The MuchSmarter Blog

The Key To Emotional Mastery: Don’t Make Things Worse!

Steve Schecter
March 11, 2016

Emotional mastery is what enables you to succeed through the disappointments and setbacks that inevitably arise when you try to accomplish something worthwhile. While most people treat emotional mastery as a personal quality—either you have it, or you don’t—we at MuchSmarter teach emotional mastery as a learned skill. And that is one of the most personally fulfilling things we do!

I had a student named Hannah who, every time she made a mistake, whispered to herself, “stupid!” How many thousands of times in her life, I wondered, had she called herself stupid? How do you suppose this self-talk made her think and feel about herself? How do you suppose it made her feel about her work?

I’ve had many students who became extremely upset when they had disappointing performances on SATs or ACTs – even if the performance was only on a practice test. I will never forget the time a student of mine who had been struggling to gain her stride on standardized tests asked me, through tears, “What’s wrong with me?”

Another student of mine felt great pressure to score high on her SAT because her older sister had. Until she learned to manage the stress, she got half as many questions correct as she would normally.

In fact, if we’re being honest? Most of our students perform way below their capability early on because of emotional stress.

Do you see the recurring theme in these stories? A student is working toward a goal, and his or her progress is interrupted by mistakes, setbacks or worse-than-expected performances. In each case, the student adds something to the mistake or setback: intense emotional upset, self-criticism, regret or worry.

Those add-ons, in every case, make the situation worse!

Emotional upset and intense self-criticism make it less likely that the student would perform well on his or her next attempt. Then a destructive cycle begins: disappointing performance, emotional upset, disappointing performance, emotional upset and so on.

The negative emotion becomes baggage that weighs the student down and makes the journey more difficult, and less fun.

So, this thought brings us to the first and most important step on the road to emotional mastery. In any adverse situation, you give yourself a much greater opportunity to make it better if you can avoid making it worse!

How do you avoid making things worse?

First, accept that mistakes, setbacks and disappointments are an inevitable part of trying to accomplish something. No one who tries anything at all lives a mistake-free life. No one. 

Second, shift your focus to thinking about how you would like to respond to the mistake, setback, or disappointment. Say that, to this point in your life, you’ve learned to respond to mistakes and setbacks with regret, worry, and intense self-criticism. Then recognize that, if you’ve learned to respond one way, you can also learn to respond a different, more effective way. 

By accepting the inevitability of mistakes and setbacks, and recognizing your role in choosing a response to these mistakes and setbacks, you can learn to interrupt the cycle of disappointing performance and emotional upset. By interrupting the cycle, you are refraining from making things worse. And when you refrain from making things worse, you can take whatever steps you choose to make the situation better!!

Until next time!

- Steve

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