Emotional Self-Management: 16 Tips to Develop It

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Emotional Intelligence 2.0" by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is emotional self-management? What can you do to improve your ability to manage difficult emotions and stay calm in stressful situations?

Emotional self-management is the ability to use your self-awareness to manage your emotions and stay in control of your behavior. People with high levels of emotional self-management are able to stay composed and poised even in stressful situations.

Keep reading for 16 tips for improving your emotional self-management.

What Is Emotional Self-Management?

Emotional self-management is one of the core skills of emotional intelligence. It refers to your ability to keep your disruptive emotions in check and prevent them from spilling over into your behavior.

People with high-levels of emotional self-management:

  • Control reactive behavior
  • Do not allow their emotions to dictate their decisions
  • Find peace with uncertainty
  • Navigate complex situations patiently
  • See projects through to the end regardless of frustration
  • Focus on long-term development

16 Tips for Developing It

Here are 16 tips to help you with developing your emotional self-management.

Tip #1: Focus on your breath. Your brain requires oxygen to function properly. Especially when stressed, people don’t breathe deeply enough throughout their day, robbing the brain of valuable oxygen. When the brain lacks oxygen, it prioritizes basic needs (such as touch or sight) over complex processes (such as thought or emotion). When you take deep breaths, your rational brain engages and your body calms down. To breathe properly:

  • Breathe in through your nose and send the breath to your stomach
  • Inhale until you feel your stomach swell and begin to tighten
  • Exhale until you completely empty your lungs

Tip #2: Count to ten. When you feel yourself getting frustrated, breathe and count to ten. This gives your body a chance to calm down and your brain a moment to develop a rational outlook on the situation. Without this moment to calm down, emotions often dictate your behavior, leading to biting remarks that can incite arguments. In these scenarios, no one thinks rationally or works effectively. 

In situations where you can’t reasonably stay silent for ten seconds straight (a one-on-one meeting or discussion), find subtle ways to give yourself a moment to breathe. For example, you could bring a beverage to the meeting. When you feel emotions begin to rise, drink your beverage and begin to count. Taking a moment or two to collect your thoughts allows you to more effectively assess your surroundings and lets you think before you speak.

Tip #3: Take time before you respond. Patience is a key factor to staying in control of your emotions and making rational decisions. If you respond to emotionally charged situations too quickly, emotions become the driving force behind your words, and, often, lead you to say or do things that don’t align with your intentions. Step away from the situation for a while before responding, ideally a day or longer. This gives you a clearer perspective on the situation, allowing you to make logical choices instead of emotional ones.

Tip #4: Stay in control of your body language. When you manage your emotions, your body language will remain calm and collected, reflecting your control of the situation. When your emotions begin to take the reins, you lose control over your body language. When you find yourself beginning to lose control, turn your focus away from your emotional state and towards the task at hand. 

If you notice that you think you’re feeling one way, but your body is indicating a different emotion, take a moment to investigate why your body is reacting the way that it is. Is something in your surroundings stressing you out? Did someone enter the room that you can’t stand? Once you understand why your body is reacting the way that it is, you can better align your emotions with your body language.

For instance, you’re giving a speech, and the teleprompter turns off mid-way through your address. You begin to panic:

If you’re in control of your emotions, you may take a deep breath, think about the topic you’re discussing, and continue on as if nothing has happened. You stay in control of your body and finish the speech.

If your emotions begin to overwhelm you, you may begin to stutter and your knees may begin to shake. If you can’t manage the emerging panic, it may disrupt the rest of your speech as you lose control of your body and ability to think clearly.

Tip #5: Develop a reason vs. emotion list. People often struggle to make decisions when their emotional brain and their rational brain tell them to do different things. When emotion sways your decision-making process, your feelings may cloud your judgment. At the same time, emotions often indicate important things about your surroundings that your rational brain may try to ignore. 

To make decisions clearer, make a two-column list. On one side, list what your emotional brain wants you to do, and, on the other, list what your rational brain wants you to do. Once you complete your list, compare the two sides and ask yourself two questions:

  • Where is emotion warping my perspective?
  • Where is rationality ignoring key information from my emotions?

Tip #6: Dedicate time to problem-solving. Life gets busy, and it’s challenging to find time in a full schedule to think through decisions before making them. To remedy this, schedule 15 minutes a day to walk away from your work and problem-solve particular issues. This will help you to make clearer choices and ensure that your feelings aren’t swaying your decision-making process.

Tip #7: Laugh and smile. The act of laughing and smiling sends signals to your brain that say, “I am happy.” Even if you’re frustrated, smiling will help counteract negative feelings and allow you to get through the moment. Also, when you’re feeling down, find material that you find enjoyable or funny. Listening to a song, watching a funny movie, or reading an enjoyable book help alleviate negative emotions. 

Tip #8: Schedule time to exercise. Exercise increases blood flow and overall fitness. It releases chemicals into your brain that help recharge your mental battery and strengthen areas of your brain that correlate to decision-making, rationality, and organization. When you overload your schedule, you often leave yourself no time to get exercise. 

To help with this issue, schedule specific time to commit to some form of physical activity and stick to it. Ideally, these activities should be active and vigorous, but any form of exercise will yield results. These activities can include:

  • Working out
  • Walking
  • Yoga
  • Cycling
  • Recreational sports
  • Yard work

Tip #9: Sleep better. Most people do not sleep effectively, denying their brain a full recharge. Self-management requires focus, energy, and clarity—all of which rely on the brain working as efficiently as possible. To ensure you’re getting restful sleep:

  • Get out in the sun before noon. Twenty minutes of pre-noon sunlight helps reset your internal clock, making it easier to fall asleep at night. This light must be direct sunlight (not filtered through windows or blinds).
  • Shut down electronics two hours before you go to bed. The light of electronics tricks your brain into thinking it’s earlier than it actually is, making it harder to fall asleep.
  • Only use your bed for sleeping. This helps your brain know that it’s time to rest when you climb into bed.
  • Don’t drink caffeinated beverages, especially at night. Caffeine’s half-life is six hours. That means your morning cup remains in your system through bedtime. Avoid it if possible. If not, only consume it in small amounts in the morning.

Tip #10: Talk with a third party. When you’re in the midst of a challenging situation, it’s hard to see the bigger picture. Get an unbiased outside perspective to help you keep things objective and rational as you decipher your emotions and determine the best route forward. When possible, get advice from a skilled self-manager. Ask them about the methods they use to handle their emotions, then try to implement some of their suggestions into your day-to-day life.

Tip #11: Publicize your goals. Working towards goals can be stressful. This stress often makes people abandon their objectives before they achieve them, especially when no one knows about them. When creating goals for yourself, share them and ask other people to hold you accountable. This gives you a support system to motivate you when faced with emotional obstacles that make you want to quit.

For example, you’re trying to start a diet, but you had a stressful day and don’t want to cook. Ordering a pizza is tempting. If no one holds you accountable, there’s a good chance you’ll dial your local pizza joint. However, if someone at home knows about your diet, they can help keep you from making choices that disrupt your current goals.

Tip #12: Learn from everyone. You can learn something from every encounter—even if the encounter is negative. In every situation, you can learn something about how your emotions work and what causes certain feelings to arise.

For instance, you just finished a major project that you’ve been working on for weeks. You show it to your supervisor who looks at it and immediately begins to tear it apart, finding every flaw you missed. You get overwhelmed as they continue to list issues. While the interaction may be frustrating, it also comes with an opportunity to investigate why you get defensive when given feedback:

Is it an issue with the person giving the feedback? 

Is it the way in which they gave you the feedback? 

Is it because you poured a lot of effort into the project? 

These questions will help you discover the reasoning behind your emotions and give you the information necessary to manage those feelings.

Tip #13: Keep your “self-talk” positive. “Self-talk” is your inner voice and has a major impact on your emotional state. You talk to yourself every day: praising yourself for accomplishing tasks, admonishing yourself for making mistakes, and so on. If you keep your self-talk positive, it can get you through challenges and help support you throughout your day. However, if you let your self-talk become negative, it can ruin a good mood and quickly make your day miserable. To avoid negativity and take control of your self-talk:

  • Avoid statements such as “I always” or “I never.” Every situation is unique and requires a distinctive approach.
  • Make factual statements instead of judgments. If an error occurs, admit it, but don’t turn it into a label about yourself or your capabilities. For example, rather than saying “I’m stupid,” try “I made a mistake this time.” 
  • Don’t play the blame game. Take responsibility for your own actions, but hold others accountable for theirs. If you blame everything on someone else, you’re not claiming responsibility for your mistakes. Similarly, if you blame yourself for everything, you’re taking on responsibility for things you had no control over.

Tip #14: Focus on your freedom, not your limitation. Focusing on what you can’t do creates a feeling of helplessness that produces negative emotions. Conversely, focusing on what you can do or control allows you to remain calm and collected regardless of the situation. 

For example, you just found out that your boss has put you onto a team with someone you can’t stand named Becky. You know that you cannot get yourself or Becky off the team. If you focus upon your restriction (you have no control over the composition of the team), you may quickly grow resentful or anxious. However, if you try to focus on what you can control (emotional preparation for dealing with Becky, physical preparation for the project itself, and so on), you notice that you have more power than you thought and come into the project collected and ready to work.

Tip #15: Visualize self-management. Your brain has a hard time distinguishing between what your eyes actually see and what you visualize in your brain. When you visualize scenarios in which you successfully manage your emotions, new neural pathways develop in the same way that they would if the scenario were actually playing out in reality. This allows you to practice different management strategies, even when the opportunities may not arise frequently. When visualizing:

  • Find a space that’s free from distractions as this task requires a lot of focus.
  • Be as detailed as possible. Think about the reason for the scenario, the person to whom you’re speaking, what you’re speaking about, and so on.
  • Imagine acting in the way that you would want to in that situation. Picture yourself managing your emotions to create a positive and effective outcome.

Tip #16: Be prepared for change. While you cannot always control when or how things change, you can emotionally prepare for change. This anticipation will keep you from falling prey to sudden emotions such as surprise, fear, or disappointment. Take a few minutes each week to contemplate potential upcoming changes and how you could handle each of those situations should they arise.

Emotional Self-Management: 16 Tips to Develop It

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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