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The One Leadership Concept In Life To Master Unpleasant Experiences

Written by: Marc de Bruin, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


When I undertook training in the mindfulness school of thought years ago, I learned one life and mindful principle that I turned into a leadership principle for myself and my clients. It is this one: no one can make you feel anything; only you can. Or, to put it differently: no one is responsible for your feelings; only you are. I realise that’s quite a statement, even from a mindfulness perspective. We all are subjected to (sometimes very) unpleasant experiences in our personal and professional lives. And we automatically tend to look to external causes for the way we feel rather than (first) taking full responsibility for our feelings.

We think we feel bad because we have been mistreated by people in authority; we may think that someone or something else is to blame for our feelings; we may point fingers at the government, the economy, climate change, dictators, bad luck, or whatever else, and claim that those are the cause of our current emotional state. In corporate settings, we may point at workplace culture, hierarchical structures, the industry standards we work under, or blame staff morale, staff personalities, workload, or other pressures for our strong emotions.

In all cases, when we do this, we give the power to make us feel anything to external factors. We seem to become a ‘victim of circumstance(s)’, which feels quite disempowering.

Here’s a seemingly odd question from a mindfulness and counselling perspective, though: how do you actually KNOW you are experiencing feelings like sadness, excitement, anger, happiness, etc.? How come you know that THAT is what you are feeling?

Many, less emotionally aware people would describe their emotions in terms of behaviour: I slam a door; I stomp my feet; I make a fist; I jump up and down; I punch in the air; I cry; I laugh; I scream. More important is, though, that we feel sensations in our bodies: we get hot; our faces go red; we start to shake; our heart rate goes up; our breathing speeds up and becomes shallow; our stomach churns; our muscles get tight; we feel heavy in the shoulders; we feel an electric shock go through us, etc., etc. This is crucial: sensations in our bodies are a very important part of our emotional apparatus. In fact, a common realisation in counselling and psychological circles has been for some time that without sensations in our bodies, we could not feel any emotion. That’s why I call them ‘e-motions’; energies in motion!

More modern neuroscience approaches agree that body sensations are paramount to feeling emotions; we react more to the body sensations than we do to the situation at hand, it seems. Obviously, our thoughts are another important element in this mix. Body sensations ‘co-emerge’ with thoughts we attach value or importance to. In fact, the more important the thoughts we are thinking are to us, the stronger you will experience body sensations. Simple example: the thought “it is 20 degrees Celsius today” will probably not create strong body sensations. The thought “I’m going to get fired” will most likely produce very strong sensations in your body!

Why is knowing all this so important? Well, without going into too many details -this will be a whole article in itself- the long and the short of it is that we are the first recipients of what our brains and bodies think and feel about what we are facing. Our “initial emotional input” has very little to do with what is being done or said per se, more with how it is being processed in our brains and bodies. If we like what we think and feel, our first instincts are to respond favourably. If we don’t like what we think and feel, our first reaction is to respond unfavourably. In effect, we are a closed-loop system when it comes to our emotions and feelings. Unless we are being touched, NOTHING and NO-ONE can make us 'feel’ anything; feeling takes place inside our brain and body first and foremost; as said: it’s a closed-loop system. This system has been trained to interpret things in a particular way, influenced by our culture, our parents, our peers, our personal experiences, our education, our mentors etc., etc. It is already ‘pre-programmed’ through nature and nurture elements to guide our initial responses.

So here you are as a leader. You are in a tough conversation with a direct report who is not performing well and has to be let go of. This conversation had been coming for a while. Your heart rate is up; your temperature is up; you can feel the ‘buzz’ of adrenaline in your body; your hands are actually trembling a little. The employee has voiced his/her disagreement in strong words and with very hostile body language. This is not a fun conversation. Many people don’t like ‘confrontation’ and react to it immediately. What do you now do? Well, ideally, you remain ‒ outwardly ‒ calm and keep interacting with the staff member in a respectful yet determined way. That is a very deliberate, mindful leadership decision, where you choose to ACT calm even though you don’t FEEL calm. Many people in other circumstances regularly let their actions be dictated by their feelings. For instance: if someone is being hostile, you react back with similar hostility. You had a bad day; you down a bottle of wine. The workload stresses you out; you work more hours without a break and do more work at night, letting go of healthy coping strategies. Someone is angry at you; you fire back or run away. All examples of where feelings dictate the next step.

If you are able to maintain your cool, even though you feel quite ‘heightened’ on the inside, you are practicing a skill called ‘experiential ownership.’ You OWN your own experiences (thoughts, body sensations, action urges based on feelings), yet let your actions be decided by what is most functional and effective, not by what you ‘feel like’ doing or saying next.

Experiential ownership as a leader also means that you can leave other people’s emotional reactions with them. You don’t have to take them personally, even though they might be directed at you. Someone who has just been told by you that they’ve lost their job might very well NOT own their own experiences at that time. They may internally ‘feel like’ blaming you or letting their anger go at you and actually do so, without more deliberate decision-making preventing that. When this happens, remember your own experiential ownership: own what happens in your brain and body, and aim to remain composed. Realise what is happening to the other person, and choose compassion for their reaction (rather than reacting to their reaction!). That is experiential ownership in action. Owning your own experiences; disowning other people’s experiences.

Using experiential ownership, we can learn that we actually have a high degree of choice in leadership and other life situations. We may be attached to certain expectations that influence our feelings. We may have ideas about what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ ‘just’ and ‘unjust,’ ‘good’ and ‘bad’ that make us react negatively to certain events. We may have beliefs about how life ‘should be’ or how people should be treated (and treat us). Those factors could make us ‘feel’ all sorts of strong sensations in our system.

Now, don’t take this to an extreme. Obviously, there are plenty of events (certain crimes, trauma, assault, abuse, war, genocide, etc.) that would cause pretty much all of us to experience very negative emotions and feelings. Nevertheless, the basic principle remains: emotions and feelings are created INSIDE us, not by outside circumstances or people. This also provides a choice point: if my body-brain caused me to feel one way, I could learn to feel another way about this using that same body-brain. This could explain why some people feel totally devasted by traumatic events or other people’s actions, for instance, where other people seem to come out of similar events relatively ok or work through them effectively over time.

Start off by realising it’s your ideas, your thoughts, your beliefs and convictions that filter and interpret everything that happens and everything people say. This goes for both your position as a leader in your industry and in other areas of your life. You, therefore, also have the power -the experiential ownership- to choose your response to these events and people and don’t have to react instantly. Perhaps impatience or frustration IS the most functional response. Perhaps being upset is entirely justified. Nevertheless, build in that little ‘choice-point’ before you react. Own your experience; disown the other’s experience. Choose your response mindfully, based on what seems to be most effective or functional in that context; it may make a big difference in the end result.

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Marc de Bruin, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Marc is a Registered International Counsellor, Supervisor and Educator "with a twist". If you're looking for a run-of-the-mill mental health professional, feel free to contact one of his very capable colleagues. Marc looks at life through a different lens, with a transpersonal, even "spiritual" filter. Expect to discuss your life from a bigger perspective, while still being very practical (Marc is an ex-litigation lawyer, too, so very solution-focused); and expect to work from the inside out: YOU will change before your circumstances will. In order for things to change, you'll be the one to change some things. If that sounds like something you are up for, Marc is ready for you.



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