4 Steps Toward Mastering Emotional Control
Do you tend to back off, or even quit, when things get hard? Is it because you get overwhelmed emotionally, and let fear, uncertainty or frustration derail you from the mission? Have you ever kept a tally of how many times you’ve allowed wild spikes of emotions torpedo a relationship or stressful project?
My sense is that you would prefer to bounce back quicker from life’s various ups and downs. Let’s go a step further. Do you desire to consistently challenge yourself to excel and be the best in any situation—no matter the myriad forces sniping at you from external circumstances? If a state of mind and being like this is appealing, then you need to set your sights on cultivating emotional resiliency.
When you look at the tactics used by successful SEALs, SEALFIT graduates, ultra-endurance athletes and survivors of natural disasters, they are surprisingly similar. All are allied with a fiery determination to stay the course even when they inevitably hit the various black holes of difficulty awaiting them on the road. An inability to rebound swiftly from failure is often crippling. I bet you know folks who always burn warm-to-hot, with runaway emotions like a kettle of water on the stove ready to erupt into steam. The slightest hint of criticism or dose of honest feedback on their performance and they flip out, going right for the jugular.
I recall vividly watching a trainee struggling at a recent Kokoro Camp at SEALFIT. “No rep!” shouted Coach Smith, referring to his weak squat mechanics. “Get your hips below parallel. You were supposed to come prepared! I think you’re gonna’ fail this test ‘cause you didn’t train properly.” I could see Smith’s words needle under the trainee’s skin.
Good, I thought. An opportunity for breakthrough learning and improvement was discovered and being pursued. Break ‘em down so we can build ‘em up. That is part of our formula. But I was not prepared for what happened next. As Smith moved on to his next victim, along came Coach Cummings. “What do we have here, another sloppy movement? Maybe a quitter?” he sneered. “Why did you say you could do 100 squats on your application if you can’t do one correctly? Open your hips at the top of the squat…No rep!”
The trainee bolted upright, frozen within an instant of pure rage. Then he tore his shirt off and launched it into Cumming’s face. The trainee stormed off and quit. We hadn’t even really started Kokoro training yet; this was just the baseline test, and he had become unhinged, losing all emotional control, quitting the fight, and, as a result, abandoning his teammates and his dream behind him. In allowing his emotions to dictate his decision, he had also abandoned a vastly different path that had been right in front of him. Had he harnessed his emotions in that moment of difficulty, he would have survived the weekend and, more importantly, made tremendous gains in personal insight and growth. Rather, the achievement gained by his response to a criticism could be defined by little more than the lingering pain of regret.
The quality this man was lacking was emotional resiliency. Emotional resiliency means that you can bounce back quickly from a setback. It is a skill, a skill that can be trained, just like—as we’ve discussed in previous blogs—mental toughness. After working with thousands of special ops candidates and professionals I’ve discovered that mental toughness, the kind that allows us to make both minor and serious decisions with clarity and strength during our weakest moments, is a one part mental and several parts emotional.
Four Steps to Resiliency
So how do you build the skill of emotional resiliency? It’s a four-step process, fairly simple steps in fact, but the crucial ingredients are consistent application of the steps over time, and patience to net the hard result of engraining the approach into an autopilot-like habit. Within this new blog series, we will be diving in deep on what these steps are and how to execute them:
- Witness the negative emotional reaction and then interdict it to observe the root emotion beneath it.
- Lean into the root emotion to experience it fully, ensuring that you are avoiding denial or transference.
- Transmute the negative emotion to its positive counterpart. For example, fear becomes courage, anger becomes commitment, jealousy becomes appreciation, shame becomes pride and despair becomes surrender.
- Engage the new emotion with imagery and self-talk that supports the new emotion and blocks the old emotion. Then get moving again by standing up, dusting yourself off and engaging anew, or diverting your attention away from the drama of yourself and focusing onto a teammate and supporting that teammate. This brand of positive momentum will take you to new and better emotional territory.
Let me explain with a personal example from my book Unbeatable Mind. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, I was quoted in a newspaper article regarding the reckless employment of SEALs in daylight direct action raids in sharp contradiction of our tactical training and historical employment. Without my approval the author used my reserve officer rank in the story, making it look like a semi-official statement.
I got called on the carpet quickly by a SEAL captain who read me the riot act. As I stood and received the verbal beating in front of his desk, I could feel my anger starting to boil. My instinctual emotional response was to lash out and verbally defend myself, to fight back. And that was what he expected. But I sensed this would get me into deeper water, so I chose to interdict the reaction with an internally-voiced command to “stop.” Then I began to observe my inner emotional state. I did this to notice where it was going and the grip it had on my mind. This became my internal “work” while I nodded politely to the Captain. Beneath the anger I became aware of a slight fear of the repercussions of this incident to my reputation and career.
So, I leaned into that secondary emotion. What I mean is that though my mind was reacting with anger, I witnessed that at the other side of that anger was a fear of loss. The anger was a habituated reaction that clouded over the root fear. In those short moments I examined the fear, kicked its tires, and came to the conclusion that I was blowing things out of proportion. I made the conscious choice to gather this energy of fear and to repurpose it toward maintaining composure and a positive, professional attitude toward him. After all, he was just doing his job and using the tools of abuse that had supported him so well in a military system that can be rigid. I began an internal dialogue about being well-respected; about being admired for speaking my mind and having the honor to do the right thing regardless of the consequences. I willed myself to think about my teammates and the risk they were being exposed to, rather than my own circumstances.
As you likely predicted, I got through the incident without much blood loss. It was soon lost in the rearview mirror of time. Like most setbacks it was temporary, and it also provided a rich opportunity to refine my resiliency toolkit that, if I hadn’t applied skills I’ve mentioned here, I would have missed out on altogether. Additionally, my reputation was enhanced with those who mattered to me most.
In the next part we will get into some emotional training that will pay big dividends if you take it seriously. Until then, train hard, stay safe and get resilient!