In April 2009, I missed a flight. It was one of those adrenaline-filled, cortisol-pumping experiences where I hadn’t given myself sufficient time to get to the airport. It led to a trifecta of emotions:
I was in the grip of those emotions, without really knowing what was happening for me. With five hours on my hands, I decided to take an emotional intelligence (EQ) self-assessment. I can recall that day well—sitting in a corner of the airport, mad at myself and the airline, obsessing about how unreasonable airlines are, sticking to schedules instead of waiting for people like me….
Learning about Emotional Intelligence
Not surprisingly, when my report arrived, it signaled that my “go-to” emotions are shame and anxiety. I immediately called one of my colleagues (who had also completed the assessment) to declare, “I have such terrible EQ! I shouldn’t be coaching.”—Thus reinforcing what I had just learned!
After my colleague talked me off the ledge, I committed to doing some EQ work. I’m not ashamed(!) to report that I actually committed to therapy and signed up for some coaching. While I learned a lot from this experience, there was one big takeaway:
If we can learn to PAUSE between trigger/stimulus and response, we can more accurately identify what is happening for us and then access the most appropriate way to address a stressful situation.
Living with Our Emotional Reality
All of us experience a multitude of emotions every day. They can be intensely positive or negative, or they can be familiar and subtle enough that we don’t realize their effect at all. Objectively, emotions are simply data that help us take the right action. Yet, they can wreak havoc on our day, sending us into a tailspin of worry, anger, sadness, and self-recrimination. We also have patterns of emoting from our childhood that quite often provide inaccurate data and thus result in our making poor choices and reacting badly to situations and triggers.
All of us need to learn how to regulate our emotions. That’s what the PAUSE accomplishes—an opportunity to gain an accurate read on what’s happening and what we should do about it.
Pausing allows us to delay engaging that part of our brain called the amygdala (which activates the fight-or-flight response). Much has been written about the psychobiology of what happens for us when the amygdala is triggered and we experience a fight, flee, or freeze response. That’s not the focus of this article. Instead, I want to focus on tools for emotional self-regulation.
PAUSE: Five Tools for Emotional Self-Regulation
When you PAUSE, you can choose to do some of the following:
Notice: How has your physical shape changed? Are you in a protective stance? Stand tall and breathe slowly and deeply several times.
Ask: What is the thinking that has triggered the feeling? What is the feeling your thoughts have generated? Take time to clearly identify both.
Uncover: Ask yourself, “What else might be going on?” How is your reaction part of your “conditioned tendency” (how you typically respond under stress)? What other thoughts are possible in this situation?
Shift: Open yourself to shifts in your emotions and thoughts. Decide how you want to feel (in contrast with how you are currently feeling). What ideas or patterns of thought will support how you want to feel? Go to your happy place—a visual of a favorite location, your dog, spouse, kids, etc.
Empathize: Find empathy for yourself. Your response to triggers has served you well in the past, but it may be limiting you now. Be kind and patient in your self-assessments. Can you observe your experience without judging it or responding, as I did, with shame? I call this creating a “viewing platform” where we can see ourselves without judgment.
We build and strengthen this skill of regulating our emotions when we take the time to reflect on our experience—particularly when we are stressed. This poses a big problem for people in leadership roles or positions of power. It’s rare that a colleague or member of your team will tell you when your emotional reaction is inappropriate or the action you’ve taken is suboptimal. In the absence of such help, it is incumbent upon us to do this work for ourselves. I invite you to think about a practice from the PAUSE list that you will commit to rehearsing in times of stress.
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