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On this page, you will find the foundation work that we will come back to right throughout this challenge. Learning to notice when an emotion hits you and be able to name it, is the foundation of emotional intelligence.

I wonder how well you understand your own emotional and mental processes and reactions?

Before we can become effective leaders in our family;

  • Making wise decisions
  • Negotiating what we need
  • Reading other people accurately
  • Supporting & encouraging our family to achieve shared and personal goals

First, we must have a sound understanding of ourselves. This starts with learning what the strong emotions that often hijack our better judgement are all about. The movie below is about parenting but could just as easily apply to how we behave with our wives . . .

Self Monitoring / Learning Your Triggers

Self-monitoring means learning to recognize when your “emotional brain” (involving the amygdala and limbic system and the sympathetic nervous system) is triggered.

Some early signs to look for include;

An increase in your rate of talking and breathing and if you are observant you may even notice a change in your pulse.

Other signs include;

Flushing, feeling angry, tearful or agitated and blood rushing into your arms.

More advanced signs may include;

You talking louder or shouting the desire to scratch, strangle or punch someone or run, and other feelings of helplessness, rage or despair.

Positive emotions trigger our limbic system as well – these signs may include;

Excitement, giddiness, wanting to be extravagant with money or tell someone your life story or everything that you know.

Our emotional reactions are universal and also very personal. For instance, it is normal to feel angry when someone disrespects us or puts us down, but how fast we notice this and how we deal with it will depend on our level of emotional intelligence and maturity.

While it is common for people to blame their reactions on the actions of other people, the truth is that you most likely have a set of triggers that is very much all your own.

Saying you will not react in the same way “next time” won’t work. Our limbic system responds with lightning-fast speed and usually engages long before we are even aware of what has happened. For this reason, Kim and I often call our limbic system “The Hare” and our prefrontal cortex, which is our thinking brain, “The Tortoise”, like in the story about the tortoise and the hare. The moral of that story is that to “win the race” the tortoise really needs to learn to be one step ahead of the hare and as that cannot happen with speed – the only way to achieve this is to think things through and planning ahead.

Learning our own triggers is the only way to get to know and understand ourselves so we can start to predict what our reaction will be in certain situations in our life. In this way, we can be ready to deal with the trigger in the most intelligent and mature way by planning ahead.

Learning to quickly notice that you have become emotional and put a name to the emotion you are feeling will help put you in the driver’s seat to become more successful in every area of your life.

CEOs sometimes call this “courage training” and it is one of the most powerful and effective programs you can embark on if you really want to see solid and positive results in your life.

So even though this is just the beginning, it is also the most advanced and important work we will do.

Your Emotional Trigger Journal

This exercise provides a crucial foundation for the rest of this challenge, and I will be calling on you to be diligent and persistent with this exercise.

Choose a way of recording brief notes – either on paper or electronically, that you can carry with you at all times for at least the next two weeks – a small booklet and pen or a phone that can take notes would be ideal.

For two weeks or more, be alert to any time you have been “triggered”, e.g. an emotion rising up and/or the signs listed above – changes in your breathing, your temperature (flushing), rate of talking etc. 

As quickly as possible after this happens, take yourself out of the situation and make a very brief note, labeling the emotion you felt and describing what triggered it. Be aware that the trigger may not even be an incident involving another person. It may be a thought, an insight or a memory.

Keep the entries as simple as possible. We are learning about ourselves and not analysing anyone else.

The sooner you notice that you have been triggered – the easier it will be to spot the real reason. This can be deceptive because our emotional brain can be very defensive and doesn’t always want to admit our vulnerabilities. But this exercise is just for you and there is no use lying to yourself!

You need to also be very specific about the emotion. Avoid general labels like, “I felt bad . . . ” or “I felt uncomfortable . . .” They won’t help you learn.

A simple journal entry might sound like the examples below . . .

  • I felt excited when I remembered our plan to ———-.
  • I felt love when ——– smiled at me.
  • I felt joy when we were cruising down the highway together.

Much of the learning in this exercise will also come from noticing and labelling the more difficult emotions. For example . . .

  • I felt sad when I remembered that I haven’t seen ——- for so long.
  • I felt disappointed when —————— .
  • I felt guilty that I ————– .
  • I felt anxious when ———- didn’t come home on time.
  • I felt angry when ——- made a negative comment about my performance.
  • I felt scared when thinking about how I was going to meet our financial commitments.

Being completely honest with ourselves is probably the most important part of this exercise if we are really going to become proficient at this.

  • I felt scared I was going to get in trouble. To defend myself I pretended to be angry at ———- instead.
  • I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t finished the work and immediately started looking for someone to blame.
  • I felt threatened when ————- questioned me and now I am ashamed that I told her a lie.
  • I felt terrified ———- was going to walk out and so I got angry and tried to make her feel guilty to try and force her to stay.
  • I felt ashamed of myself when I remembered ——————– and so I pushed it out of my mind.
  • I felt curious and jealous when I saw she had been writing to someone and now I am ashamed that I got caught reading her mail.

As the examples above show, sometimes you might have more than one emotion happening together, or quickly one after the other, and even sometimes a whole combination of brain chemicals e.g. “I felt sad and lonely when I realised that my friend was leaving to go overseas”, or “I felt confused and anxious when —— was late”, or “I felt angry when —– and then I felt embarrassed after I slammed the door.”

This may sound quite simple but if you are not used to really noticing and labeling your emotions at the time and identifying exactly what incident or awareness set them off, this might be difficult for you.

Joining the Facebook group for this Unit will help guide you do this exercise for the full two weeks.

Quick Check: Was it “Triggered” or did you “Catch” it?

Emotional Contagion

Emotions are contagious. While it’s normal and healthy to pick up on other people’s emotions, it becomes unhealthy when we let ourselves “catch” these emotions as our own. It is much more productive and helpful, if you have ‘caught’ someone else’s bad mood, to simply recognise this and tune back into your own happiness and natural sense of calm as quickly as you can.

When you first find yourself feeling something unpleasant, ask yourself, “Is this feeling mine or coming from someone else?”

If you decide you may be picking up on someone else’s negative emotions, try this exercise: Imagine the area just above your lungs as a balloon. Each time you breathe in, imagine that area growing larger until it expands far out beyond the size of your body. Let the negative feeling in the balloon just keep moving outward, getting bigger and bigger and then let it gently pop and the feeling be carried off into the distance. After this, you might empathise by saying, “Wow I can see that you are feeling —–“, but then allow your own happiness and calm back. Let your own natural happy feelings bubble up inside you like a fresh spring bringing this renewed positive energy to the current situation without attempting to process or change anyone else’s mood.

Self Soothing

Research has shown that learning to shut off your emotional signalling system is even more important than learning to notice what triggered it to respond.

Just like driving around with your car alarm blaring would make more trouble for you than that security system was worth, getting around being angry, anxious and upset with the world is only going to ensure that you end up isolated and alone.

As we discussed in the intro tutorial, our ability to calm down and get back to work after an upset is directly connected to how well our vagus nerve is operating – a regulating nerve in our brainstem. Good “Vagal Tone”, as it’s called, is the number 1 way that, scientifically, you can predict whether a person will be successful.

The great news is that even if your vagal tone is poor, you can improve it with practice. If you are a person who has trouble getting back on track after an upset, you may need to learn to self soothe. To help you with this, please take the time to listen to my wife Kim’s self soothing tutorial below where . . .

The Girls Give Some Excellent Advice

Procedure Summary for the Emotional Trigger Journal Exercise:

Step 1: What was that? – Notice the physical reaction of an emotion in your body.

Step 2: What’s it called? Name the emotion, as honestly as you can. (Write it down. Do this as soon as possible.)

Step 3: Was it mine? Double-check that it was triggered, not caught(See the box, above. A clue is that triggered emotions tend to come on more suddenly.)

Step 4: What triggered it? Briefly record what triggered your emotional reaction.

Step 5: See how fast you can let it go and get back on track.

Got any Questions? Come discuss your progress in our private Facebook classroom:

View a menu of the units in my challenge:

Steve’s Leadership Challenge Dashboard

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Co-host and co-author at The Love Safety Net

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