“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle."
Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Emotions are, well, emotional and there’s a lot of them swirling around these days. Some of them feel wonderful and we love it when they’re around. Others (like fear and anxiety) just feel like crap.
For most people, emotions are like the weather: sunny days are great but you have no control over when it decides to rain. Wouldn’t it be great if you could choose your emotional state, rather than having it dumped on you?
Turns out, you can.
We feel, experience and occasionally even become our emotions, rather than merely observing and understanding them. Which, when your emotions begin to take control of you, makes it tricky to make intelligent and beneficial choices that lead to the dreams and goals you’ve set for yourself.
The Art of War was written more than 2,500 years ago by a Chinese general named Sun Tzu. It’s long been studied and lauded for its advice on success in battle. Lately it’s been used by countless entrepreneurs and business people looking for an edge in the corporate world.
His advice to know your enemy can also be enormously valuable as we work to overcome anxiety and leave negative emotions behind. If we don’t understand how our emotions work, how can we ever possibly hope to achieve mastery over them?
Now I’m in no way suggesting that your emotions are, in some way, your ‘enemy’ and must be defeated. A life without emotion would be robotic and empty. Likewise, a life ruled exclusively by our feelings is like a cork, bobbing in the ocean, tossed around by whatever wave knocks it next. A life that takes full, conscious advantage of its rich emotional range while not becoming hostage to it is a life well-lived.
Since reason and logic are the antithesis of emotion, we can use these opposites to gain valuable insight into our emotional life as we study this enigmatic creature – ourselves.
In my workshops and signature online course, Unsubscribe from Anxiety, students are taught to imagine themselves as detached, objective scientists in a laboratory. You’re wearing a white lab coat and you’re about to conduct an academic study of this subject of yours called ‘Emotion.’ There’s a big blob of it sitting on your laboratory bench and you’re going to measure it, probe it, take its temperature, weigh it and learn everything there is to know about this mysterious creature.
Only then will you be able to decide what you want to do with it.
A good first step on the way to emotional self-knowledge is to take inventory. What are the actual emotions that we’re experiencing? On the one hand, it’s useful (if a little too easy) to simply divide emotions into two groups – ones that feel good and ones that feel bad. But we want to get a little more fine-grained than that.
In the wonderful book, ‘Ask and It is Given,’ by Abraham Hicks, there’s a useful ‘emotional scale’ that lists 22 of our most common emotions in sequence from our highest feelings to our lowest.
The further up the scale your emotion, the more that feeling can serve you. For example, if you’re feeling discouraged and angry, you’re less in control than if you’re feeling frustrated and impatient. Impatience can lead to action, which can lead to hope, positive expectation and eventually empowerment.
But even anger is a more positive and proactive feeling than insecurity or fear. Anger contains an energy that can be channeled into decisive action.
By knowing where our current emotions are on the scale, we can begin to make decisions about where we’d like to go from there. You might be feeling overwhelmed in these days of isolation and uncertainty. But when you decide to upgrade your emotion from overwhelment to impatience, things start to happen.
The truth is that you CAN decide which emotion you’d prefer to feel and then launch that one.
One of my favorite characters in the iconic Rob Reiner film, The Princess Bride, is Miracle Max, played by the great Billy Crystal. When he’s presented with the apparently dead body of our hero Westley, he says, “It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.”
And so it is with our emotions. There’s a big difference between feeling worried about the situation and feeling completely powerless. And there’s never a point in your emotional life when you’re “all dead.” No matter how much like crap you feel, no matter how frightened or threatened, you’re still slightly alive. You can step back, put on the white lab coat, and decide to move – just one step – up the emotional scale.
In these days of pandemic-induced anxiety there’s a real benefit to being precise when referring to the various flavors of fear that we’re all coping with. That kind of detached, almost scientific accuracy helps us step back from our emotions and our fears, see them objectively and deal with them in healthy and constructive ways.