Checking Your Gauge: Resilience & Your Emotional Energy Tank, Part 1

Vincent Van Gogh famously said, “Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives, and we obey them without realizing it.” The first part of his statement comes across as dramatic, and rightly so. This tortured artist suffered greatly from depression and loneliness. But once we recognize, absorb and accept the second half of the quote, the profound influence of emotion becomes apparent. This also reveals to us the primary influencer of resilience: It comes down to how you manage your emotional energy. And YOU get to decide if it’s the major contributor to or grave detractor from your toughness. Once you’ve gauged your emotional impact, it’s your cue to become highly-motivated, and to develop a formula for building insoluble resilience. And as I often find myself admitting—this is simple, but not easy.

Fear: The Substance of Negative Emotions

Let’s scrutinize an unspoken influence in your life known as negative emotions. These emotions aren’t only extreme in their manifestations (like throwing phones, sobbing or screaming.) They can be subtle-to-moderate as well, coming alive with the tiny inconveniences of everyday life. See if this resonates: You’re running late for a meeting, you’ve just left the subway, and you’re 5 blocks from your client’s office at Meeting Minus Five Minutes. Someone is walking slowly in front of you. How do you feel? Do you become irritated and impatient? When you get to the meeting five minutes late, are you flustered, angry and embarrassed?

These adjectives describe a more common range of negative emotions. And if you examine them closely enough, you’ll notice that fear is their common denominator. In the case of being late for that meeting, you might be fearful of looking foolish, or to the extreme, losing the client. These fears translate as threats to your career, which is the sole source of your security and well-being. When a threat of this (or any) sort enters the picture, the hormone cortisol is released, causing your brain to become fogged, and perpetuating your negative spiral.

While we don’t always have the resources to control the negative situations we find ourselves in, we are able to calculate our responses or reactions to them. Here’s a little nugget of information that can be used to our benefit: Even the most acute emotions have a shelf life of only 90 seconds. Any residual feelings we hold after that time are what psychologist and meditation proponent Tara Brach would attribute to being “in-trance”. When you think about it, most of us live our lives in-trance, dwelling on what we should have done differently in the past and fearing what may happen in the future.

Catch & Release Isn’t Just For Fishing

The reason the impact of emotions is so difficult to detect is that we have difficulty identifying the moments when we’re undergoing these emotions. EQ expert extraordinaire Travis Bradberry has determined that only 36% of people are able to accurately identify their emotions as they happen. With this realization, the pursuit to refresh our emotional energy tank seems futile.

But fear not! Being mindful of the concept of self-awareness can let you address and leverage your emotional energy tank. The trick is to catch yourself when you’re triggered, and make the conscious choice to release that emotion. It gives a whole new meaning to “catch & release”. As you continue catching these invading emotions, you will discover that they seep into every nook and cranny of life. Each time there is a negative thought, a sip of energy evaporates from that emotional energy tank. These negative thoughts may be little events, but those little events add up quickly.

In the next resilience follow-up article, I’ll offer some hints on how to “release” those caught emotions by tuning you into some surprisingly comprehensible brain science.