Have you ever had a deadline approaching, but instead of completing your work, you binged on some Netflix series for hours? Did you ever resolve to patch up with a friend after an argument but ignore them instead because you thought, "why should I be the one to call first?" Did you ever want to start a personal project you are rather passionate about but could never bring yourself to begin working on it out the fear of people's invalidation or possible judgments? In all these situations, you may experience a barrage of unpleasant emotions like frustration, panic, sadness, disappointment, hurt, anger, and regret, among others. These emotions, if unmanaged, can make things worse. So, what should we do then?
Having three fundamental principles in mind can help us identify, manage, and understand our emotions.
Principle #1. At any moment, we're trying to meet universal, all-inclusive needs (for example, needs like physical safety, emotional support, respect, peace, learning, contribution, etc.).
Principle #2. Our emotions hint whether those needs are met or unmet (for example, anger, disgust, joy, calmness, frustration, relief, etc.).
Principle #3. Everything we do with our actions (our body) is an attempt to meet our underlying needs (for example, talking, remaining silent, eating, running, etc.).
An understanding we can derive from these principles is that all actions, no matter what, or even inactions, are attempts to meet needs. Whether we fulfil those needs or not, we will know by the emotion we feel at any moment. For example, if we feel angry at ourselves for watching Netflix instead of completing work before an approaching deadline, we might feel frustrated, angry, or even panic-stricken. These emotions indicate that even though watching Netflix may have helped fulfil our needs for entertainment and refreshment, our needs for order, punctuality, and contribution are unfulfilled.
Most of the time, instead of addressing our feelings (especially when we experience unpleasant ones) and identifying the underlying needs behind those feelings, we either numb or act out, which are unhealthy mechanisms to deal with our emotions. Ranjitha Jeurkar, a Bangalore-based Nonviolent Communication Trainer, explains what we can do instead, with the help of an analogy, "When the lights [in your car dashboard] blink, you don't shut off the lights. It's a clue for you to look for something else in the car that needs your attention. For instance, if your fuel [indicator] is lit—that [tells] your tank is nearing empty, and your car needs more fuel. It's very similar [case] with our feelings. Instead of rushing to shut them down [especially unpleasant feelings], we can pause for a moment and try and look at what needs our feelings [tell] us about. The problem isn't our feelings. The feelings are indicators of something else [which] is working or not working within us [which are our needs]."
When we fail to see the relationship between our needs, emotions, and actions, what we do is often contrary to what we need. Let’s consider a few examples. We need clarity when learning something new, but we remain silent when the teacher/facilitator asks if we have a question. We want people to hear and understand us, but we shout at them to convey this. We want to build confidence but choose not to speak up in team discussions. We long for connection but refrain from reaching out first. We need rest, but we end up browsing through our social media feeds 2 hours into bedtime.
Do any of these examples click with you? Think of a recent time when you tried to meet one or more of your needs through a particular action. Did that action take you closer to attaining your need or away from it? Emotional Intelligence is being smarter with feelings. If we are aware of our needs, we give ourselves a better shot at meeting those needs. And a helpful way to meet those needs is to identify what those needs are. The first step toward that is to be aware of our feelings.
When we react blindly to our emotional states (by trying to chase pleasant emotions and run away from unpleasant ones), we might take hurtful actions instead of helpful ones. A simple framework to make sure we are not hurting our chances of meeting our needs is to think in terms of the ABC checkpoints, which are:
Avoiding- Are we avoiding taking responsibility to meet our needs?
Blaming- Are we blaming ourselves or others instead of working to meet our needs?
Complaining- Are we looking to justify ourselves rather than seeking a solution to our needs?
Avoiding, blaming and complaining are a few indicators of unmet needs but suboptimal strategies to meet those very needs. So, try to ask yourself often: How am I feeling? What needs are those feelings indicating? What action(s) would help?