Slaves to Emotion
There is a prevalent view in Western societies that it is ‘normal’ that our emotions and feelings influence and in many cases drive our actions. Excuses and justifications from ‘I didn’t feel like doing it’ or ‘I couldn’t help myself’ are the norm and often viewed as acceptable responses and justifications.
We believe that our emotional state is critical to whether we succeed or fail because, so the flawed reasoning continues, because our emotions influence or determine our actions.
Taking this reasoning to its logical conclusion, it is sometimes assumed that emotions ultimately determine our identity e.g. ‘I felt angry (emotion) and lashed out (action) and consequently I am an angry person (identity). We and others identify ourselves by our feelings and behavior.
The Prevalent But Flawed Model
Acting As If
The above approach not only undermines our ability to influence or determine our future but it overlooks the fact that our actions change how we feel. Psychologists have known this for centuries. William James, regarded as the founder of American Psychology, believed that emotions arise from the physical actions we take in response to what is happening in our lives. In other words, behavior creates emotion.
In recent times psychiatrists have started encouraging patients suffering from depression to smile for a few minutes at a time. One recent study found that smiling can double the chances of recovering from depression. You don’t need to feel happy, just make smile irrespective of how you feel inside and your emotions will soon start to match your external representation. Similarly, it has also been repeatedly demonstrated that exercise or even movement changes our emotional state both for the short and long term.
The 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Professor Zimardo powerfully demonstrated when people took on certain roles and acted in a certain way they began to feel the way people in those roles felt and began to act consistently with those roles.
Over time, the more consistently you begin to act and consequently feel a certain way, the more you will take on that desired identity. To bring this point to life; if every morning you tackled your most important task first, worked through your priorities using the Pomodoro technique and blocked out distractions with noise canceling headphones and turning off all notifications you would be plainly be productive. If you were consistent in this behavior, over time your would begin to define and be defined as a productive person.
A Virtuous Cycle
None of the above should be taken as suggesting that emotions are irrelevant to our ability to succeed or fail. People often achieve greatness when they are fueled by emotion – both good and bad. By understanding and utilizing the power of action to influence emotion you can create a virtuous cycle where your actions determine your emotions and over time begin to shape your identity.
Martin Soorjoo works with individuals and teams to increase their Performance, Focus and Ability to Manage Pressure