Emotional Regulation is Critical for Entrepreneurship
Perhaps the most controversial assertion in the popular 2018 text The Courage to be Disliked is that “emotions are fabricated to help us reach our goals.”
Most people experience emotions automatically. As far as they’re concerned, emotions just come up in response to things, and they can’t help it.
Japanese authors Kishimi and Koga disagree. According to their presentation of Adlerian psychology, emotions are learned responses to our environment that help us achieve our goals. (And often, our goal is to manipulate other’s behavior so they will conform to our expectations of them or give us what we want).
There might be something important in their theory for entrepreneurial Founders, given that the billionaire venture capitalist who founded Netscape and helped launch other groundbreaking web-based firms, Marc Andreessen, recommended the book in a July 2018 tweet.
In The Ceiling on Your Success is Your Capacity to Regulate Your Negative Emotions I quoted leadership expert John Maxwell’s “Law of the Lid,” which states:
You cannot lead others to a level higher than you are able to lead yourself.
- John Maxwell, in The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (1998)
And this might be why Andreesen finds The Courage… so compelling. Because how could entrepreneurs possibly lead their own organizations while being subject to the whims of uncontrolled emotional outbursts? Self-leadership requires regulation and transformation of you own emotions.
That doesn’t mean suppressing, repressing, hiding, or denying emotions. It doesn’t mean you don’t have emotional outbursts.
It means you learn to regulate your feeling to achieve more of your wantings, because these two aspects of your affective mind are not the same thing.
To understand emotional regulation, we must also understand emotional dysregulation. Rather than accept the usual description of emotional dysregulation as an exaggerated emotional expression, it is helpful to understand dysregulation as a cyclic process of emotional amplification.
Emotional dysregulation begins with what we experience as an involuntary emotional reaction. Whether this reaction is a learned fabrication (as Adlerian psychology claims) or not is irrelevant. When we are unaware of the source of our emotional conditioning, we experience it as automatic.
What is important is to recognize that we have the power to transform our emotional states.
In a dysregulated feedback loop, emotional reactions are experienced as automatic and beyond our control. We may lack awareness of them, or not. Nevertheless, dysregulation moves forward when we express these emotions. The expression makes them more real. It turns an inner affective state into a behavioral phenomenon.
The next step in dysregulation is often emotional reasoning — or the cognitive distortion that invents a true cause for our emotion that is outside ourselves. The fallacy of emotional reasoning creates a justification of our emotional state that strengthens the emotion in us, which leads to a stronger emotional expression, thus repeating the amplification cycle.
At some point in the cycle, awareness of the emotion may be present (“Goddamn right I’m angry!”), but it isn’t required.
Although awareness is a prerequisite to emotional regulation, it is insufficient. There are three other steps, including judgment, motivation, and action.
Awareness often works well when we’re able to give a name to our emotion. This is harder than you might think for those whose only mechanism for emotional regulation is suppression of expression. That is, one way to break the dysregulation cycle is to avoid emotional expression. This stops the cycle at the experience of the emotion, but it does little to transform the emotion. So when I ask people who are adept at emotional suppression a question like, “What are you feeling?” they sometimes answer with, “I think that… .”
Which isn’t the question, because it’s not about what they think. Emotional self-awareness requires an understanding of what they feel.
So I use a multiple choice prompt I learned from Jim McCarthy’s Software for Your Head (2002). His suggestion is to simplify emotional awareness into four basic expressions: Glad, Mad, Sad, Afraid.
Pick one or more.
Judgment is the next step in emotional regulation. Judgment requires an understanding and preferred rank ordering of alternatives. For example, when you become aware of an emotional state (e.g., fear), you might ask yourself, “Is this how I must feel? Are their other emotions that are accessible to me?”
There often are.
Emotional transformation is only possible when you recognize the possibility that there are alternative states, and have the judgment to prefer one emotional state to other states.
To understand the alternatives, you must ask yourself “What goal is this emotion helping me achieve?” and then, “Is that the goal I want?”
The point here is not to reach a more positive, happy, or feel-good emotional state right away. The point is to understand the relationship between the emotion and the thing you want, because your wantings and your feelings are different.
When you want to change your life, there’s one fact that you have to confront:
You are never going to feel like it.
— Mel Robbins, in The 5 Second Rule (2018)
Our desire to feel different in the moment will often get in the way of our motivation to work towards what we want.
This conflict is the origin of those long “to-do” lists of things that we wish we’d already accomplished. As I wrote in Why My 2019 is Going to Suck Bigtime, when we write down our goals, we get a little dope hit just from the act of imagining achieving the goal we just wrote. So we write another goal, and another goal. And we lose focus on the most important things we want, because we’re enjoying the dopamine hit we get from our imagination.
To be motivated to make a change in our lives, we have to be willing to give up the short-term, feel-good behaviors that soothe our negative emotions and invest in behaviors that, over the long term, will work out better for us.
Action is the final requirement, because all that motivation is still useless until we find the courage to take Action. This is the core of The Courage to be Disliked. The scorn, criticism, and disapproval of others doesn’t feel good, does it?
Without the courage to put our short-term feelings at risk, we will fail to act in ways that result in getting the things we want.