In a business world where we strive to be cool-headed and rational, it’s easy to treat emotions as things to be controlled and to detach from, so as not to cloud our judgement. But your emotions, positive or negative, are messages with valuable information, and you ignore them at your peril.
On your car dashboard is an oil warning light. It flashes up if the oil temperature gets too high, if the oil pressure is too low, or if the level is too low. Nobody wants to see that warning light up, because if it does, you have to switch your engine off, and that car’s not going anywhere until it’s been mended – or at least until you’ve topped up the oil.
Nobody wants to see that light. But it would be worse if there was a problem with the oil and it didn’t light up. You would drive off, and before you know it, your engine would be damaged beyond repair.
That’s what ‘negative’ emotions like anger or fear are intended to be like. You don’t want to experience them – they feel unpleasant – but they are designed to give you valuable, perhaps life-saving information about your situation.
Anger, typically, tells you that someone is trying to violate your boundaries. Fear is designed to tell you that you’re in a dangerous situation, or at least that there are things you need to watch out for.
If we suppress or ignore unpleasant emotions, we miss the message they are trying to give us. Sometimes threats go away or situations resolve themselves without us having to do anything, and the emotion can go away, but if the emotion persists, it’s worth assuming that it’s telling you that there’s something in your situation that you need to pay attention to.
Sometimes your unconscious mind notices things in your environment, or about other people, that your conscious awareness has missed – or that it has dismissed because it can’t find a logical explanation right away. Perhaps in the past you have had some vague, uneasy feeling about a situation that looks great on paper – whether it’s a job offer, the possibility of working with someone on a joint venture, or even a romantic relationship – and you’ve ignored that feeling, but later on you wished you had paid attention to it as things didn’t work out so well in practice?
Emotions are designed to be fleeting. Ideally, your unconscious mind registers something in your environment that needs attention, it provides the emotion to communicate with you, you take the message of the emotion on board and act on it, and the emotion can disappear because it’s not needed any more. Its job is done.
When we ignore or suppress the emotion, it can persist (if the threat in the environment is still there). It may come back stronger, or in a different form, until we can’t ignore the message any longer. So you can save yourself time and potential bad feelings by paying attention to the emotion earlier, recognising its message, and acting on it.
Listening To Emotional Messages: Exercise
When you feel an emotion that you find unpleasant, and you’re not immediately sure why you are feeling it, instead of suppressing or ignoring it, try this:
- Take a moment to be still, in a place where you won’t be disturbed.
- Become aware of the feeling – give it your attention.
- Ask yourself “If this feeling had a message for me, what would that message be?” – and leave some time and space for the answer to come up.
- Once you become aware of what the feeling is trying to tell you, decide what action you are going to take to deal with the challenge or threat. Notice how the feeling disappears and you feel better once you start taking action.
Let me know how you get on with this process!
I should add that sometimes the emotional ‘warning light’ may come on because some element in the current situation reminds you of difficult or dangerous situations in the past, rather than because there is a valid current threat. The area of the brain known as the amygdala that constantly scans our environment for safety works on pattern-matching, rather than logic, so sometimes it gives a ‘false positive’ reading based on emotional baggage from the past. We’ll talk about this and how to deal with it in a future article.