A target of one of my investigations in San Francisco was a foreign spy who hated the US. I’ll call him Agent X, and he worked for a hostile intelligence service headquartered in Asia. Silicon Valley was a hotbed of foreign spies trying to steal classified and proprietary information.
He agreed to meet me for lunch. Agent X began our conversation with charges that capitalism leads to poor moral values and that Americans were too stupid to recognize a better way of life — communism. He talked with his mouth full and spat bits of food over the table as he said more than once that he supported the 9/11 terrorists.
I felt angry and knew this conversation would continue in a downward spiral unless I got a handle on my emotions. Yes, Agent X was a bigoted jerk, but I still needed to find a way to connect with him. I needed to manage my flow of thought if I wanted to control my emotions. First, I knew Agent X had been brainwashed by his government to dislike the West in general and the US in particular. He was a product of his environment. Instead of arguing with Agent X, I asked him questions about the reasons for his beliefs. It turned out that many of the stereotypes he had about American culture came from reality TV shows. In which case, I might actually agree with him!
The point is this: I kept a lid on my anger by acknowledging my feelings and then choosing my response rather than reacting to Agent X’s insults. I couldn’t risk being sabotaged by my emotions.
I remained resilient and established a small level of mutual respect. Agent X called me when he discovered that his visa was suddenly suspended (thanks to FBI headquarters intervention) and that he’d been recalled back home. While I wanted to follow up goodbye with good riddance, I knew that we’d come to a respectful difference of opinion.
You may also find yourself in a situation where you need to control your emotions at work or home. Here are three ways resilience can help to make a difference.
1. Unearth the triggers
It’s far too simplistic and childish to divide our emotions into two piles: good and bad. If we try to judge them, we lose our ability to be aware of them. We avoid destructive emotions because we don’t want them. We may feel ashamed to acknowledge an adverse reaction.
Conversely, we regard good emotions as positive and something we want. We may not monitor them as we should because we believe all good emotions are friends. Unfortunately, the relentless pursuit of only positive feelings produces a hedonistic lifestyle that is not reality-based.
You need both good and bad emotions to function as a healthy human being in this world. Don’t judge your feelings — recognize every emotion, but don’t place it into a good or bad pile. Observe it, let it run its course, and remind yourself that the feeling was there to help you understand something about yourself.
These are legitimate emotions; we all have buttons that can produce predictable reactions. We can scream, throw tantrums or burn with anger when certain buttons are pushed. A resilient mind can pinpoint who or what pushes our buttons; how it happens is critical to developing the ability to take control of the situation.
A resilient mind is willing to be self-aware. Once we know where our buttons are and what triggers them, this understanding of ourselves will open the door so we can manage our response. We’ll have the improved emotional intelligence that allows us to control the outcome.
Often, it’s memories from our background that trigger memories and emotions. Not every memory will be good, and that’s OK, but resilient people are positive thinkers who are not afraid to acknowledge their feelings because they’ve learned how to take control of their emotions.
How to make it work for you
Even when the emotions are painful, tracing them back to their origin is critical to understanding their significance. Pay attention to them. Look for why this emotion surfaced, who triggered it and in what context.
2. Get to know your emotions
I learned early in my career that I’d better get a handle on managing my emotions if I wanted to live long enough to collect my retirement. As part of an arrest team in the uglier part of Oakland, my job was to cover the back door while the FBI SWAT team crashed through the front door with a battering ram.
Fear was the emotion that caused my hand to shake as I watched to see if a suspect would run out the back door. Even after months of firearms training, I reacted like a mewling newbie. I wouldn’t hit the side of the building at this rate as my hand shook so badly. I wore a bulletproof vest, and highly skilled FBI snipers surrounded me, but that wasn’t enough to calm my fear that something could go wrong. Then a scuffle, some shouts and the back door opens. One of my colleagues stepped out and gave me the OK sign that the suspects were in custody. As I lowered my weapon, my fear immediately calmed — the pressure was off.
No one wants to admit they’re a wimp in the face of trouble. On the day of the arrest in Oakland, I had to acknowledge that I needed to do two things. First, face my fear. Second, overcome it.
Action doesn’t always mean physical. Knowing that I had flirted with a coward’s heart at the Oakland arrest, I knew that changing my attitude would be essential to developing mental toughness.
Strong minds are resilient and are willing to stick with the fear until the situation no longer scares them. Our brains are hard-wired to make us emotional creatures. While dampening or denying our emotions wastes time, we have total control over the thoughts that follow an emotion.
If we are self-aware, we can be in control because we now have the power to choose how we react to our emotions and the situation that created it. The key is to be aware of what we are feeling.
We cannot change what we do not acknowledge. The tyranny of our emotions keeps us in constant upheaval, which is why resilient people know how to take control of their feelings.
How to make it work for you
- Look at your early life story and identify the people, events and experiences that impacted you most.
- In what situations did you find yourself a natural leader? Follower?
- How do you look at the setbacks in your life?
- What have they taught you? About yourself? About others?
3. Develop emotional competence
Research shows that bereaved people who avoid feeling grief or anger take the longest to recover from their loss. When we suppress or avoid a negative emotion like anger, our ability to experience positive feelings decreases. Stress soars, and our amygdala, a part of the brain associated with emotions, works overtime. Research also shows that our amygdala calms down when we put negative feelings into words. People who choose to experience all of their emotions, even when unpleasant, are better able to use them strategically rather than relying on a gut reaction, which may or may not always be the best response.
Anger is one of our more interesting negative emotions. While it’s a negative feeling, neuroscientists have discovered that it can also arouse often positive responses. If we look at anger like any other emotion, we can find ways to anticipate its arrival and choose how long it hangs around. Consider a positive emotion like joy: If we excavate our mind and memory, we know what will produce joy in us. Resilient people create circumstances that encourage more positive emotions. They anticipate their arrival, so they’re not surprised when they arrive.
When you’re afraid of showing your negative feelings, you signal that you’re unwilling to be honest and admit your emotions. As a result, you stay away from people or experiences that might conjure up unwanted feelings. A strong mind is confident enough to ask, “Why do I feel that way, and what was the source of the emotion?” It’s important to sit with your anger and other negative emotions and listen to them. If you quit because it makes you uncomfortable, you’ll never excavate the origin of your emotion.
When we let our emotions take control, we become victims of our circumstances.
How to make it work for you
- Identify a negative emotion that has popped up within the past week. That negative emotion is there to remind you that something ahead is worth your attention or something that already happened is also something to examine.
- Drill down until you identify the genesis of the emotion. What caused it? Is this the first time you’ve experienced this emotion? If not, connect the dots and pinpoint what circumstances, events or people have produced it before.
- Sit with your negative emotions. Observe it, name it for what it is and don’t sugar-coat it.
- Sit with your positive emotions. Observe it and identify what produced it so you can replicate it again.
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years, during which she exposed and recruited foreign spies and developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty and deception. Find out if you’re mentally tough with Quy’s FREE, evidence-based Mental Toughness Assessment. Quy’s new book is “Secrets of a Strong Mind (2nd edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles.” Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.