A common mistake many of us make is relying on our emotions to validate the accuracy of what we perceive, rather than to inform us of our internal state. One pitfall of this way of thinking is that it can cause us to react emotionally rather than strategically. It can lead us to act out of fear, anger, and other strong feelings in ways that may be counterproductive or destructive

Imagine you feel angry at an employee, a boss, or a colleague. If you allow anger or resentment to drive your thinking, you may have thoughts like “They’re a bad boss,” or “I shouldn’t be working here.” You are looking at the situation through a lens of anger, and that is coloring the thoughts you are having.

If you react from a fear-based state such as anger, you might do something destructive. You might quit a job, or lash out at your boss, employee, or coworker. If your business is facing dramatic changes, you might not be able to identify or take the action you need to take.

When we let fear-based emotions drive our actions, we may move toward the thing we fear and prove ourselves right — not because we are right, but because we took action based on a fear-based interpretation that brought about the result.

The same is true of strong positive (love-based) emotions. We’ve all had the experience of getting excited and then making a bad decision as a result. Acting out of euphoria can prompt us to skip due diligence and put resources or capital into things that don’t work out. It’s great to feel joyful and excited, but you still need to evaluate action to make sure it makes practical and strategic sense.

I find it’s much more effective to use emotion to define my internal state. If I tune in to the fact that I feel angry, scared, or resentful in the moment, I can recognize that I am not thinking at my best capacity.

When that happens, my first order of business is to get into a better state, so that I can see the action I need to take to create the outcome I want. Here is an example of how this worked out recently in my business.

My company trains people in internal training methods. Until recently, 90% of our business was seminar-based, in-person programs in hotels. When the pandemic struck, we got word that hotels were shutting down. I had customers and employees asking me what would happen. Our staff were well aware that the business they had worked hard to contribute to — and that had provided for them for 12 years — had come to a sudden stop.

In a situation like this, the mind wants to go to all kinds of thoughts like: “What’s going to happen?” “How long is this going to last?” “How long can we stay afloat?” It is our nature to focus or fixate on a threat and all the unknowns. But it is not productive to stay stuck there.

My mind immediately went to the cash flow that we needed to stay in business, the employees that rely on the business for their salaries, and the thousands of people who rely on our programs for their own benefit. So I let myself really worry for 20 minutes, and think about all the things that were beyond my control and all the terrible things that could happen. Then I took a few minutes to breathe deeply and get myself centered.

Soon I was able to get over the panic, the fear, and the sense of overwhelm. Once I was calm and relaxed, I focused on how I could respond to what was happening, and what actions I could take.

It became clear to me that we needed a new business overnight. We didn’t know much about technology, and we had done no virtual programming until that day. But we were aware there was an opportunity before us.

First, we focused on creating programs to support people in managing their lives in an empowering way, and in marketing those. Second, we focused on what we could do to help people in a time of great need. We accepted that we were now a virtual company, and started doing immediate research into how we could put on virtual programming and reinvent the business.

Within two weeks, all our staff was on board and aligned with the idea. We looked at the opportunities and got clear on the changes we needed to make. We were able to approach the challenge from an optimistic, passionate, opportunity-based state of mind.

Going virtual has allowed us to access our current clients in a new way. It’s also allowed us to eliminate huge expenses for travel and hotels and put that money toward cutting the costs of programming to help many more people. As a result, our engagement tripled over what we normally had in a single quarter.

What challenges are you facing now in your life and business, and how can you manage your emotions to create better outcomes? Here are five steps to help:

  1. Name what’s happening, the circumstance you are facing.
  2. Name how you are feeling. What is your reaction to what’s happening? Do you feel afraid? Uncertain? Stuck? Describe your experience.
  3. Make a distinction between what’s happening and your internal state. Acknowledge that those are separate realities. This allows you to put some distance between your circumstances and your feelings, and get your thoughts off what you can’t control.
  4. Center yourself with deep breathing and focus on your breath for two to five minutes. Inhale slowly through your nose, count to four or five, hold a beat, and then exhale through your mouth slowly for four to five seconds. Repeat the cycle while focusing on relaxing your body. If you find your mind wanting to focus on particular thoughts, gently bring the focus back to your breathing.
  5. Decide what result you want. Ask: What action can I take right now that will move me toward that result? Focus on the response you want to have mentally and emotionally, as well as the actions you can take. It could be as simple as feeling better yourself, or communicating a sense of peace and calm to those around you.

Rather than be a victim of things that are happening, we can redirect our focus and take intentional action toward what we want to create, the vision we want to fulfill, and the results we seek. Doing so allows us to access our full capacity for passion, creativity, and vision — and transform circumstances that might have been catastrophic into opportunities.