Remaining Calm in the Storm: Exercising Emotional Self-Control
Yesterday I arrived home from my office at 6:30 and noticed the back door was slightly ajar. Sometimes I don’t close it quite firmly enough, so I thought that had been the case then. Next I noticed a window at the front of the house was open. Not until I got upstairs and saw the clothes strewn on the floor of my bedroom did it occur to me that I’d been robbed. It turned out that over $3000 worth of stuff had been stolen, including my desktop computer, my iPad, 2 cameras, and a gold coin worth about $400. Plus, there were hundreds of photos stored on the desktop that were now lost – the past 6 years worth.
It’s now been more than 36 hours since the discovery and for the entire time I have felt peaceful, calm, and actually slightly upbeat. Today I want to share with you five of the tools / techniques I employed to get to that place, and avoid the drama, the regret, the self-blame, and the sense of loss and violation that might have been expected.
The very first technique I employed was:
Situation & Self Awareness
Most people I know, whether clients or friends, tend to react to negative developments in a very passive manner, i.e. they are at the effect of circumstances, directed by the emotional state that arises when adversity strikes. Of course emotions arise, but that doesn’t mean that one has to be run by them. I try to use negative emotional states as a cue to step outside of myself, as it were, recognizing that I do have the ability to react in my preferred manner if I’ve worked at it. Repeat: I DO HAVE THE ABILITY TO REACT IN MY PREFERRED MANNER. So when I discovered the robbery I almost immediately realized that here was a situation over which I could exercise a great deal of control if I put my mind to it. I called to mind the Serenity Prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change……” As Byron Katie, an exceptionally enlightened spiritual teacher says: “Arguing with reality (i.e. wishing it were different than it is) is a recipe for unhappiness 100% of the time”.
Setting an Intention
I strive for equanimity in the face of adversity…and yesterday I decided I would intentionally and firmly set a goal of being peaceful despite the upsetting nature of what happened.
I embarked on a series of techniques that I have assembled over the years of practicing emotional control:
Thinking About What’s Good About The Situation
What could possibly be good about being robbed? For me it was the opportunity to practice determining how I could feel in the face of very negative external circumstances. Here was a kind of acid test, which if I could “pass” would demonstrate a power to deflect negativity even in dire circumstances. What power that would be!
Related to the above, in what ways could I be grateful for the way things transpired? Well, I might have interrupted the robbers in the act, which might have involved the possibility of physical danger. They might have stolen even more than they did (for some reason they left three gold coins behind, undoubtedly not realizing their worth). Stretching even further, the loss of the photos is in some sense a loss of the past – but that loss again emphasizes the power of the mind: I don’t need physical reminders of past events to relive them. I can rely on memories residing in my mind.
Avoiding The Temptation to Look for Sympathy
When adversity finds us it can be very comforting to reach out to family, friends, and beloved ones for sympathy. It feels good at the time we do it, but by telling our tale of woe over and over again it’s hard to avoid internalizing feelings of sorrow. I called my brother right after the discovery, and have subsequently told a handful of friends without describing the situation in terms that will elicit “poor you” responses – I present myself as I feel I am, quite capable of handling this incident calmly and maturely.
It’s a natural human tendency to attribute meaning to events, and judge them as positive or negative, and then to project the impact that those events are likely to have. But in truth we don’t really know what anything means, nor what implications it may have for the future. I was reminded of this quite vividly while playing electronic solitaire bike riding at the gym yesterday: what might appear to be a very favorable positioning of the cards could turn out to lead nowhere, whereas a complete “bust” on the opening hand (not able to place any cards atop any others) could nonetheless wind up with placement of all 52 in the correct order.
More to the point, what may seem a tragedy in the present moment may turn out to open the door to a huge future blessing. I’ve experienced a few devastating events in my life: the loss of a mate, serious physical injury, a premature heart attack. They have in combination turned out to have paved the way for enormous spiritual and cognitive growth providing me with a sense of contentment with life 95+% of the time. They also paved the way for a switch from a materialistic and primarily self-serving profession (advertising) to a profession in which I am able to make significant, measurable contributions to the lives of others.
Please note that the techniques listed above won’t work without quite a bit of preparatory work – reflecting on the ways in which the techniques aren’t just gimmicks, but represent valid ways of examining, observing, and experiencing phenomena.
Do I wish the robbery hadn’t happened? Of course. I am investing quite a deal of time and money in repairing the damage wrought. But it DID happen, and the best I can do is find a way to live with what happened, employing ways to remain calm in the storm.