Practicing grace under the pressure of ‘hot’ moments

Practicing grace under the pressure of ‘hot’ moments
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Most of us do not have as public a forum for intense scrutiny of our behavior as do aspiring Supreme Court justices. Intense, dramatic moments during Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughWisconsin Democrats chair bashes Supreme Court decision on voting: 'I am about to explode' Supreme Court blocks Wisconsin from extending absentee voting deadline A woman accuses Biden of sexual assault — and few liberals listen MORE’s recent Senate confirmation hearings left many of us wondering if there is a better way to handle emotionally triggering situations.

We witnessed a range of markedly emotional reactions in a public setting, including displays of anger and contempt, during the hearings. This highlighted the value of building the most important skill of emotional intelligence: regulating one’s emotions.

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Human beings have patterned ways of responding to triggers, those psychological pinches that make us jump, cringe or lunge in reaction. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we have habitual ways of managing our emotions — or of allowing our emotions to manage us.  

What we know from decades of research at Yale University is that mastering skills of emotional intelligence leads to overall well-being, increased effectiveness in work, and better relationships. When it comes to mastering our emotions, in particular, moments in everyday life present opportunities to practice raising our awareness and choosing our actions. If we can learn how to become aware that our reactions may be motivated by “hot” cognition — thinking that is influenced by strong emotions — we can learn to cool things down by engaging our unemotional thinking mind, or “cold” cognition.

While this kind of wise emotion management may be essential for Supreme Court justices in their decision-making and leadership, these skills also matter for everyday effectiveness in all of our lives. Here are a couple of helpful hints about how to manage emotions when you get triggered:

Recognize your triggers: When strong emotions strike and your “hot” system reacts first, be aware of sudden or incremental changes in your physiology (e.g., sweating, heart racing, face flushing). You may notice your mind racing before you notice physiological changes.

If you are in a profession that values reserved emotional expression, pay close attention to your rapid emotion suppression process. Allow yourself to notice small elevations of emotion, especially frustration, surprise and fear. 

Pause and breathe: The goal of recognition is to sense your reactions so that you can then pause and take a few deep breaths. We are programmed to self-protect when we perceive threat, including personal offense. There’s nothing wrong with that when a threat is actually present; in fact, it’s important. But we tend to over-perceive threat and, therefore, overreact at times.

Pausing is critical to prolonging the time available to choose the next action. Research shows that you cannot think clearly or make good decisions when you are experiencing strong emotions. The next time you feel strong emotion arising, try pausing and breathing slowly and deeply. This relaxes your nervous system, and is a strategy available no matter where you are or who you are with.

Picture your “best self”: Call to mind an image of your best self, a version of yourself that embodies a set of values that matter to you — your personal ideal in combination with how you want to be seen, experienced and talked about by others. 

When we invoke an image of our “best selves,” we turn our attention away from the “wrongdoing” and back to who we want to be in the moment. We have freedom to choose an effective strategy, aligned with our values.

Following these steps, it can be helpful in the moment to have easily accessible, research-based strategies to reach for — such as using positive self-talk (“I got this,” “I am doing the best I can,” or, “This too shall pass”), or positive reframing (“Of course it is heated; we see it differently”). These quick fixes can help choose your next action.

People must practice deliberate behaviors to turn them into habits. Without practice, our reflexive “fight-or-flight” response is more likely to kick in. The more you practice, fewer moments get “too hot” because you can de-escalate your reaction and regulate your emotions.

To be sure, there were other important dynamics at play during the emotional moments we witnessed during the Kavanaugh hearings. What if he intentionally escalated his emotionality and defensiveness for strategic purposes? There are aspects to understand about the differential tolerance for expression of anger across lines of gender and race, as well as varied display rules for emotional expression across cultural lines. (Compare the tolerance for Brett Kavanaugh’s display of anger with that of Serena Williams at the U.S. Open final to witness varied interpretations of two people standing up for themselves.)

Context matters, and we should all consider the impact of tolerating differential display standards. Whether you perceive the context as fair to you or not, we all need to practice to manage ourselves with grace under pressure.

Life offers us many opportunities to practice getting better at being human. Everyday triggering situations occur as opportunities for noticing your reactions, pausing, seeing your best self and choosing a helpful strategy. Perhaps the silver lining to a hard situation is that, with reflection and intentional practice, the next time will be a little better, a little closer to our image of our best selves.   

Heidi Brooks, Ph.D., is a senior lecturer in organizational behavior at Yale School of Management. She teaches and advises on the subject of everyday leadership and moments of impact that shape our lived experiences.   

Robin Stern, Ph.D., is associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a licensed psychoanalyst and educator. She is a member of the advisory board for United Nations Women for Peace. Her book, “The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life,” was recently republished by Harmony Books.