To lead an extraordinary life, you need to be the master of your emotions, not a slave to them. You can either react to events — and let your emotions drive the outcome — or control your circumstances and decide how you’ll respond. However, to make this change happen, there are five fundamental steps you need to regularly practice.
Step 1: Build Awareness
The first step is simply to be aware that much of your behavior, up until this point, has felt automatic. But this so-called automatic behavior isn’t automatic at all. Rather, your reactions (and subsequent actions) are the result of beliefs you’ve built over time. And since these beliefs are constructed, you have the opportunity — and the responsibility — to reconstruct them.
Step 2: Put a Name to It
Step two is to put a name to the specific belief that’s driving your behavior. For example, let’s say you’re sitting in your car at a stoplight, and the car behind you lays on the horn. Your heart beats faster, you become angry, and you might fantasize about what you would do to that person in a dark alley. Perhaps you honk back or, worse, start tailgating the person after they speed by “just to show them.”
What belief might be driving your behavior?
It might be “All people who are rude are bad,” or “There’s no excuse for rude behavior,” or “People who behave badly need to be taught a lesson.” Whatever belief you may be holding, it’s likely to be a subconscious one, and it’s certainly something you’ve constructed over time. This belief has been there so long that you consider it to be pretty obvious and uncontroversial. You don’t see it as part of your internal programming, but rather just the way the world works.
Step 3: Check In with Your Body
Step three is to check in with your body. What happens inside of you as a result of this belief? When you believe “There’s no excuse for rude behavior,” and you encounter someone you think is rude, your chest may get tight. Your throat may constrict. You may get a knot in your stomach. You may get flushed with redness or heat. You may experience all of these sensations.
If you’re not paying attention to your body, forget about being the actor in your life. Your body is telling your brain what to focus on: your tight throat and chest tell your brain to get ready for a threat. Your own physiology prompts your brain’s response. So you have to both observe what’s happening in your body and then sit with, and breathe through, the sensation until you have restored a level of balance. This practice is called getting grounded, centered, or self-regulated.
Step 4: Question It
Once you’re feeling centered, the fourth step is to question the belief. Is what you believe factually true? You might ask yourself, “What if that driver wasn’t being rude?” The driver may have honked longer than he or she intended. The driver might have been honking at someone else. Maybe the driver didn’t honk at all. How many times have you honked at someone only to feel bad or to have been misunderstood? If you try, you can find several reasons to question your belief.
After seeing where your belief might be untrue, next, ask yourself where that belief might apply to you. In the case of the rude driver, you might think, “When is my behavior or thinking rude?” The answer to this question is typically amusing and revealing. You might picture yourself shooting someone the middle finger or cutting to be first in line. If you’re like me, there’s no shortage of evidence pointing to where your thinking and behavior might be less than polite.
It’s here where most people get stuck. When asked to question their deeply held beliefs, people become resistant and defensive. And this is understandable. For example, it may seem preposterous — or even offensive — to suggest that rude behavior is excusable. It might feel uncomfortable to think of times when you’ve been obnoxious. The point here is not to deny the truth: people can be rude. Rude behavior has consequences. Instead, you want to soften your attachment to this belief.
Step 5: Practice
The final step is to practice. To master anything in life, you have to master this discipline. To do so, it helps to understand the phenomenon of neuroplasticity.
For much of the first half of the twentieth century, scientists assumed that brain structure evolved during childhood and adolescence but became fixed at adulthood. It was not until the early 1970s that researchers began to discover that the brain is constantly changing, even late into life, as a result of behavior and environment. Donald Hebb captured the essence of this phenomenon with his famous quote: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Essentially, Hebb was describing neuroplasticity, the idea that repeated neural activity strengthens the connections between neurons over time. In turn, those strengthened connections make it more likely that the resulting behavior will occur with greater ease. This was a revolutionary finding.
The evidence that’s accumulated since the ’70s indicates overwhelmingly that, with practice, new behaviors become more habitual because they’re supported by new, strengthened neural structures.
The more you practice questioning your beliefs and managing your physiology, the easier and more habitual it will be to engage in your desired behaviors. Subconscious competence will come from the intentional, deliberate, and repetitive practice of new behaviors. With practice, you will literally begin to experience a new reality. You will act, not react. You will be the master of your behavior.