Increasing Your Emotional Resilience
In all of my study of leadership, one discipline is consistent among seasoned leaders—they don’t allow momentary feelings to dictate their behavior or drive their decisions. All great leaders have or will come to a point in their journey when they realize that emotions can either be a bondage or they can be a tool. You will either be a slave to your feelings and allow them to control you, or you will master them and learn to leverage them intelligently. I hope you choose the latter.
I say "choose" because I’m convinced this is not something we’re born with but something we fine-tune about ourselves with intentionality. I see the mastery of emotion a lot like a skilled photographer. Photographers have settings on the tools they use to control how much light to let in when taking a photo. If they allowed the environment alone to determine this exposure rather than adjusting those settings deliberately, they likely wouldn't end up with the results they ultimately want. So, they temper the amount of light based on their subject, their surroundings, and the sort of feeling they want to convey through the photo. This is what makes them respected masters of their craft.
Handling our emotions as leaders is no different. We have tools we can leverage that help us navigate relationships, moderate emotions, calculate responses, and alter tendencies as if it were a precise science because, well . . . it actually is.
I won’t get too geeky on you, but here’s why the science is important. It teaches us that there’s no excuse. It proves to us that we all start at the same square one with the same opportunities to improve our emotional postures.
Feelings do not have to be our dictators and here’s why. There is a primitive region of our brain that fires off signals of distress and negative emotion called the amygdala. It is particularly active when we feel anxious, afraid, or threatened.1 It is also not contextually aware, so its fight-or-flight nature will get triggered whether we're anxious about a big presentation or whether we're actually in fear for our life. It stores these emotional memories and constantly scans past experiences to see if we’ve dealt with comparable feelings before. If it finds something even remotely similar, it deems it a “match” and prompts us to react even before it’s fully done processing. This circuitry is notoriously careless for this reason.2
Thankfully, our brains have more sophisticated functions that help us process these emotions, assess threat levels more accurately based on context, and intentionally inhibit emotional signals not suitable for the situation.
Enter the prefrontal cortex. The left hemisphere, in particular, deals with language, logic, and problem-solving and has been known to be the primary facilitator of positive emotion.3 Its activity also fires off signals that talk back to the amygdala to keep it in check. There is literally white matter that connects like a bridge between your amygdala and your prefrontal cortex that these signals run up and down on. The more sparse the white matter, the longer the amygdala stays active and goes unchecked. The more dense the white matter, the faster the signals get to the amygdala, quiet it down, and we bounce back from upsets.4,5
How fascinating is it that our resilience is actually measurable? And here’s even better news, this white matter can be increased and the connection strengthened by consistently engaging our positive reasoning center to pump the brakes on our amygdala when it’s in overdrive.6
So, how do we get our prefrontal cortex off the sidelines and into the game more? We practice! We train ourselves to become more resilient. Resilience means we have the power or ability to return to our “original form”. This means our responses don’t reflect off of every fly-by feeling. They look for the underlying substance of who we are—our core convictions—to fall back on. The clearer the conviction, the more reliable the response.
If someone rubs me the wrong way, I am not a slave to reacting with hostility or irritation. I have a core conviction of kindness and that’s where I live my life from. Easy decision. And guess what? Every time I make that decision, I strengthen that bridge in my brain with a little more white matter. I lower the threshold for finding that response a little bit faster the next time. Over time, my emotional reflexes mature and leveraging them intelligently becomes second nature to me.
This is resilience and great leaders learn how to sharpen it. What do you need to do or adjust about yourself to increase your resilience?
- "The amygdala is involved in negative emotion and distress, snapping to attention and activity when we feel anxious, afraid, or threatened.” Davidson, Richard J. The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live-and How You Can Change Them (p. 69). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
- Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (p. 21). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
- "The 1982 discovery [found] that greater activity in the left prefrontal cortex underlies positive emotions, while greater activity in the right prefrontal cortex is associated with negative emotions…” Davidson, Richard J. The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live-and How You Ca n Change Them (p. 81). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
- "By damping down the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex is able to quiet signals associated with negative emotions, enabling the brain to plan and act effectively without being distracted by negative emotion.” Davidson, Richard J. The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live-and How You Can Change Them (p. 72). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
- "Thanks to MRI we now know that the more white matter (axons that connect one neuron to another) lying between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, the more resilient you are. The less white matter—the fewer the highways leading from the prefrontal to the amygdala—the less resilient.” Davidson, Richard J. The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live-and How You Can Change Them (p. 72). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
- “...we now know that the brain is fully able to increase connections between regions…” Davidson, Richard J. The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live-and How You Can Change Them (p. 72). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.