Great leaders are honest with themselves and others, rather than denying their mistakes. They are interested to see behaviours in themselves that are not working and they are courageous enough to admit it. Instead of justifying, ignoring and denying actions that hold them back from deeper insight and wiser choices, they want to understand where, how and why they’re falling short on their values and aspirations.
This is challenging because when we make mistakes, we feel strong emotions like shame and embarrassment. Then, all too often, we react to these undesirable feelings with denial and blame. Therefore, great leaders must cultivate the capacity to deal with these feelings without reacting to them.
When we haven’t trained ourselves to accept difficult emotions, our immediate instinct is to do everything we can to make those emotions go away. We have a reactive-brain response to seek immediate relief from the emotional pain.
Psychologist Susan David conducted a survey of more than 70 000 people and found that ‘a third of us either judge ourselves for having so-called “bad emotions”, like sadness, anger or even grief, or we actively try to push aside these feelings.’ Our two most common avoidance techniques are numbing and denial. While avoidance may give us an immediate reward, it’s very damaging to our long-term mental and emotional wellbeing, as well as our psychological flexibility.
Psychologists refer to this avoidance as ‘distress intolerance’, which is defined as the ‘perceived inability to fully experience unpleasant, aversive or uncomfortable emotions, and is accompanied by a desperate need to escape the uncomfortable emotions’.
Using developmental mindfulness, we can train the mind to stay present, curious, balanced, aware and connected — not just when we feel good, but especially when we feel discomfort. Research shows that heightening our present-moment awareness increases our emotional distress tolerance, which in turn decreases our chances of reacting negatively to emotional discomfort.
When not pursuing avoidance behaviours, we spend excessive amounts of time ruminating on how to escape these emotions; we are fused to them, as if by spinning the hamster wheel some more, we can miraculously find a way out of our discomfort. The irony is that we are often simply feeding the beast. Ruminating is like a glitch in our software that keeps us stuck in our emotions, turning our stories upside down and inside out to figure a way out of the ongoing discomforts associated with the person or situation at hand.
In this process, we unwittingly embed the idea that our emotional wellbeing is dependent on others, or on the ideal external conditions, which enhances our anxiety and delusion. Mindfulness training teaches us over and over again that we have agency over our emotional world. But as long as we believe others are the cause of our emotional pain, we fixate and ruminate on all the wrong solutions. And we arrest our potential for compassionate accountability and vertical growth.
The process of mindfully accepting and feeling painful emotions without reacting to them or trying to escape them cultivates distress tolerance. Accepting and feeling painful emotions usually means labelling what is showing up — be it fear, sadness, frustration, anger or any other combination of emotions you are aware of — then being aware, accepting and embracing the sensations emerging in your body, such as a tightness in your chest or belly, sweaty hands or a tight jaw.
Susan David tells us, ‘Research on emotional suppression shows that when emotions are pushed aside or ignored, they get stronger. Psychologists call this amplification. Like that delicious chocolate cake in the refrigerator — the more you try to ignore it, the greater its hold on you. You might think you’re in control of unwanted emotions when you ignore them, but in fact they control you. Internal pain always comes out.’
Reacting to our emotions puts us in a fast-brain state where we are neither thinking clearly nor acting consciously. With mindfulness, we can regain access to our slow-brain state while completely accepting our emotions. And in this state, we can then start digging beneath the surface to discover the source of our feelings and gain a deeper understanding of ourselves.