Understanding the role of emotions in influencing our thoughts and actions
How we can inadvertently screw up and what to do about it: a (mostly) true story about socks, monkeys, anger, Jedi, embarrassment and laughter
Emotions, to many of us, are somewhat of a mystery. We all have them, obviously, but that doesn’t mean we always recognise them or understand their purpose; and rarely do we pause to reflect on our emotional state before taking action. Yet, we should. Not least because our emotional state tangibly influences what we think and, as a result, how we act (or react); and that influence is not insignificant.
For those people who assume that the emotional state or mood they find themselves in is not within their sphere of control, I would urge them to think again. A personal story of mine illustrates how emotions can tangibly influence our thoughts and actions, for better or for worse. It also demonstrates the (potential) influence we have to regulate our emotions, once we recognise and understand them. My wife has kindly helped edit the story to help ensure its accuracy, as there was a risk I might have tried to paint myself in a somewhat embellished light.
Every morning, with military-like discipline, my wife and I will take our bedding and shake it, fairly vigorously, out of our bedroom window to air it out and observe, somewhat in disbelief, the abundance of newly formed dust particles float away in a plume of smoke. On occasion, one of us will fail to get the morning memo, leaving the other to fumble with the king size duvet, pillows, under-sheet and blanket by themselves, balancing precariously with one foot on the window ledge, trying their best not to drop the duvet or anything else onto the ground, three floors below.
On the morning in question, it wasn’t so much that my wife didn’t get the memo, but more that I wanted to surprise her by making the bed while she got ready for work. I have lost track on the number of times she has been half-way through making the bed before I eventually received the ‘memo’ to come and help. So, it was nice to be able to surprise her on this occasion. On the fateful morning in question, I was feeling rather pleased with myself about the fact that I had taken the initiative to make the bed, but that pleasant, upbeat feeling wasn’t destined to last long.
As I took the blue blanket from the bed and proceeded to shake it firmly out of the window, I noticed a blue object, which transpired to be one of my wife’s knitted socks, fall gracefully to the ground directly below. Before I had had a chance to realise what had happened, I watched, helplessly, as the second blue sock successfully untangled itself from the blanket to join its significant other on the ground.
My wife, meanwhile, was oblivious to the fate that had befallen her blue socks. She was in an adjacent room a few doors down the corridor getting ready for work. The angered roar that bellowed from the bedroom a few doors away, likely came very much as a surprise to her. My inner monkey was on a rampage; it was looking for someone to blame for ‘sock-gate’ - it was clear, at least to my inner monkey, that the 'someone' in question could not be me.
As I stood in the bedroom, looking somewhat dumbstruck, glancing back and forth between the blue socks on the ground and the blue blanket which I held firmly in my hand, I could feel a sense of rage engulf me. I paused, noticed the feelings of anger I was experiencing and questioned what on earth could warrant such a reaction. My inner monkey was quick to point to the obvious culprit: how could someone be so careless as to leave their blue socks on a blue blanket. It was obvious what would happen.
Despite the feelings of rage that I was experiencing, I was aware that it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. It is an odd sensation to be able to observe your own rage and wonder what to do with it. However, as much as I would like to think of myself as a Jedi master when it comes to handling my emotions, I think it is fair to say that it is still a work in progress. It’s also worth pointing out that even a Jedi can be tempted to the dark side. Despite my awareness, I couldn’t quite stop myself from walking down the corridor to point the finger firmly at my wife.
The scene was almost comical in how it played out, but it thankfully subsided very quickly. My wife later told me that she almost burst out laughing (I clearly need to work harder at being enraged!). Within a couple of minutes, I realised the absurdity of what I was actually saying and apologised for my outburst and dutifully went to pick up the lost socks. It was the insight that I gleaned afterwards, which I found really powerful - an explanation as to why I felt the urge to lash out.
It is only in recent years that I have learned that we can often lash out in self-defence. There are any number of reasons why we might do so but, thinking of the situation at hand, I narrowed it down to three possible reasons. Firstly, it may have been to deflect my embarrassment from the situation and the possibility of being made fun of. Secondly, it may have been because I feared being told off – something which I know my wife would not do (at least not over a pair of socks), but which I would likely have experienced as a child growing up. Finally, it may have been because I had, in that split second, turned inwards on myself to berate myself for being so stupid (self-criticism). In this instance, with a little hindsight, I genuinely think it was to do with the fear that someone might tell me off, no matter how irrational that belief might be.
We often don’t realise that when we lash out at others, it is most likely because we are experiencing emotional pain ourselves, which is a fairly unpleasant emotional state. In an attempt to protect ourselves in that moment from feelings such as shame, embarrassment, rejection or fear, we look to displace it by lashing out at others. Emotional intelligence is a hugely important skill in both business and in life, which many of us (including me!) would benefit from developing further. Not least because we engage in different thoughts and actions, depending on our emotional state which can either enhance or undermine our relationships, our decision making, our ability to learn, our attention and our long-term physical and mental health.
Imagine for a moment that on dropping the socks I had found the whole thing hysterically funny (my wife and I have laughed about it quite a lot since). What thoughts would have crossed my mind in that moment and how would my actions have differed? US Psychologist, Dr Barbara Frederickson, talks a lot about the role of positive emotions in enhancing our thought action repertoire (we make better decisions in a good mood). If we truly wish to thrive, we need to develop a skillset that enables us to recognise, understand and regulate our emotions when they arise. I believe that this will enable us to tap into our positive emotions more readily and allow us to understand and regulate unpleasant ones when they surface.