“How was your vacation?” is something I’ve been asked a lot in the last few days. “I didn’t go anywhere” is my answer. Now that my kids are out of school, I’m working through the summer of 2023 and taking a vacation in the fall when the waves have improved again. I must say, working when many of my customers are on vacation is a fine thing. I am much more relaxed than usual and I even found time to read “How emotions are made” by Lisa Feldman Barrett.

I must say, the book pulled the rug out from under me a little. Much of what I was taught and have passed on about the brain and how emotions arise is, if the renowned psychologist and neuroscientist is to be believed, outdated and just plain wrong.

Some of her scientifically well-documented basic theses are:

  1. We create our emotions ourselves.
    They are not pre-programmed in our brains and bodies. They are not, as is still taught, triggered by the outside world. Emotions are experiences that each of us constructs… based on our unique personal histories. Our brain makes predictions and creates simulations of what will happen. Based on this simulation, it then quickly and efficiently selects an appropriate response. In the process, it can use new information to adjust the prediction and thus the simulation. In this case, we learn something new. However, the brain can also FILTER or IGNORE new information. This is much easier on the brain’s energy than rethinking, but leaves us stranded in inaccurate predictions.
  2. Which emotions we create depends largely on our physical budget.
    This determines whether we start the day in a bad or positive mood. If we are hypoglycemic or lack rest, anger easily triumphs over composure.
  3. To better manage our emotions, it helps to increase the granularity.
    The more we are able to perceive and describe our own state in a differentiated way, the more varied the possibilities are that we give ourselves to react adequately to events.

Extremely exciting. And what do I do with that now? First, let it sink in. By the way, instead of taking a vacation, I helped my 82-year-old father move from Munich to Cologne.

Digitization using a take-a-number system

This provided me with a special experience. To register his residence, we needed an appointment with the local municipal office, no later than two weeks after the move. When we requested this on June 10, we were offered one for August 21, 2023. Seriously? However, you can also show up at the office on any Wednesday, draw a waiting number, and wait until it’s your turn – very old school! Naturally, you have to enter all your data in an online form beforehand. That’s what you call digitization. So at 7:30 a.m., my father and I picked a number and sat in the waiting area of the municipal office with the form we had dutifully printed out. With each minute we waited, I became more and more upset. NOTHING works in this city. What am I paying taxes for anyway? After 60 minutes it was our turn.

10 minutes later, everything was taken care of. As soon as we had left the building, I wanted to vent my anger about the city of Cologne. At that point, my father exclaimed enthusiastically – “I’m amazed how quick and easy this was. Everything was already in the computer. And the people were so friendly! In Indonesia (where he was born), this would have taken two weeks!”

Anger or enthusiasm – self-constructed instead of triggered

One and the same event leads to such different emotions. There seems to be some truth to the thesis that we create our emotions ourselves and they are not triggered from the outside.

No matter how my father’s registration actually went, I remained annoyed and resentful, not giving myself a chance to have an enjoyable experience with the city of Cologne. My father, on the other hand, haunted by his experience with Indonesian institutions and his resulting enthusiasm for German administration, felt the whole thing was like a happy outing with his daughter. This is how people are continuously cultivating their past as a means of controlling the future, as Lisa Feldmann Barrett calls it in a podcast with Lex Fridman.

Sleep, food, and exercise – the basis of a healthy mindset

However, we are not helplessly at the mercy of this. We can positively influence our emotions and thus our lives. You don’t have to launch intentions into the universe to manifest happiness, as some mental coaches try to tell us on Instagram. Lisa Feldmann Barrett very pragmatically recommends: enough sleep, exercise, and a balanced diet. Might not be all that spiritual, but it seems to work. I had actually barely gotten any sleep on that tropically hot July night before the appointment. Chances are that this had left me on edge. The city of Cologne really can’t be held responsible for the weather and my sleep.

Kafkaesque daddy care

And what does Lisa Feldmann Barrett mean when she talks about increasing our emotional granularity? We can do that by describing our state as precisely as possible and finding terms for it:

  • I felt Kafkaesque at the municipal office, i.e., excluded like the land surveyor K. in Kafka’s novel “The Castle,” because I didn’t know how long the whole thing would take.
  • I was troubled by time pressure because I was worried about missing a call with a client that was scheduled for 12:30 p.m.
  • I was worried about my dad because I didn’t want to make my elderly father sit in the uncomfortable chairs for a long time.
  • In this state, my brain blocked out the fact
    • that the waiting number display was counting rapidly toward our number,
    • that I still had 3.5 hours until my call and that I could have still postponed it if necessary, and
    • and that my father was relaxed, like a teenager, playing on his cell phone. Long live the free Wi-Fi service provided by the city of Cologne! And how nice it is to have 60 minutes with my father.

You live and learn!

A few days later, Tom, area manager of a trading company, had his last coaching session with me. During our previous sessions, we had worked on successfully positioning his area and himself after the departure of the previous general manager. Together we had prepared various meetings with the new managing director, Peter, and reflected on them afterwards. This seemed to have been a great help to Tom. While he was on the verge of resigning at the beginning of the sessions, now, six months later, he seemed motivated and committed.

Kids sick, boss screws up – welcome back after your vacation

Our last appointment took place online, because Tom’s children were sick after their vacation and could not go to daycare. He himself had not slept much for two nights. Tom was also upset because Peter had made a – from his point of view unfavorable – decision during Tom’s vacation. At the last moment, Tom was able to change Peter’s mind. I asked Tom what was going on with him.

Tom – “Peter is trying to push unfavorable decisions in my absence. It’s really annoying. If I hadn’t intervened, he would have just gone ahead with it. But I’ll tell you one thing, if this happens again, I’m out.”

Tom had made statements like that before. I asked him to be more specific about how he was feeling.

Tom – “I’m furious and annoyed!”
Me – “What else?”
Tom – “I don’t know. I just don’t trust Peter.”
Me – “And how long has this been going on?”
Tom – “Ever since he took over a year ago. And I guess this week’s actions confirm that I’m right to distrust him.”
Me – “During this time, was there also evidence to suggest that you CAN trust Peter?”

In the skeptic echo chamber

Tom started to reflect deeply. It occurred to him, now that he was relaxing a little, that there was a lot of evidence that cooperation with Peter was actually going pretty well. Since Peter took over as his boss, his area was in better shape than before. He had more degrees of freedom and his salary had been raised. In many meetings, Peter had been objective, calm, and open. He had also listened attentively to Tom yesterday, when the latter had become loud at times, and then revised his decision on some points.

Tom recognized that he was always skeptical of Peter no matter what he did. He ignored information that indicated a trusting relationship with Peter. On the other hand, he gave greater weight to information that supported his skepticism. Tom said he felt like he was in an echo chamber. When he was in his skeptic echo chamber, he didn’t give himself a chance to explore a new experience with Peter. This insight, in turn, felt like a bit of an epiphany to me.

Enlightenment tango – a good vacation substitute

Tom was now confident that he could continue to work constructively with Peter in the future. He wanted to make sure that he spent less time in the skeptic echo chamber. Relieved and elated, Tom left our session.

What a finale for a coaching process! That’s just the best feeling for me as a coach. Understanding something myself, passing on the experience, and in this way evoking clarity and ease in others.
The name of the feeling? How about enlightenment tango?
Who needs a vacation when you can dance the enlightenment tango?