or my nearest at home who depend on me. On a deeper level, I have a need to protect. Your triggers can be very different. There can be many or a few. When you understand the patterns, you can train yourself to detect what triggers you.
It is always hard to find the real underlying beliefs and needs that make something a trigger. In cases like Ted Yoyo’s vulgar words to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, there are deeply rooted beliefs that are shared with other people that he compares himself with. Beliefs that are not said out loud and that most likely are in conflict with Ted Yoyo’s self image. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez makes these explicit in her response in Congress, which is what makes her speech so powerful.
Step 2 in training yourself to regulate your emotions is: Identify alternative interpretations and create a new positive “thought pattern”. In my case, I found that just by thinking about my need as “to care” instead of “to protect”, I dramatically increased the number of options I had. In particular, in an organisation, you can only protect a small group, but you can care about so much more, also beyond your immediate circle. But you don’t have to redefine your identified need specifically, there are many ways you can redefine a trigger: Your interpretation of the intentions behind, the context they happen in, the need in you that is triggered, or the result that you want as a result. It may also be enough to just acknowledge and accept how you are influenced, although it is harder to use that to make a behavioural change. In Ted Yoyo’s case, he needs to acknowledge his underlying, unacceptable beliefs about women. Unfortunately for him, this must happen in front of the entire world.
The most important thing is to identify a way to think about the trigger that does not result in strong emotions.
Once you are able to think differently about the situation, search for options to how you can respond. In my case, I had a set of “pre-canned” responses that was triggered by my need to protect. It typically involved declining a request or trying to stop whatever that was suggested. When adopting a need to “care”, I could choose to embrace the needs of that other person after stating my needs in a friendly way (“that may be a bit hard for us”) by searching for a positive outcome: “could we solve your problem by …?”
Step 3 in training yourself to regulate your emotions is: Recognise what is coming and break out of the pattern. In order to make a change, you have to be able to detect that you are about to fall into the same behavioural pattern. This is where people use mindfulness and all sorts of techniques to establish that pause necessary to not only recognise what is coming, but also be able to put in a “circuit breaker” and instead choose your alternative, positive thought pattern. Use whatever works for you. This is normally the hardest step. It is very hard to break out of emotional reactions that have repeated themselves automatically for years. It can often help to “program yourself” to do a simple physical response instead of a more complex positive thought pattern right away. Good options can be: “three deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth” or do a timeout in a way that can work for you.
Step 4 in training yourself to regulate your emotions is: Establish a new pattern by broadening out your new response. Breaking out of the pattern is hard, but you can reinforce a new way of responding also when you fail. When you end up responding in your normal, not so desirable way (and you will!), you should reach out to the other person afterwards, acknowledge where you did wrong, apologise (their feelings were hurt!), and state how you should have responded. This will not only help you in this situation, but it will also train yourself to use the positive thought pattern. Eventually, you will see that you will be able to break out of the old trained responses. You should then look for other situations were your new, positive response can be applied. There will always be other situations that did not generate that much emotions, but that are similar and could benefit from your new, positive response.
You can regulate your emotional response when the emotions are there and anger or fear is roaring. But it is hard, and training your emotional self-regulation is better done through this simple (though not easy!) four step approach. You will see that by establishing new ways of interpreting situations and establishing positive thought patterns, you will become better in general at emotional self-regulation. You will find techniques to use that will prevent the primitive part of the brain from flaring up.
One last piece of advice: it can be beneficial to enlist the help of somebody you trust in this process. Somebody who are close to you, who can cheer you on, and help you see the underlying beliefs and patterns that might be hidden to you. Often, when you suddenly discover what is really, really down there in your mind, it feels like a revelation and you can more easily make the behavioural changes you want. My wife often takes this role for me. Unfortunately for Rep. Ted Yoyo, he gets this “support” from millions of people.