“New Year’s resolutions often fail because toxic emotions and experiences from our past can sabotage us or keep us stuck with the same old thoughts, patterns, and regrets.” — Debbie Ford
It is impossible to change our behavior without addressing our emotions.
We can manage our attitudes, but emotions are out of our control. That’s the biggest challenge that lies ahead. Even though we can’t control our emotions, we must confront them if we want to achieve our resolutions.
You can’t block negative emotions from your life. Whether it’s fear, anxiety, or guilt, you are not immune from the emotional rollercoaster — change is not a linear process, but full of highs and lows.
Unfortunately, most people think that success depends on a method. By looking for a 5-step process to achieving our goals, they fail to address the emotional battle inside their minds.
Emotions inside your head
“The problem with New Year’s resolutions is that people try to adopt too many behavioral changes at once. It doesn’t work. I don’t care if you’re a world-class CEO — you’ll quit.” — Tim Ferriss
There’s nothing wrong with productivity methods. Without proper discipline, tools, and goals, managing your emotions alone is not enough. However, if you can’t understand and manage your emotions, achieving your goals will become a lost battle.
Science has made a lot of progress in the battle against procrastination by tackling it as an emotion-management problem rather than a productivity one, as I wrote here.
Let’s start by understanding the fundamental differences between emotions, feelings, and mood.
Emotions are an instant response to a specific trigger — our brain releases emotion chemicals in 1/2 second. The whole body experiences this instinctive reaction that lasts just 6 seconds.
Feelings, on the other hand, play out in our heads — we start to process the chemical reaction. They are mental associations; we process the emotion and let it soak in. Feelings are personal and acquired through experience.
Lastly, a mood is an emotional state. It’s less specific, less intense and less likely to be provoked by a particular event. They affect the way we respond to stimuli — our moods creates a bias in favor of reacting negatively or positively.
Emotions are more complex and nuanced — most people can’t really understand what’s causes their pain or comfort. Moods are more straightforward — You are either in a good mood or a bad one.
Emotions are not just negative or positive
Understanding the basic emotions will help you recognize, name, and navigate them. The most influential classification is Robert Plutchik’s wheel — it outlines eight basic emotions: anger, anticipation, joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness and disgust.
Emotions are a response to a specific trigger — each one has a particular purpose.
Dividing emotions into positive and positive ones created a bad rap for the latter. Most of us were raised to show the good ones and keep the bad ones to ourselves. However, all emotions are part of your experience. You can’t have joy without experiencing sadness or courage without fear.
Trying to erase negative emotions creates more trouble — we can’t run away from our them. Let’s face them.
Being positive is not about having only positive emotions, but to embracing our whole-self — both positive and negative — rather than idealize our life. As Golda Meir said, “Those who don’t know how to weep with their whole hearts don’t know how to laugh either.”
Emotions are fluid — you can turn them into your favor regardless if they are positive or negative.
How to improve your emotion-management
When negative emotions churn, it takes courage not to flinch.
Most of us are clueless about how our emotions affect our productivity. To develop effective responses, we must learn how and why they manifest.
Anger, fear, envy, guilt, and sadness are the most common negative emotions that get in our way — we must manage them if we want to achieve our goals. Knowing more about these emotions increases your ability to identify, name, and handle them.
Anger is one of the most common negative emotions, especially at work. It can result from interpersonal conflicts, frustrations, or unfair treatment. Sometimes anger is triggered by reliving something that happened in the past.
Let’s say you tried to learn a new language a couple of years ago and quit. Now you are giving it another try. The moment you feel stuck, you will immediately remember you failed on your previous attempt. Reliving that failure can make you angry and suck the energy out of you. Thus, increasing your chances of quitting (again).
“The greatest remedy for anger is delay.” ― Thomas Paine
One key for managing anger is to take some distance. Calm down before making any decision. Reflect on why you are angry? What’s the cause of you upsetness? Having unrealistic expectations is what makes most people frustrated. Maybe you set the bar too high. Or you expect progress to be linear versus a bumpy road.
Anger feeds more anger — it creates endless resentment and frustration.
Are you too harsh on yourself? When anger is stirring, remain still. Listen to what that chemical reaction is telling you. What’s the problem that you are fighting? Discriminate real issues from imaginary ones — unnecessary pressure is not the same as room for growth. Practice chopping up tasks into smaller ones.
The fear of failure crashes our ability to achieve our goals. Even worse, they procrastinate taking the first step — they fail to launch a new project or habit.
The reasons we are afraid of failing varies from person to person. Most people take things too personal — if they can’t achieve something, they become ‘a failure.’ Others believe they are not good enough or are afraid of being happy. Many of us approach new habits with a perfectionist mind — we can’t accept we are not flawless.
“Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.” — African Proverb
Most people are unlikely to share their fears with others, especially in the workplace. Fear can be a foe or your ally — it’s your call to face it or not. Living fearlessly is not about not being afraid, but learning to dance with fear. It doesn’t mean ignoring your challenges but looking at fear in the eye. By facing your emotions, you meet the world with an open heart — you embrace your vulnerability.
What makes you afraid? Write down all the reason that comes to mind every time fear distracts you from your goals. What are you really afraid of? Ask this question over and over. Don’t judge your answers. Naming your fears is the first step toward befriending them.
True fearlessness is not the absence of fear but befriending fear.
Fear turns on our defense mechanism — we feel we are in danger even if we are not. What’s ‘attacking’ you? Where’s this attack coming from? Why do you feel attacked? Ironically, fear has an upside — when your brain senses a ‘threat,’ your ability to focus heightens.
Envy and jealousy travel together but are different emotions. Envy is a two-person relationship: “I want what you have.” Jealousy is a three-person triangle: “I want the recognition you have from others.”
Bertrand Russell said: “Beggars do not envy millionaires, though of course, they will envy other beggars who are more successful.”
Jealousy originates from the prospect of failure; envy from actual ‘failure’ — when things don’t go our way, we want to be as successful as others. That’s the problem of comparing ourselves to others — we idealize their success rather than focusing on making progress. We have the notion of learning all backward — it’s not easy, but a painful experience as I wrote here.
Our brain is a muscle; it hurts when we stretch beyond our comfort zone. Pain is an indicator of progress — we must continue to move forward, not run away. Envy adds more pain — we compare our initial progress to those who have been doing something for years. Success is the end of a long road, focus on today’s steps, not on the final destination.
Avoid comparing yourself to others. Become your own benchmark. When we stop judging ourselves, we set our potential free.
When guilt competes for your attention, it usually wins. Guilt is a common feeling that signals that our actions (or inaction) might cause harm to another person. I should have done something differently! I should be doing more! Guilt gets us stuck — we rehash the past rather than live the present moment.
In psychology, the term Zeigarnik effect refers to people remembering uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. We blame ourselves for not having done better or more. Productivity blame is the nagging feeling that you should be doing more — you feel you will never reach your goals.
“Mistakes are always forgivable if one has the courage to admit them.” — Bruce Lee
Productivity blame is a mindset of feeling bad about not creating, achieving or working hard enough. We usually feel guilty because we were taught to fill our days with the important stuff — we emotionally punish ourselves when we think we are doing something trivial.
Treat yourself with kindness. Putting too much pressure hurts our productivity. Self-appreciation is essential — it builds a strong foundation for us to grow and become the best version of ourselves. Why do you feel guilty about not doing more? Where is that pressure coming from? Are you fair with yourself? Or too critical? Treat yourself kindly without lowering your bar.
Feeling sad crushes our enthusiasm and drains our productivity — we feel our energy is low and can’t focus. Sadness has direct repercussions — we stop showing up, we procrastinate and fail to do what we want to.
Sadness makes us feel isolated — the moment when we need more help is when we hide away the most. Embrace sadness at your own pace but don’t seclude yourself — sharing affection can help you ease the pain.
Be understanding. We are not the most productive persons when we are sad. Focus your energy on recovering first before trying to achieve your resolutions. Additional pressure can make you feel sadder and also guilty. Sadness, just like anger, can seed more negative emotions if you fight it, rather than accept it.
“We must understand that sadness is an ocean, and sometimes we drown, while other days we are forced to swim.” — R.M. Drake
If you feel very sad, acknowledge is not the time to be concerned about being productive. Only you can determine when you are ready to challenge yourself. Start gradually but don’t get caught in a constant state of sadness. Getting back to your normal routine or making progress — no matter how small — will reenergize you.
Ask yourself: How do I feel today? What’s possible? Pause from time to time to confront the cause of your sadness. Make room to let it all out when necessary. The less you hide your real emotions, the less they will get in your way. Learning to cope with adversity strengthens your ability to bounce back.
Emotions are created by incorrect perceptions — there is a gap between appearance and reality. Understanding how emotions affect your productivity requires practice.
Self-awareness is key — the more you know yourself, the better you can deal with your emotions. Treat yourself kindly, embrace your emotions. Pay attention. What are they trying to tell you? Learn to adjust your routine to your emotions rather than avoiding them. Or it will backfire.
Naming your emotions is a critical step — it’s easier to manage something when you know what you are dealing with. I hope the above guide helps you improving at listening, naming, and understanding your emotions. Cheers for an awesome 2019!
This article first appeared on Medium.