This article first appeared on Happify.com
Sometimes it’s not easy being nice. Say your partner spills coffee on your brand new couch. You might lash out in anger, only to realize later that your reaction was somewhat overblown. At the time, though, you knew there was nothing you could do to rein yourself in.
But wait a second! What if a new acquaintance had spilled the coffee? Would your reaction have been the same? Perhaps you do have the ability to put brakes on an instinctive reaction, and it lies in the prefrontal cortex, the newest addition to a human brain that’s evolved over millennia. And in its magical quarters lies the ability to grow and nurture compassion.
Training our emotions means shifting an extreme emotion (that often leads to self-defeating behaviors) to one that allows us to approach a situation with the intended goal in mind.
So what’s the formula for doing so?
As you feel the rush of a negative emotion building up, develop awareness around it. Can you name it? Where do you feel it? Is it taking over your mind? This creates the distance you need to manage it. The Dalai Lama calls this “emotional hygiene,” or the ability to handle difficult emotions without being hijacked by them. Thinking of an opposite emotion reminds us that we don’t have to go with the action tendency of the emotion and that we do have a choice to act in a totally different manner. What could the best response be in this situation?
Once you’re in a calmer frame of mind, you’ve already allowed the slower neural networks of the prefrontal cortex to kick in. An essential feature of this region is cognitive empathy—the ability to enter another person’s world and imagine what it’s like to live it through their hopes and fears, beliefs and experiences. Did they mean to cause you harm? How would they be feeling in this moment? What’s more, a gentler reaction will make them eager to help you, because humans are wired to reciprocate, and a kind action begets kindness from others.
Now that your prefrontal cortex is running the show, you’re in a position to harness its powers. Research shows that when we’re not in the throes of an emotional response, we move from a space of vicious self-defeating cycles to one where we’re able to think clearly and creatively. We’re able to brainstorm all the possible ways of approaching the situation and choose whether to approach it and address it or to accept it and let it go.
Perhaps you’re feeling uneasy that this calmer, more compassionate response will feel inauthentic to you. Perhaps you’ve gotten used to reacting emotionally and begun to feel that it’s who you really are. Worry not! Acting with restraint and compassion is what’s most human about us. It can feel fake in the beginning because it takes conscious effort. But as author and leadership expert Peter Bregman says “Learning will always feel inauthentic”. Until you master the art.
To help you do so, use your body. Harvard researcher Amy Cuddy’s work on “power posing” shows how your body posture influences your brain. Swinging your arms and clenching your teeth will further confirm your beliefs that you’re in terrifying territory. Instead, keep your arms under control, lower your shoulders and smile. Now try yelling—not that easy, is it?!
Our understanding of neuroplasticity shows that our brains are far more malleable than we once thought. Training our emotions builds neural connections that not only change the very structure of our brains, they also makes us calmer, creative and connected. Now that’s well worth the effort!