As I begin to look at the upcoming holiday season, I can’t help but think about the horrors I have seen in Paris in the last few days. I start to be excited about joyful gatherings with people I love, and then tears come to my eyes as I think about the indescribable feelings of loss that families of victims, those who love Paris and all who value justice are experiencing.
I think about my visit to Paris next month and wonder how the horrific events of the last few days will change my favorite city. I think about the sadness of others and feel slightly guilty that I am so fortunate.
How is it possible to reconcile conflicting emotions such as these? How do individuals cope with emotional opposites, and how do leaders lead effectively in light of their opposing simultaneous feelings and those of others?
I have no easy answers. Each person supplies his or her own solutions.
However, I hope my perspective will generate thought and additional discussion.
I look first at the phenomenon of conflicting emotions. How do we experience them?
In two articles, Leon Seltzer explores the physical and mental components of conflicting emotions as he asks: Can You Feel Two Emotions at Once? And Can Your Body Express Multiple Emotions Simultaneously?
From these articles and my own experience, I conclude that conflicting emotions present themselves alternately in short episodes similar to how we experience optical illusions. They are not dominant at the same time, but both are mentally and physically available.
And, to the central question, how do we function when opposing emotions hold sway over us?
Different emotions produce different actions. As we recognize that the word emotion is derived from “to move” or “to set in motion,” what will conflicting emotions lead us to do?
CLARIFY WORLD VIEW
As with most perplexing issues, I believe the key to dealing with conflicting emotions and emotions in general is having a firm understanding of what is important in our own lives and continuing to move in that direction.
Having a clear view of mission and values guides decisions and allows greater control of mental and physical behavior. A strong mission overcomes confusion and hardship and leads to greater life satisfaction.
In addition, having personal traits or character strengths to deal with complexity and difficulty eases the process.
Recently, I ran across the findings of Park, Peterson and Seligman (2004) who looked at character strengths most closely related to life satisfaction. I believe their findings are relevant to this discussion.
They found that hope, zest, gratitude, curiosity and love had the strongest correlation to life satisfaction. Their list of 24 character strengths were divided into six categories: wisdom and knowledge, courage, temperance, justice, love and transcendence.
The qualities of transcendence, which include gratitude, hope/optimism, appreciation of beauty, playfulness/humor and spirituality seem to have the greatest potential to surmount emotional conflicts.
I contend that these character strengths can be cultivated and strengthened. For individuals looking for clues to conquering emotional challenges, efforts to build on these strengths offer significant benefits.
NAVIGATE PERSONAL EMOTIONS
In dealing with emotional conflict, recognizing and acknowledging emotions allows us to deal with them effectively. Wisdom, one of the 24 Character Strengths, lies in recognizing disparities in emotions and taking actions that allow for the highest and best functioning.
Many like to use the term “managing emotions.” I prefer the term Daniel Newby used when he reviewed my book before publication. He said we “navigate” emotions. In his lexicon, emotions come to us unbidden and we choose which directions we will go from there.
Navigating emotions requires that we remain centered—being fully aware of what we are experiencing and paying attention to the feelings of others.
Navigating emotions involves internal conversations around the question: What can I realistically do? The answers lie in a review of mission, values and skills mentioned previously.
In addition, navigating emotions involves making choices as to which emotions will receive top billing. Individuals who cultivate gratitude and hope experience corresponding emotions and find more fulfilling solutions when faced with complicated decisions.
Reflecting on good things that happen each day, making a choice to savor positive experiences and explicitly demonstrating gratitude to other people enhances positive emotions and helps to keep unproductive emotions at bay.
All emotions are valuable. They help us recognize loss (sadness) or possible threats to ourselves or someone we care about (fear or anger). They verify hard work (pride) or tell us when we have done something wrong (guilt). Our dilemma is deciding where to spend time and energy and how to act on these emotions.
Before I heard about the events in Paris, I listened to a clip from an interview with Army Capt. Florent Groberg, who received the Medal of Honor for tackling a suicide bomber and saving the lives of many in his patrol.
As many who survive when others die, he said: “Now we have to live our lives to the best of our abilities because I know I have to live for four individuals and I represent them and represent their families. “
I believe the ultimate choice is to live life to honor those who did not survive or make a difference for those who are less fortunate.
MANAGE EMOTIONAL CLIMATE
In my work, I focus on the emotional side of leadership.
In addition to successfully navigating personal emotions, effective leaders recognize and validate the emotions of other people. They create an emotionally healthy climate.
They verbalize and accept conflicting emotions and they encourage others to experience gratitude and hope. They offer opportunities to take productive action, and they support the efforts of people around them as they attempt to live the most satisfying lives possible.
As we enter the holiday season, what will be our focus? What can we realistically do? How can we most effectively deal with the issues that we face?
- Park, N., Peterson, C., and Seligman, M. (2004) Strengths of Character and Well-Being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. Vol. 23, No. 5, 2004, pp. 603-619.
- Seltzer, L. (2014) Can You Feel Two Emotions at Once? Psychology Today.
- Seltzer, L. (2014) Can Your Body Express Multiple Emotions Simultaneously? Psychology Today.
- Van Susteren, G. (2015) Uncut: Medal of Honor recipient Florent Groberg. Fox News.
- VIA Institute on Character, (2004-2015) Do You Know Your 24 Character Strengths?
Photograph: Lyn Boyer, Paris, 2012.