Recognizing Your Emotions as Data, Not Directives

By Susan David

I’m a major advocate of validating one’s own emotions. How you feel is how you feel. You shouldn’t judge yourself for your feelings. They are neither good nor bad—they just are. Your feelings reflect your emotional response to the world. However, it’s important not to confuse your feelings with reality itself, or to let them dictate your actions. This is what I mean when I encourage people to see their emotions as data, not directives. Think of them as one data point among many to consider as you move forward.

Imagine that you’re in a staff meeting. You’re trying to make a point about an upcoming project, but a colleague cuts you off and moves on to another topic. You feel disrespected, and depending on your mood and personality, you might sulk or lash out. 

Voila: You’ve been hooked by your emotions. They’re running the show, pulling you along after them. 

When your feelings threaten to take the wheel, how might you handle them more productively? Here are a few tips. 

Consider the situation from someone else’s point of view.

To continue with our hypothetical meeting, just because you felt disrespected doesn’t mean that the colleague set out to disrespect you. Perhaps the meeting was running long and they were trying to get through the agenda. Maybe you were inadvertently repeating a point a someone else had already made and they were trying to move on. Or it’s possible that they were just distracted and thought you’d finished. Getting outside of your own head can provide you with a different vantage point on the situation and put your initial response in perspective. 

Be strategic.

Even if you decide that the only logical conclusion is that your coworker was, in fact, being a jerk, think about whether following your feelings will get you where you want to be. Snapping at them might indeed shut them down, but it could also make other colleagues clam up and earn you a reputation as a hothead. Sulking could provide some momentary satisfaction, but if you don’t contribute, you might miss out the satisfaction of shaping the project in a meaningful way. Maybe it’s better to set feelings aside for the duration of the meeting, then address them in a one-on-one conversation with the colleague in question once your temper has cooled. 

Address the anxieties underlying your feelings.

Take a moment to explore the reasons why you felt as you did, and consider strategies for taking care of those issues. Perhaps it’s something you can take on directly: If you feel that your team routinely disregards your ideas, try talking to a supervisor or sympathetic colleague about how they can better have your back. The problem could also be more deeply-seated, say, a delayed response to parents who made you feel unworthy of attention. Processing those issues might take some intensive work, including therapy, but even just recognizing their influence can help guide you toward productive outcomes. 

No matter what you feel, those emotions are valid. They don’t need to be judged or justified, but neither are they entitled to run your life. Your choices are yours to make. Let your feelings give their input, then pick the course of action that lines up with your goals and values. 

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