The new year is nearly upon us, and it’s time for the accumulated wisdom of coaches, experts and other non-gurus and gurus to well up out of the collective consciousness and onto the page. The dark days draw near and it is getting cold in the northern hemisphere. Holiday grumpiness and cheer are upon us, and it is the best of times and the worst of times. It’s the old man and the baby, and pretty soon the spring holidays, after Valentine’s Day, then Mother and Father’s Day, Halloween, etc. And it’s New Year’s Eve.
2019 is a year before 2020, and you can bet it will be a doozy. They say that hindsight is 2020, but my wish for the New Year is for 2020 foresight.
Enough of this madness. With that in mind, I’m sharing some off-the-cuff thoughts that have just popped into my head. What does it mean to be emotionally powerful, and what does it take? Our strengths, our fears, and other people.
1. Self-efficacy. Research shows that a sense of self-efficacy, more than self-esteem, is at the heart of success. In performance and in couples work, providing esteem-support led to greater self-efficacy. Esteem support from our partners drives self-efficacy by reenforcing effort and highlighting our wins, focusing on our strengths and capabilities, joining us in seeing things from our point of view, and by helping to sooth failure and self-criticism. We can provide many of these functions for ourselves, activity biasing what we look for in ourselves, what we make most salient, toward the positive.
This does not mean getting rid of anything negative, because we need all of ourselves, eventually. But it does mean engaging in resistance against the basic human tendency to give more weight to negative information in the environment, a holdover from evolution which allows us to scan preferentially for threats. Unfortunately, despite what it may feel like, on average the world is much less threatening than it was millions of years ago when our species was in its youth, and much of what we fear is constrained by belief and perception rather than actual danger. Unfortunately in human society, what we make of things can become reality—all the more reason to partner with yourself to bolster self-efficacy by providing your own esteem support, and making sure others around you do the same as much as possible.
2. Mastery of vulnerability. Curiosity, the ability to tolerate and even bask in uncertainty, and the capacity to contain and reflect upon strong emotional states without resorting to repetitive problematic reactive behaviors to provide relief allow one to sit with their own worst demons. Naturally, it isn’t always so melodramatic or hyperbolic, and there is real joy to be found from tenderness toward oneself, grounded in self-compassion, kindness and patience with oneself. Watch out for self-blame for not being kind enough to oneself, however, which can sneak in. Compassion hits the reset button for self-induced distortion, allowing us to let go of what we don’t need and can’t use.
Since we may all from time to time give ourselves a hard time, it makes sense to receive it with poise, curiosity, and to ask ourselves how we are feeling, where is the anger coming from, and note it is OK to feel disappointment as well as optimism for oneself. As long as we are paying some attention to what is going on and not suppressing or avoiding too much, we can catch issues as early as we can. Being vulnerable means being imperfect, and embracing oneself. If you start calling yourself names, lazy, an idiot, (please stop) etc., time to slow waaaay down and say “What’s going on?”
Skipping blame isn’t a way to shirk responsibility or skirt around the issues, but it is important to differentiate responsibility which comes from our core values from feeling at fault as a result of feelings operating out of awareness, such as shame and blame. When we are attuned to our own strengths and vulnerabilities, when other people bring up provocative subjects, we can stay balanced and responsive. If we are comfortable feeling vulnerable, we maximize what we can learn from experience. The problem with being non-judgmental is that it can mess with your judgment.
3. Compassionate empathy with & for others. The third pillar is relationship. Relationships often seem very complicated to us, and human emotions too hard to untangle. This is often for two reasons, first because we are “too close” to the situation, and so our own emotional involvement blinds us to what would be straightforward if we were consulted on by a friend. Second, we aren’t well-educated about what emotions are, how they work, and how to integrate thoughts and emotions into a coherent, resilient whole. It’s simpler than it may seem, as we like to make ourselves more complicated than we actually are. Mysteries are alluring, necessary, but sometimes dangerously misleading phantasm.
When we are comfortable with our own self-efficacy, and can sustain it ourselves for a period of time because we have internalized a good-enough caregiver part of ourselves, and we can deal with whatever our own vulnerability can throw at us, we become amazing listeners. Not only can we tolerate having less air time, we may even come to feel that speaking with urgency is less effective than showing what we think through our actions as well as our words. It takes time to know what we really think and feel, as it’s pretty much a good rule to follow that initial thoughts and impressions, which valuable, and not infallible. Understanding takes time, meaning grows at its own pace sometimes, and emotions in particular often come out in repeating sequences which require time to grasp as they go by so fast we may miss the evolution in our own minds.