It is difficult to look the victim of a crime in the face and not feel anger toward the person who caused the pain. But as federal law enforcement, FBI agents are required to control their emotions as they conduct investigations in a fair and efficient manner.
“When we let our emotions take control, we become a victim of our circumstances, “— LaRae Quy
Mental toughness is managing our emotions, thoughts, and behavior in ways that set us up for success. Emotions and thinking are linked, but we are not slaves to our emotions if we can learn how to control them.
Here are 5 ways to control your emotions—and have a great day, all backed by research:
1. LOOK INTO YOUR FUTURE
After a long week all I wanted to do was sit, relax, and read. When a friend called and suggested we go for a rigorous hike. I hesitated. Which situation would benefit me the most?
When we have the luxury of choosing one situation over another, we have power over the emotional outcome of our day. So how do we make the right choice on how to spend it?
Psychologists have found that people who are emotionally competent (possessing the ability to recognize and control emotions) tend to choose those situations which are most beneficial to them, regardless of whether or not it provided the most pleasure.
TIP: Don’t let the pursuit of happiness lead you to make decisions that are based purely on fleeting emotional experiences. Instead, look into your future and make decisions that are grounded in a clear vision of long-term goals.
For example, I chose to go for the rigorous hike because physical exercise keeps both the mind and body active, even though spending time on the couch with a book felt the most appealing.
2. MODIFY YOUR SITUATION
I was early for a supervisor’s conference and took a seat; then Earl showed up and sat down beside me. I found Earl irksome since he was the kind of guy always making snide remarks while other people talked. I decided to modify my situation—I got up, excused myself, and left the room. After chatting with people in the hallway for five minutes, I came back in. Sure enough, someone else had taken my seat next to Earl and I found another one across the room.
Sometimes getting out of a negative situation is harder than simply moving seats. Some events like losing your job, the death of a partner, or an unexpected illness are not controllable. However, no matter the stressful situation, look for ways you can be proactive and take interventional measures.
Recent research suggests that people who do not take steps to modify their situation only compound their problems. If they learn how to reframe their circumstances, they are better able to control their emotions.
TIP: If the situation is uncontrollable, take proactive measures such as exploring new opportunities and options that might not have been available to you before. If the situation is controllable, find ways to modify it—before your emotions spill out and make matters worse.
Either way, take action.
3. CONCENTRATE—OR DIVERT—YOUR ATTENTION
A female agent, whom I will Lucy because she was always a little loose with the facts, was giving her presentation during a squad briefing. I felt a growing resentment with each word she said because the supervisor couldn’t see through her line of bullsh*t.
She was exaggerating the facts to make herself look good so I chose to concentrate my attention squarely on Lucy, primarily because I wanted to be very clear on where she was slipping up and giving false information.
Research by Gal Sheppes suggests that when we’re in an uncontrollable situation the best way to deal with negative emotions is to either concentrate on what is in front of us, or divert our attention.
In his studies, he found that most people preferred to divert their attention and think of something completely different when faced with a negative emotion. Since sad and distressing situations can be very exhausting, avoidance and self-distraction can be very helpful.
TIP: Forget traditional thinking where we’re told that finding meaning in bad experiences is a healthy strategy while distraction and disengagement are not healthy and maladaptive. Instead, scientists are now saying that choosing the right coping strategy for the right circumstances is the key to mental health. Sometimes it’s logical to disengage emotionally, but in other contexts it may be harmful. The key is knowing which is which.
4. TACKLE NEGATIVE THOUGHTS
Knowing that the person I was arresting was responsible for the agony and heartache of others made it difficult to treat the suspect with the respect and dignity required by law.
Instead of turning away from disturbing or unfavorable situations, mentally tough people tackle thoughts that lead to their negative emotional response. Studies have found that people can cope with unwanted emotions by “distancing” themselves or imagining the situation as an impartial observer.
When you imagine an event as though you’re a bystander, you will notice that you harbor fewer aggressive and negative emotions than if you relive the incident.
TIP: Instead of asking, “Why do I feel that way?” I recommend you put the question in the third person: “Why does LaRae feel this way?” In this way, you can visualize yourself as a mere witness to events.
5. LET IT LOOSE
One of my interviews was a pedophile who had abused his daughter. Since I needed his cooperation, I smiled, kept my face a mask, and acted unfazed by his confession.
I was repulsed by the man and had to work hard to keep my feelings from showing. Afterwards, I went for a run and took a long shower—even the smell of him made me nauseous.
Like me, most people try to suppress negative physical reactions when they are angry, frustrated, or disgusted by the situation. Studies by psychologist Roy Baumeister explain why inhibiting expressions of stress actually leads to exhaustion and is linked to health problems. My run after the interview was one of the healthiest things I could have done.
TIP: When confronted with an intense moment, visualize the outcomes you want and identify the actions you need to take to make it happen. Regulating negative emotions does not mean avoiding them. Negative emotions can prompt us to dig into our beliefs and misconceptions and help us discover new insight into ourselves.
How do you control your emotions?
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