I remember taking my younger son down to the field near our house to teach him to ride his bike like a big boy. We had removed his stabilisers. Placing him on the seat and holding him steady, I gave him an almighty push, propelling him at great speed away from safety. He shook and wobbled, fighting for control, fuelled by the forward momentum. Then after about 30 seconds he started to pedal, took control of his handlebars and his own destiny and sped off into the distance. I had that surge of that special indescribable emotion reserved for those special moments with your children. He gained control well before I did.
And so it is with our emotions. They surprise us, ambush us and control us. But after 30 seconds, if my sister is to be believed, the tables turn, and we have the bridge. And she is a credible and qualified witness.
My previous manager – far less qualified in these matters – seems to have come to a similar conclusion. He is not a man to discuss emotions or personal matters. Far from it. But he does have a knack of making rather astute observations in a cleverly disguised and jokey way. Probably an avoidance strategy on his part, but that’s another topic.
I was having a particularly challenging day. A combination of too much to do and people being stupid, aggressive or unreasonable in meetings. We were grabbing a cup of tea. I was looking tense, frustrated and grumpy. Which was my subtle way of signalling that I was tense, frustrated and grumpy. He asked me how I was. Unusually for him. I said I was feeling somewhat stressed.
Now if one of my team had told me they were stressed, I would have launched into a long diagnosis of his or her problems, listening and showing concerned support. I would have promised to do various things to help and offered sage like advice. I might have put an arm around his or her shoulder. My former boss simply smiled and said, “you need to decide not to be”, as he walked away grinning.
As you can imagine, this hardly improved my mood. My 30 second response was to layer irritated and disappointed on top of my tense, frustrated and grumpy. “Thanks a lot” I muttered to myself, “thanks for nothing”. I squeezed the water out of my tea bag rather aggressively and chose to continue being irritated, disappointed, tense, frustrated and grumpy.
But as his seemingly trite and careless advice seeped and penetrated into my fuzzy, sulky emotional head, the very logic of it gave me a foothold. I grabbed the life-line, hauled myself up and I decided not to be stressed. It worked.
There is a science here. Our immediate response to negative or positive emotional stimuli is a chemical reaction in our brain. We feel this – the rush of adrenaline, the lump in our throat, the dryness in the mouth, the perspiration, the blushing, the breathlessness, the laughter, the launching of arms into the air, the throwing, the kicking, the tears welling up in our eyes. Fight or flight. These responses assault and mug us in the first 5 seconds. If they are good reactions we are want them to continue. Otherwise we fight against them and seek to reassert control over our bodies. To douse the fire.
After 30 seconds we are starting to think logically again. We may be self-conscious about our emotional display – which is just another feeling to deal to compound the first. Have you ever blushed and perspired and then started to worry whether anyone has noticed? It only makes matters worse.
The expert advice, by the way, in these situations, is to neither fight nor flight. Not to suppress nor deny the emotion, but to let ourselves feel it, observe the physical effect on us, mentally step aside from it and let it flow through. Throwing water on a fire only inflames it. Better to watch it burn out like a spectator. Within 30 seconds we will be pedalling ourselves, with a firm grip on the handlebars. And we can decide not to be irritated, disappointed, tense, frustrated, grumpy or whatever. Or if you prefer, count slowly to 10 in your head. It worked for Mr Jelly.
But, if the truth be told, we often enjoy our negative emotions and want to indulge them. We wallow and bathe in them and then parade them, in the hope of eliciting the understanding and sympathy we deserve. “There, there” your mummy will say. “my poor little cherub”, wrapping her arms around you and making you feel special and affirming the fact that nobody in the world is more hard-done-to, or more special, than you are.
As a child myself this tactic failed for me so completely and repeatedly, that I am amazed that I still try it. But we are nothing if not persistent in our pursuit of victimisation and sympathy. Singing, “Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I’m walking in the garden eating worms.” Or simply by updating our facebook status.
Our emotions turn us into five-year olds. We regress to an over-simplified world of goodies and baddies, cowboys and indians, friends and enemies, our gang and your gang. A world where everything revolved around me. If somebody hurts us, it is because they are evil. If someone gets one over us, they are arrogant and deceitful. If someone ignores us – the worst of all sins – they are rude and unfeeling. How we label others is often, of course, just a cunning way of not labelling ourselves. But that aside, this childlike simple state is one we can deliberately and willfully choose to inhabit. Some of us stay there for a lot longer than 30 seconds. Closer to 30 years in some cases…!
The grown up reality is that life and people are far more complex. Why did that person not reply to my email? Is it really that they don’t like me, have stopped caring for me, are bored with me? and after all I have done for them? Sheeeesh. “That’s bloody-well it” *
If we paused for a moment from our wallowing in self-righteousness and self-pity, we would work out a more complex and less interesting theory. They were busy, their computer broke, they meant to get round to it, or they simply forgot. Have you replied to every email sent to you? Who said that sending a message is a contracted agreement whereby the other person needs to reply? The complex adult reality is friends behave inconsistently for complex reasons. We don’t have to make a big scene about it. It’s really not all about us.
If we are honest, we like the drama of our emotions, the intrigue and the indulgence. But it is – if we believe the theory – after 30 seconds, entirely our choice. If we wallow in misery, hurt, jealousy, frustration, stress, sadness or anger, for more than half a minute, we only have ourselves to blame.
* (c) my late friend Sue; sadness for her passing is an emotion I choose to continue in from time to time.