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  • By Germana Barba

Are We Using Our Brain to Its Fullest Capacity?

It’s time to prioritize our emotional education

During my schooling years, and even later while at university, my intellect was my loyal shield. I used to take pride in the fact that I could not be easily moved, that I did not cry at movies or even at funerals, and that I rarely got angry at someone. I thought I was not emotional at all, and anyone telling me otherwise would have made me feel insulted.

To me, being overwhelmed by emotions meant to be weak. I used my sharp rational tongue to feel respected and win others over. Obviously, nobody needed to know about my pronounced “Sunday blues”, which were directly related to starting another week where the whole pantomime would be put on stage again. I also used to experience very “positive” feelings that I was equally unprepared to manage: intense joy after hearing good news, enthusiasm for an idea or a book, ecstatic paralysis in front of a piece of art, or a deep sense of similarity towards another human being.

As adults, we learn that the “Sunday blues” we feel in anticipation of job workload or just the expectation of work are a normal fact of life. We also understand that the feeling gets worse if we keep fretting over it since cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, gets released in times of stress. That, in turn, keeps us revved up and on constant high alert since we’re essentially in “fight or flight” mode. Thus, we learn that in order to counter it, we can do things that boost endorphins such as exercise or reading a stimulating book. I have my own little tricks, of course, the most recent one being Kardia, an application that makes me breathe very slowly for 5 minutes. Similar to meditation, deep breathing helps to concentrate on the negative emotion you are feeling so that it can be immediately dealt with and dissipated.

We experience emotions every day throughout the course of our lives and learn how to deal with them in one way or another. If we feel that we can’t make it alone, we go through psychotherapy or read self-help books. Rarely do we just pause and process our negative emotions. We definitely did not do so when we were younger. But what if someone had taught us how to manage our fears, frustrations, and sadness? Psychologists call this Emotional Regulation, and, as far as I can tell, it may very be the most essential skill of our lives.

How much is “rational”, anyway?

If the imminence of Monday can immediately throw us into a bad mood, what about a major life difficulty or the outburst of an unprecedented pandemic? What then?

Since the outset of the COVID crisis, I’ve devoured countless news reports, data and statistics, and opinions from scientists and policymakers. But if I were to single out what was perhaps the most useful read, it would be this Harvard Business Review article titled “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief”. The article puts forth that the loss of normalcy, loss of connection, and fear of the future are normal (and, in fact, inevitable) emotions to feel during times like these. It’s not that some of the brutal consequences of the pandemic can be dealt with by some consolatory arguments. It was about finally hearing an attempt to rationalize the irrational. No matter what specific personal consequences one may have experienced because of the virus, we all ought to experience the feelings related to a moment when the world irreversibly changed.

The role that emotions play in our life cannot be overstated. Daily insurgences of anger, anxiety, frustration, and envy populate our reactions to the world around us and towards others. Feelings of inadequacy, injustice, abandonment, betrayal and so on can influence our work performance, love relationships, parental attitudes, and the quality of our social life.

Very few people are truly open about their emotions and even fewer understand how much they are influenced by them. The history of our societies is one of officially celebrating reason, academic achievements, and objective judgment while secretly and continuously practicing the exact opposite. The failure to recognize emotions as a primary driver of people’s behavior means that emotions are always behind the curtains and never on stage. Nobody is entitled to cry during a meeting and expect that that behavior is an accepted replacement for making an argumentation, but yet some of the most followed modern political doctrines directly appeal to people’s fears and impulses. Isn’t it time to finally treat emotions seriously?

The emotional leader must become the emotional layman

Twenty-five years after the publication of David Goleman’s seminal book Emotional Intelligence, this dimension has found its way into virtually every management and leadership book, training course, and assessment. The modern leader is supposed to be attentive to emotions, actively listening, be open about him/herself and communicate in a manner that speaks to the heart, and not just to the mind. Traditional over-confidence as the trait of a leader is leaving the place to more nuanced styles where the true leaders are those capable of crying or at least displaying their weaknesses and failures. But much of this is still achieved through coaching in the adult age and within few, progressive organizations that can afford to and are willing to invest on this type of development.

If people with low social and emotional skills are much more likely to become unemployed than those with low cognitive skills, as this 2018 OECD report shows, emotional education is urgently needed. But the opportunity available here is much bigger than that. Developing emotional skills means knowing oneself much better, governing oneself, and ultimately living a much more coherent life compared to constantly hiding and faking. To stop acting like perfect bosses, and perfect subordinates is the first step of creating authentic relationships in the workplace. There, people can live according to their values, stay true to themselves, and give their best contribution to the causes they work for. Furthermore, emotional expressions are key to feeling empathy and to create connections, which are vital dimensions in our current time.

In sum, as the behavioral economist and book author Eyal Winter writes: there is logic in emotion and often emotion in logic. Intellect and emotion are two exclusive yet complementary dimensions that work together and sustain each other.

It’s rational to be emotional

Doing something about our emotions, particularly the negative ones, would require acknowledging their existence and knowing what to do about them. Unfortunately, we are not taught how to identify and manage our emotions. Instead, most of us are left figuring out ways to navigate through them on our own. That is the case despite the growing awareness of the role emotional skills play in the success of people’s professional endeavors.

Emotional skills should rank as high in importance within education as math, reading, history and science. After all, the world is not getting any simpler and we as human beings need every tool available to thrive in it. And if we absolutely have to memorize the quadratic equation, why not learn how to manage our anger too?

Disclaimer: I still have a certain tendency to control my emotions, but I now occasionally cry if the movie is really good… and I’m proud of it!



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