How Emotions Set High-Performers Apart
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”—Howard Thurman
One practice that will help you heighten and sustain clarity in your life is to ask yourself frequently, “What is the primary feeling I want to bring to this situation, and what is the primary feeling I want to get from this situation?”
Most people are terrible at this. Under-performers, especially, are neglectful of the kinds of feelings they are experiencing or want to experience in life. They bumble into situations and allow those situations to define how they feel. This explains why they have low self-awareness and weak self-control.
High performers demonstrate a tremendous degree of emotional intelligence and what I call “willful feeling.” In performance situations, they can accurately describe their emotions, but more importantly, they can also calibrate the meaning they draw from those emotions and determine the feelings they want to endure.
Let me give you an example. I worked with an Olympic sprinter who was at the top of his game that year. But in prior years his performance was often erratic. Sometimes he won a competition; other times he didn’t even make the qualifying cut. When I got the call to work with him, he had a yearlong winning streak. In our first session together, I asked, “If you had to describe why you’re winning now, in just three words, what would they be?” He said, “Feeling, feeling, feeling.”
When I asked him to explain, he said, “I got very clear about the feelings I needed in my mind and my body before I walked out onto the field, while I readied myself at the starting blocks, what I sensed in the middle of the sprint, and what I wanted to feel after I crossed the line and even all the way back into the tunnel.”
I asked if that meant he got control of his emotions and didn’t experience performance anxiety anymore. He laughed. “No. When I’m at the starting blocks, my body still senses the energy and emotion of it all—my body is naturally aware of what’s at stake, and there’s an emotion of [some fear] that’s there no matter what. But I don’t feel anxious. I define the feeling. I tell myself that what I’m sensing is a feeling of readiness, excitement.”
I’ve heard so many high performers describe this practice in some form or another. They can sense their emotional state in any given moment, but they often choose to override it by defining what they want to feel.
Let’s pause to differentiate between emotions and feelings. While researchers differ in their definitions of what an emotion is, many agree that emotions are different from feelings. Emotions are generally instinctive. A triggering event—which can be an external situation or simply our brain anticipating something—generates an emotional response like fear, amusement, sadness, anger, relief, or love. Often, the emotional response happens without much of our conscious will; we just suddenly feel the emotion because our brain interpreted something happening and attached a meaning and emotion to it, guided mostly from how we sensed the situation from the past. This doesn’t mean that we are conscious of all our emotions, or that we can’t also generate an emotion consciously. For example, seeing your baby smile at you may stir joy in your heart, but you could also illicit the emotion of joy simply by purposefully thinking about the same incident later on without the actual stimulus. Still, the vast majority of the emotions we feel in life are automatic and physical.
The word feeling here is used to refer to a mental portrayal of an emotion. This is not a precise statement, but it’s helpful for our purposes here: think of an emotion as mostly a reaction, and feeling is an interpretation. Like the sprinter, the emotion of fear can come up but you don’t have to choose to feel frightened and run away. You can experience the sudden emotion of fear, but in the very next moment choose to feel centred. Whenever you “calm yourself down,” you are choosing a different feeling than the emotion that may have come up for you. Before entering any performance situation, high performers contemplate how they want to feel regardless of what emotions might come up, and they envision how they want to feel leaving the situation regardless of what emotions might come up. Then they exert self-control to achieve those intentions.
Here’s another example that shows this dynamic at play. If I’m in a meeting and people suddenly start arguing with a negative tone, I’ll probably experience immediate emotions like fear, anger, or sadness. The response is pretty predictable: My heart will start pounding; my hands will get sweaty; my breathing will get shallow. Those emotions can soon evoke feelings of dread or anxiety. Knowing this, I can choose to feel differently in the meeting even if those emotions come up instinctively. I can tell myself that the emotions are just telling me to pay attention or to speak up for myself or to feel empathetic toward others. Instead of allowing the emotion to evoke the feeling of dread, I can just let it be, take a few deep breaths, and choose to feel
alert yet calm. I can keep breathing deeply, speak in an even tone, sit comfortably in my chair, think positively about the people in the room, choose to be a calm force amid the storm—all these choices generate a new feeling that’s different from what “came up” earlier.
Over time, if I choose to create the feelings I want from my emotions, my brain will likely habituate to the new feelings. Fear suddenly doesn’t feel so bad anymore because my brain has learned that I’ll deal with it well. My old references for how I feel after the emotion has changed, and that can change the actual automatic emotion’s power. The emotion of fear still might get triggered, but now the feeling I sense from it is what I’ve created in the past.
Emotions come and go. They’re mostly immediate, instinctive, and physical. But feelings last, and they’re often a result of rumination, which you have control over. Anger can be the emotion that comes up, but bitterness—a lasting feeling—doesn’t have to be your lifelong sentence.
This might sound as if I’m just parsing words, and again I acknowledge that my descriptions are imprecise. (No description of any function of mind or body can be precise, because there is always variance and no thought or emotion is an island—our senses and intentions interact and overlap across a vast neural network.) But I share this here because it’s so thoroughly obvious that high performers are generating the feelings they want more often than taking the emotions that land on them. When high performing athletes say they are trying to get in the zone, what they mean is that they are trying to use their conscious attention to narrow their focus and feel in the zone. Being in the zone is not an emotion that just happens—athletes will themselves there by minimising distractions and immersing themselves in what they are doing. For high level athletes and high performers from all walks of life, flow is a feeling they choose. It is summoned, not a lucky emotion that conveniently happens to show up just in time for kickoff.
It’s when we stop being conscious of our feelings that we get in trouble. Then the negativity of the world can start stirring negative emotions, which, if we don’t control the meaning of, can evoke long-term negative feelings, which in turn set the stage for a horrible life. But if we seek to experience life and all its emotions and yet choose to feel centred, happy, strong, and loving right through the ups and downs, then we’ve accomplished something powerful. We’ve wielded the power of willful feeling, and suddenly life feels the way we want it to.
In your everyday life, start asking, “What do I want to feel today? How could I define the meaning of the day so that I feel what I want
to?” Next time you go on a date with someone, think about the feelings you want to create. Before you sit down with your child to work on math, ask, “What do I want to feel when I’m helping my kid? What feelings do I want them to have about me, about homework, about their life?” This kind of clarity and intention will change how you experience life.
Try writing things down to see where you are starting from:
1. The emotions I’ve been experiencing a lot of lately are . . .
2. The areas of life where I’m not having the feelings I want to are . . .
3. The feelings I want to experience more of in life include . . .
4. The next time I feel a negative emotion come up, the thing I’m going to say to myself is . . .
Photo by Steven Lelham