Your emotions will drive the decisions you make today, and your success may depend upon your ability to understand and interpret them. When an emotion is triggered in your brain, your nervous systems responds by creating feelings in your body (what many people refer to as a “gut feeling”) and certain thoughts in your mind. A great deal of your decisions are informed by your emotional responses because that is what emotions are designed to do: to appraise and summarize an experience and inform your actions. But if an emotion is triggered, just how much should you pay attention to your visceral response and the thoughts it creates?
Emotions are not particularly sophisticated or precise, but their speed and utility make up for what they lack in sophistication and precision. Emotions, when they are not disordered, provide information about your circumstances in a simple, quick way that does not involve a lot of cognition (thinking about it). So they attempt to tell you if a situation is optimal or not aligned with your goal, and how you might approach it. For example, imagine that you are negotiating a contract and begin to get anxious. If something doesn’t feel right it is your emotional system that is informing you to further evaluate the situation. You can be disrupted by your anxiety or you can take a look at it: Does the other person remind your emotional brain of someone in the past who took advantage of you? Is this person doing the same thing or is it just a particular mannerism he has that triggered your anxious response? Is your anxious response a reaction to the other person or to yourself, such as your fear of success or failure? Similarly, you may have a reaction to a “pushy” salesperson–often an angry, disgusted, or anxious emotional response–because your emotions are informing you to protect yourself.
You may think that the best course of action is to suppress or ignore an intense emotion rather than figure it out. But why ignore an emotion that has evolved over thousands of years? Emotions serve a purpose, informing you, the operator of your body, what to do. We’re constantly faced with an abundance of information that we must process–a lot of stimulation to reflect upon. You do not have time to process all information in a reflective fashion but your brain processes it passively and unconsciously. If your brain comes across something it appraises as a “red flag,” you’ll be sent a general, vague alert in the form of the feelings and thoughts that are created by an emotion. This somewhat imprecise signal alerts you to pay attention. In this way, your emotions serve as a cueing system–an attention directing system associated with physiological changes that can prepare you to take action. But it is also not a very smart system because it has many false alarms. There are emotional misfires. Thus you need to evaluate your response to see if it is appropriate.
Emotions are behind many complex dynamics in business and personal relationships. For example, a personal or professional relationship with someone who has narcissistic personality characteristics can trigger a consuming emotional response in you. People with narcissistic personalities have a unique ability to disown unwanted aspects of themselves and evoke emotional responses in a partner or subordinate that lead the other to “own” those warded-off aspects; including shame, guilt, insecurity, abandonment fear, jealousy, envy, anger, and even rage. A narcissistic sales manager who wants to disown his self-doubt and insecurity might intimidate his sales staff. Or a person who fears abandonment by a partner and wants to secure her ties to him might provoke him to be jealous. Involvement with a narcissist becomes a roller coaster of emotional triggers that makes it difficult to decipher who owns the emotion, and it is even possible to become ill or stressed by the emotion you experience. The flood of feelings and thoughts that preoccupy the recipient of a narcissist’s intense emotions is itself an emotional “red alert,” although one might instead be led to believe that it’s about maintaining a tie with a partner or an issue concerning job performance.
Emotions have tremendous action potential. Yet the drive that emotions provide, particularly in the workplace, is sometimes experienced as stress related to task completion, time management, or productivity, rather than potential for decisive action. Consider, for example, how people respond differently in their approach to completing a project. For some people, a project will trigger anxiety until it is completed. But for others, that same project will not trigger anxiety until the deadline for completion is near; that is, the deadline creates anxiety that serves to motivate action. For this latter group a deadline is necessary to trigger the anxiety that fuels action. An emotionally intelligent manager would recognize that deadlines have the potential to motivate their direct reports in different ways. Thus, whether an employee completes a task early on (because getting rid of task anxiety motivates them) or at the deadline (because deadline anxiety motivates them), is less important than evaluating outcome. Recognizing how emotions affect your own motivational style can help you more consciously make decisions and pursue your goals.
Your emotional system can give you an advantage in decision making if you make proper use of it. Many people think of their emotions as something they have to manage or control rather than something upon which they could capitalize. Evolution has given you a particular information system that you can use–a summary of information about the environment and an aggregate of a huge amount of data about a situation. Emotions can tell you something about the world that you may not have accurately perceived in another way. They are something to interpret and use rather than an annoyance that you should ignore or control. Just like the thumb on your hand, emotions have evolved to help you, even though at times they may seem to get in the way.
This blog is in no way intended as a substitute for medical or psychological counseling. If expert assistance or counseling is needed, the services of a competent professional should be sought.
Originally published at www.psychologytoday.com