How great leaders deal with strong emotions

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How great leaders deal with strong emotions

by | Jan 24, 2024

The Challenge of Dealing with Strong Emotions

Great leaders are honest with themselves and others, rather than denying their mistakes. They are interested, even excited, 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. 

The reason why all of these are challenging is 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.

We all experience both pleasant emotions, such as love, joy and comfort, as well as unpleasant emotions, such as fear, sadness, anger and shame. Because 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 fast-brain response to seek immediate relief from the emotional pain.

Understanding Distress Intolerance

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’.

Training the Mind to Stay Present

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.

Psychologist Rick Hanson points out, ‘The two fundamental cornerstones of unhappiness, depression and anxiety are distress intolerance and negative rumination.’ In other words, the less tolerance we have for distress, the more inclined we are to kick into reactive behaviours. And the more we do this, the more limited we are, the less we can grow and the less aligned we are with our deepest aspirations. 

Embracing Painful Emotions

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. Observing the kinds of stories or narratives that show up in your mind is also extremely helpful. 

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.’

She adds a critical point: ‘Emotions are data, they are not directives. Our emotions contain flashing lights to things that we care about. We tend not to feel strong emotion to stuff that doesn’t mean anything in our worlds. If you feel rage when you read the news, that rage is a signpost, perhaps, that you value equity and fairness — and an opportunity to take active steps to shape your life in that direction. When we are open to the difficult emotions, we are able to generate responses that are values-aligned’.

 However, we tend to unconsciously allow emotions to become directives. For example, we feel angry, then we immediately react to that anger and act out in ways that violate our values. 

As simple as it sounds, accepting and exploring our painful emotions can be one of the most difficult things we can do, as our ego structure cries out to fix the pain with short-term solutions. 

I was once coaching a client around emotions. She told me, ‘I’m feeling really sad.’

I asked her, ‘What would happen if you just felt sadness?’

Her first response was, ‘I’ll get lost in it forever.’

‘Oh,’ I said jokingly, ‘so you believe in permanence? You believe feelings last forever?’

I then asked her, ‘What do you do to make the sadness go away?’

In her case, it boiled down to workaholism. Whenever she felt sad, she would throw herself into her work and work even harder. While it may look productive from the outside looking in, the reality is she is avoiding her emotions. So not only is she not dealing with or learning from the emotions, but she is also creating more long-term problems for herself. 

Unlearning Resistance and Reactivity

When we see that emotional pain is impermanent and can be located in a specific part of our body, we can be less freaked out by it and realise that it can be observed, acknowledged, allowed to move through our body and, with practice, be resolved. When we recognise that pleasure, too, is impermanent, we can cling less to it. This is the biggest gift a cultivated mindfulness practice can give you: the experiential knowledge of this truth. From that knowing, we find a solid, balanced place in which to live. 

I had a similar conversation with Brian Gladsden, Head of Worldwide Commercial and Portfolio Strategy at Novartis Oncology. He was telling me about the tension he felt constantly in his body, like a knot of fear in his system. I asked him, ‘What’s your relationship with that feeling?’

‘I’m trying to work it out,’ he said.

‘So you can get rid of it?’ I asked.

‘Yes.’ His thinking was essentially that if he could intellectually figure out the cause of his tension, he could then make the tension go away. It was all resistance. At no point was he relaxing and allowing it in. And since he hated the feeling, he was constantly reacting to it and acting out in his life. In short, he was creating more suffering in his life than the actual feeling itself. I’ve fallen into this trap many times in my life too.

‘The key,’ I explained, ‘is to embrace the feeling without the agenda of getting rid of it.’ Impermanence is a fact of life, and we know feelings don’t last forever — they come and go. Resisting them does nothing but make them worse and make them last longer. The most skilful way to deal with difficult feelings is to be non-judgemental when they show up, be curious and kind towards yourself, relax and feel them. Let them be as they are, without adding mental stories to them.

Promoting Growth and Development

With mindfulness practice over time, Brian has cultivated more distress tolerance. He told me, ‘In the past, as soon as I felt something uncomfortable, I wanted to push it away. And that would usually come in the form of a negative reaction, such as barking at someone. So I would take my emotions out on others. Mindfulness practice has given me a much higher level of comfort to sit with painful and uncomfortable feelings. It’s like being able to hold your hand to the flame. It’s made a world of difference in my work as a leader. Instead of being emotionally reactive, I can take more time with issues and make better decisions.’

Reacting to our emotions puts us in a state where we are neither thinking clearly nor acting consciously. With mindfulness, we can regain access to a calmer, more conscious 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.

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