Everything we do in life is determined by emotions. In spite of our best attempts to suppress them, we live in a world driven by emotions, which affect the way we behave, the way we live, the way we love and even the way we lead. But what is emotion if not a data source?
What if we could use the same reasoning we use when spending countless hours segmenting data to make it more meaningful and targetable to our own emotions, to better track them and accept them?
A lot of the problems we face every day in our lives and in our industry – whether we are analysts, marketers, or generally data people – are mirrored in psychology. Even if I am not a psychologist, we do a lot of research to see how real life problems echo in analytics and what can we do to improve our awareness and our to them.
I’ve recently came across an interesting TED Talk, which, unsurprisingly, soon found its way towards the “Popular” section of the platform. The Talk was called “The gift and power of emotional courage” by Susan David, a Harvard Medical School psychologist, and it was a short analogy about how apparently unrelated parts of our life tangle without us knowing, due to something as simple as raw emotions.
The way you interact with others, the way you see life, the way you talk, the way you behave at your workplace, are all interconnected and have a deeper level of emotional background. Despite over-analyzing a swarm of simple things, we tend to use a very limited and rigid matrix to catalog our emotions: good, bad, positive, negative. And, as Susan David explains, “rigidity in the face of complexity is toxic”.
As analysts, we often create complex dashboards and powerful visualizations for our clients, to help them see what they fail to at a first glance. Why don’t we do that for our own emotions as well? Why do we only have (metaphorically) a basic Excel sheet to catalogue our emotions, where we can only see some form-less data we most likely choose to ignore, when we can have a deeper, meaningful visualization and understanding about our own feelings, emotions and perceptions?
We already talked in our series “Psychology and Analytics” about emotional intelligence, which is one’s ability to identify and manage their own emotions and the emotions of others. But what happens when we identify a negative emotion and we choose to ignore it, or worse, bury it?
Denying our own emotions often is more damaging than letting our raw emotions get to us, and, as consequence, it has the exact opposite result of what we wanted. It becomes a ticking bomb. Denial is the epicenter of suppressed emotions, which, if left unchecked for too long, can start to guide our decisions, make us more anxious and shape our behavior in ways we cannot foresee.
The essence of enjoying life lies in its fragility. Just like the unusual lines in a dashboard trigger an analyst’s interest and captivates him. We cannot enjoy for long something that we take for granted and is given in large amounts. And, as strange as it may seem, when everything around us seems to move forward, in areas such politics, healthcare, technology, we tend to be more strict and rigid with our emotions.
“We are young until we are not. We walk down the streets sexy until one day we realize that we are unseen. We nag our children and one day realize that there is silence where that child once was, now making his or her way in the world. We are healthy until a diagnosis brings us to our knees. The only certainty is uncertainty, and yet we are not navigating this frailty successfully or sustainably”, says Susan David.
Perhaps this is the reason why depression is one of the most common diseases that affects humanity. Globally, more than 300 million people of all ages suffer from depression. Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and is a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease.
Many people are actively trying to push aside their so called ‘bad emotions’, out of fear for social ‘stigma’, since we live in a world which feeds on optimism and apparent happiness on social media, or simply because we are stuck inside our heads and we have our own image about what we should feel, ignoring how we actually feel.
Ironically, research on emotional suppression shows that when emotions are pushed aside or ignored, they get stronger. Basically, the more you push them aside and try to ignore them, the greater is their hold on you. Even if you think you might be in control, the reality is the exact opposite of your perception.
Think about a dashboard that ignores all negative results just to maintain a positive image to the person that the report is meant for. The analyst who designed it knows something is wrong, but chooses a path of action that benefits him short-term. However, the damage is already in motion: it hurts the trust between the analyst and his employer and it hurts the company, since it relies its decisions on bad data. In the end, the negative impact will amplify exponentially to unperceivable degrees. And this is due to something that was already happening, without any exterior intervention, but rather willingly choosing to ignore a data source. This is exactly what happens when you choose to ignore your own emotions.
People who suppress their emotions are seeking to control their actions and are looking to maintain a positive social image, according to Paula Niedenthal In “Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science”. This is not only valid for our personal lives, but also for our professional life. We cannot separate the two completely, no matter how much we try.
We cannot implement filters that just cast away negative emotions. We cannot change Views the same way we do in a reporting platform, to have a different one depending on where we are: one for home, one for work, one for when we’re with our friends and so on. Data flows through our lives continuously, whether we like it or not, and we cannot apply filters that work long-term. We can choose to ignore some of the data, but sooner or later it’s going to corrupt our reports. And we’re going to have to work tremendously more to curate the data.
We need to track the funnel of our emotions. We need to check our data sources, how they got in our head, how they converted from emotions to feelings. Feelings are basically mental experiences of body states, which arise as the brain interprets emotions.
We need to apply custom dimensions for both positive and negative emotions and we need to be aware when the trigger is fired. That way, no matter what hits us, we can track it, analyze it and we can stay in control.
Knowledge really is power, and this applies perfectly to our emotions as well. But we cannot truly, deeply understand them unless we are open and we set aside our fear of negative emotions and embrace them as they are, before they get a hold of us. The acceptance of all of our emotions, no matter how difficult or messy, is foundation of happiness.
“Only dead people never get stressed, never get broken hearts, never experience the disappointment that comes with failure. Tough emotions are part of our contract with life. You don’t get to have a meaningful career or raise a family or leave the world a better place without stress and discomfort. Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”
Another important aspect worth taking into consideration is how we identify ourselves in relationship with our emotions. When we analyze data, we are carefully assigning variables and dimensions, and then we call them by ‘name’. It is important that we are not labeling ourselves with our emotions, such as “I’m stressed” or “I’m angry”. By saying “I am” you identify yourself with the emotion, putting the emotion on top of you. Rather, it’s preferable to say “I’m feeling angry” or “I’m feeling stressed”. Many psychologists say this, and it may sound like a cliche, but it’s true: you own the emotions, but they don’t own you.
“When people are allowed to feel their emotional truth, engagement, creativity and innovation flourish in the organization. Diversity isn’t just people, it’s also what’s inside people. Including diversity of emotion. The most agile, resilient individuals, teams, organizations, families, communities are built on an openness to the normal human emotions. It’s this that allows us to say, “What is my emotion telling me?” “Which action will bring me towards my values?” “Which will take me away from my values?” Emotional agility is the ability to be with your emotions with curiosity, compassion, and especially the courage to take values-connected steps.”