Feeling emotional today? Well, that’s a good thing.
Emotions are an essential part of what makes us human. Emotions shed light on what we care about. If you’re feeling emotional right now, there must be something happening to something you care about. Whether this would be meaningful relations, work, hobbies, or specific interests. If you didn’t care, the emotion wouldn’t show itself.
However, sometimes our emotions can get the better of us. They tend to bosh us around, ruffle us, start to interfere with our focus, and sometimes even completely overtake our attention. At that point, we lose our sense of control. Lose control over our actions, and we usually tend to stop doing the things we want to do from here…
And that’s where emotional coaching comes in.
Because emotions interact with our behaviours (and also the other way around). That’s also why academics ‘classify’ and distinguish behaviours as overt and covert. They relate and are intrinsically connected to one another.
|Covert behaviours (Noticeable* on the inside)||Overt behaviours (Noticeable, on the outside)|
|Feeling regret||Saying sorry, apologising to someone|
|Feeling tired||Running 5K|
|Feeling anxious||Not leaving the house|
And if you – like me – accept this assumption that emotions interact with our behaviours, to behave like the person you want to behave and commit to a life that is meaningful to you, mastering your emotions is intrinsically part of the game.
What is emotional coaching?
A definition of emotional coaching
Let’s start with what we define as emotional coaching. Well, emotional coaching is a skill-based process that helps people better perceive, make sense and create room for their emotions. This way, when emotions show themselves – which they inevitably will – the individual at heart is better equipped to respond to these internal experiences in a more usable, workable manner. By being more aware, we are putting ourselves in a better position to make the right choices, the right responses.
Emotional coaching and emotional intelligence
Emotional coaching is often linked to emotional intelligence, which is defined as an ability — not a tendency. It’s something that you can or can’t do, or, you know, varying degrees in between. And it has four main components. These four parts are
Being able to:
- Perceive emotions.
- Use emotions
- Understand emotions
- Manage emotions
This ability can relate to others, and oneself. In this article, we will talk mainly about your own ability to perceive, use, understand and manage your emotions. To do this, we won’t this emotional intelligence framework, but will simplify it into understanding and responding to emotions. Not just because to make it simple, but it also makes more sense.
Understanding our emotions
So what are emotions, and why do we experience them?
Well, the academic world hasn’t exactly agreed on what emotions are, it is still very much an ongoing debate; but it mainly boils down to these two things:
- Emotions manifest themselves as a complex series of neurological, hormonal, cardiovascular and musculoskeletal changes in our bodies.
- These physical sensations (feelings) in our body, prepare us to take action.
Depending on the context you are facing, this ‘taking action’ can either look like:
|Response is known as||Because there is||Can feel like this||Can for instance show up as|
|Rest/digest||No threat||Calm, curious, open, grounded, relaxed||Normal bodily functioning|
|Fight/flight||A threat||Anxiety, concern, panic, fear, frustration, anger, rage||Tightness in the chest/tummy, clammy hands, or a racing heart, etc.|
|Freeze/flop||A threat||Inability to feel||Lower muscle tone, temperature, heart rate, etc.|
Emotional responses to situations
How your body and mind prepare themselves and respond to specific situations (e.g. that, to a large extent, depends on your history. How have you previously behaved and responded in similar circumstances like these? This history leads to interpretations and predictions of situations you have yet to or about to face. For example:
- If you’re about to give a presentation at work and are quite an extrovert, like the limelight and have tons of experience doing this, your body will most likely function as normal. As you usually thrive in these situations.
- If you’re about to give a presentation at work and have massively struggled with doing this before, your body in all likelihood will show signs of stress to prepare you for this perceived danger. This can either look like stumbling over words, sweaty hands, stuttering, or going completely blank.
It’s the same situation, but because the predications and history are different, your body reacts in very different ways to prepare you for this.
But the main purpose is the same. These inner experiences are signals to protect you, to make sure you fit in and don’t make a fool of yourself, to keep you safe.
What do your emotions point towards or away from?
We often don’t tune in to our emotions, we don’t always see them for what they are: messages. That’s because when we notice certain emotions kick in – let’s say guilt – quickly an additional layer gets wrapped around it. Perhaps a layer of judgment. And when guilt and judgment come in uninvited, it makes it more difficult to look at our feelings from a neutral and inquisitive perspective.
Additionally, emotions can be powerful. When they are, they tend to sweep us away, we find it also difficult to look at our emotions and the inner messages as we are too engulfed into our emotions to step out of it. But when we take a step back and finely tune in to our emotions, we can sometimes unravel what they have to say.
We can learn to use and appreciate the wisdom of the emotion: What’s it telling me to address or change? What’s it advising me to do differently? What’s it bringing my attention to? Reminding me of? Instead of seeing emotions as foes, see them as friends. How’s this emotion trying to help me?
|Motivates (to us)||Illuminates (to us)||Communicates (to others)|
|Sadness||To lay low, heal, pause, rest.||To build up your strength and recover after a loss.||I lost something I cared about.|
|Anger||To confront, make a stand, impose boundaries.||We want to fight and protect something we care about.||Back off, this isn’t fair.|
|Guilt||To make amends.||How to behave to others.||I have done something wrong and want to resolve it.|
We can’t switch our emotions ‘off’
And we can’t switch this off, there is no off button in the brain or in your body. We can’t stop feeling anxious, frustrated, or worried. This will always be a part of us. Part of you. Especially in moments that matter to you, moments that involve higher stakes. Because in those key moments, moments where you deeply care about the outcome, there’s an equivalent emotional energy that comes with it.
But where does this leave us? And where do we start?
Responding to our emotions
It starts with awareness. With noticing, with witnessing your emotions.
Because without actual awareness of your emotions, it becomes harder to make meaningful and lasting changes in your life. If you don’t have conscious control over your responses to when these emotions show up, you’re not in control over what you’re going to do going forward.
Hence, often the first ‘skill’ in emotional coaching is developing awareness of your emotions.
Our default response
Our normal, natural and instinctive tendency is to try to contain that emotional energy. This can look like any of this.
Running away from it.
Hiding it, to lock it away.
Fighting with it.
Deny it ever exists.
I’m sure you’ve tried some of this?
So… How did you get on with it?
I guess not very much?
And although this response is natural and normal (We all do it. Even the Dalai Lama does, especially related to the tongue licking incident) – depending on the context – it’s more often than not a very helpful response.
Because the struggle in itself amplifies the energy you’re experiencing in your body. It compounds it. It creates additional layers, letting it grow into something even bigger than it already was!
But this shouldn’t have to mean you physically or mentally lose control of your actions and awareness.
A different way of responding
Instead of fighting with it, drop the struggle. In my time as an outdoor pursuit instructor, to prep tourists to wild water experiences, to waves of any size and strength, we used to say ‘go with the motion of the ocean, don’t fight it as it will wear you down. The ocean will always win.’ And that stance, that attitude towards inner experiences, towards emotions, is what we try to instil in emotional coaching. Being able to watch inner experiences ebb and flow, over time. Not giving in to it, but letting it pass in it’s own time and choose not to struggle with it.
Developing this skill can be challenging, as emotions can come around thick and fast. Especially if you’re not quite attuned with your body, this skill is more dormant, and it might take more time to tune in and being willing to open up to these internal experiences.
To start with, emotional coaching can help you identify, and from there on, label emotions.
Recognising the motion of emotions
Emotions often have peaks and troughs. In a sense, this is similar to waves. They build up, gain momentum. When they reach their peak, you have limited control over your actions, as the emotions takes over control. You can’t access all of your behavioural repertoires, in a way, your responses become more narrow and rigid. They can be impulsive as the emotion that has built up has taken control of your awareness and therefore also over your actions or behaviour.
Depending on the context, this is either a good or bad thing.
If your life is being threatened, your automatic nervous system does need to take control and sit in the drivers’ seat. It needs to protect you to life another day. If your life is not being threatened, your emotional response is not in sync with the perceived threat and regulation becomes important.
Recognising and labelling emotions can have clear benefits. By labelling your emotions, you can create distance from them. You start looking at your emotions, rather than look from your emotions. From this point of view, you are in a better space to observe what’s happen inside of you and around you.
Emotional coaching into practice
Great. You’ve read a few things about understanding and responding to emotions, but where has that taken you?
Not very far. These words are no replacement for the experience. At best, they can only inspire or point the way. The rational mind wants to understand and explain and analyse everything. But the idea of it is different to the experience of it. The words are not the thing.
The real benefit of emotional coaching lies in doing the practices that make you more attuned to your emotions, such that you can more consciously choose how to react to them. So, instead of further intellectualising the concept of emotional coaching, let me give you a nice practise of emotional coaching: Dropping Anchor.
The great thing with the Dropping Anchor exercise is you can practice it anytime and anywhere; you don’t have to wait until something shows up. Use the audio file to remind yourself of the steps, but eventually you can fade this out and mould it into your own practise.
The most tricky bit is implementing the technique whilst you’re going through a storm or an emotional wave, so take it easy on yourself if you find it difficult to do in those moments. Perhaps find easier moments first. Dropping an anchor won’t make the storm go away; it will just hold you steady until the storm passes. Or in more official terms, it expands your awareness of what is present and gives you more control over your actions.
Good luck with experimenting with this dropping anchor technique. You can find the handout that comes with it here. And if you’re interested in going a bit further with emotional coaching, please do get in touch.