When we experience a strong emotion—such as fear, anger, sadness, or embarrassment—we often try to ignore or stuff it. As Carl Jung wisely observed, “What we resist, persists.” In other words, trying to ignore the stress does not make it go away. In fact, it typically gives the emotion more power and causes us to act in ways that we often regret later.
Rather than ignoring or stuffing, we can process and manage these emotions in a healthy way using the NICE™ model.
N: NOTICE and NAME
When our brains receive external stimuli that appear threatening in some way (physically or socially), there is an automatic, unconscious physiological response in the body that takes place before the brain even processes a feeling. The brain is trying to keep us safe and signals to the body that there is a threat—”Body, prepare yourself to fight or flee!” Noticing this physiological response in the body enables us to be more aware of the emotion and slow our reaction to it.
To do this, scan your body and ask yourself, “Where do I feel this emotion in my body? Is my stomach churning? Do I have a headache? Are my palms sweating? Is my heart racing? Is the sensation cold, hot, tight, or sharp?” Notice the specific sensation and location of the response in your body. As you do this, remind yourself that this is a normal, physiological response. Your brain and body are doing what they’re supposed to do—keep you safe. Learning to notice the body’s response enables us to increase awareness of the emotion earlier—to get ahead of the curve.
In addition to noticing the body’s response, it’s equally impactful to name the emotion: “I feel _____.” Strong emotions reside primarily in our right brain and lower brain. Unfortunately, these parts of the brain are not wired to help us think rationally or logically—we need our left brain and prefrontal cortex to do that. Thankfully, naming the emotion activates these parts of the brain, therefore helping us process the experience with more logic and reason. Naming the emotion helps minimize the power that it has over us. If you’re doubting me right now, check out this study conducted by a UCLA professor involving tarantulas. Lastly, know that expanding your word choice for naming emotions has proven to magnify the positive impact, so consider referencing a list like this one to help stretch your vocabulary: Emotion and Feeling Wheel from The Junto Institute.
During the Notice and Name step, the goal is not to eliminate the emotion, but to become even more aware of and in-tune with it.
Next, investigate the emotion even further by examining the experience. Be curious and open. We are tragically gifted at clumping together all aspects of an experience—our observations, assumptions, feelings, thoughts, etc. The Experience Cube, from Dr. Gervase Bushe, helps us process the experience in a more curious and thoughtful manner. To do this, simply create a grid on a piece of paper, like the one shown, and record the different elements of your experience, segmenting by observations, thoughts, feelings, and wants.
Here’s an example. After being interrupted and challenged by a colleague in a meeting, we may tell ourselves: “That was rude. I can’t believe s/he cut me off like that, right in the middle of my presentation! S/he obviously doesn’t care about me or my reputation. Now everyone on the team is probably thinking that I don’t know my material since I couldn’t come up with a response on the spot. What if they stop looking to me for guidance on this subject? I feel so humiliated and angry. I sure hope I don’t have to present again anytime soon.”
To keep us from interpreting our assumptions as truth, and to healthily process the experience, we can use Bushe’s Experience Cube:
Observations: My peer interrupted me in the meeting and shared an idea that contradicted my point. I was silent after that moment, and nobody spoke up on my behalf. (Be careful not to place assumptions here—only cold, hard facts that a video camera could capture.)
Thoughts: That made me think s/he didn’t value me and my perspective. The story I’m telling myself is that the rest of the team thinks I looked a bit foolish in that moment, and now they’ve lost confidence in me.
Feelings: I’m feeling frustrated, embarrassed, anxious, and a little bitter.
Wants: I want my teammates to view me as competent. I want to feel confident when presenting to my team. I want my colleagues to be able to share their thoughts, and even contradict my ideas, in a way that enables us to get to the best outcome. I want to have strong, trusting relationships with my team.
Investigating the emotion gives us the clarity needed to move forward in a thoughtful way.
Emotions are data, not direction—if we ignore them, we miss key pieces of information, but we don’t have to let them dictate the direction we head. After completing the first two steps, we are more capable of choosing how we’d like to respond to the emotion, rather than react. Potential choices include:
Choose to let it go. Perhaps we learned that the feelings were largely driven by inaccurate assumptions. After fact-checking those assumptions, we decide to let it go.
Choose to reframe. Reframing involves experimenting with replacement thoughts—thoughts that will spark different, more positive emotions. Per the example above, we could replace the original thoughts with this new belief: “My colleague tends to interrupt people a lot. S/he probably isn’t aware of the impact. My other teammates probably felt some empathy for me in that moment and understand that I was caught off guard.” These thoughts make us feel more calm and confident, and then inspire us to take different action. Reframing is simple, but powerful.
Choose to calm the emotion’s force. It may not go away fully, but through techniques like breathing exercises, a walk outside, or meditation, we can calm the physiological response. When your body is calm (i.e., slow breathing, smiling, relaxed muscles), it signals to your brain that you’re okay—it tells your brain that you don’t need to feel as threatened by the experience.
The last step is to exercise—to practice this approach frequently. Just as physical wellness doesn’t happen after one workout or one healthy meal, emotional wellness also takes time and diligent practice. The more you strengthen the muscle, the easier and more natural it will become.
Let’s stop trying to suppress strong emotions. Instead, use this model to manage them more effectively—to respond, rather than react.
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