Back to Blog
Photo of mural depicting raised fists

Four Emotions

Emotions are about focusing our energy and connecting to meet needs and live out values. (Note: needs = what’s important right now; values = what’s important over time.)

Principles for Working With Emotions

  1. All emotions are true (there are no inauthentic emotions)
  2. All emotions are messengers that bring information about our values and our needs
  3. All emotions are energy in motion
  4. All emotions have a particular frequency (vibration) in our bodies
  5. There are no good emotions or bad emotions, only good and bad relationships with our emotions
  6. Our choice (how we handle our emotions) determines whether our emotions have a positive impact

When in a emotionally-charged situation that feels like a stuck place (often anger or fear), it can be a helpful practice to stop and ask all four questions below about the situation. Always end with joy.

Mad (Anger)

Anger, sometimes experienced as frustration, is a focusing energy that points to an unmet need or a core value that’s out of alignment or being violated. Anger can give us a sense of conviction and actually narrow our vision/perspective to focus on or protect what’s most important. Dignity, conviction and righteousness can show up here.

Question: What angers me or frustrates me about this situation?

Sad (Sadness)

Sadness is a connecting energy that can soothe, release and rejuvenate. It can restore connection with the body and ground us. It often calls us to pause, retreat and metabolize what is happening or has happened.

Question: What makes me sad or brings up feelings of disappointment or longing in this situation?

Egad (Fear)

Fear is also a focusing energy that consumes a lot of energy. In this case it prepares us to act. Intuition, clarity, alertness and an ability to see from multiple perspectives can show up here.

Question: What worries me or concerns me about this situation?

Glad (Joy)

Joy is the other connecting energy. Delight, a sense of wonder, esteem, gratitude, and balance/integration show up here.

Question: What’s the possibility for joy in this situation?

Focusing on the Practices of Resilience and Courageous Conversation

Shift from reactivity to a state of resourcefulness in moments of stress and crisis

Things to keep in mind:

  • Paper tigers and real tigers cause the same reaction! There is no difference between social threat and physical threat to the amygdala (i.e., the part of our brains that is activated by stress).
  • We are wired to overestimate threat and underestimate (or not see) resource or opportunity
  • Shifting is also a valuable time-management practice because we don’t stay stuck
  • The more we practice shifting, the stronger those pathways get in our brains – like a muscle
  • Having courageous conversations is a necessary condition of leadership

Know when the amygdala is triggered

Some common signs are:

  • Overwhelming feeling of inferiority, stupidity, inadequacy or difficulty thinking clearly
  • Body changes like not breathing or breathing quickly, clenched fists, upset stomach, headaches, shoulder/back pain or tension, etc.
  • Judgmental, defensive or blaming thoughts
  • Speechlessness
  • Obsessively repeating thought patterns, inability to see/focus on anything else
  • Internally (or externally) arguing points, justifying yourself or being defensive
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Feeling sorry for yourself, feeling victimized
  • Bolting, fleeing, isolating yourself
  • Sudden intensive engagement in addictive behaviors
  • Difficulty paying attention, dissociation, exhaustion, spacing out

What to do when the amygdala is activated

  1. Name it to yourself. Recognize what you are feeling and what it indicates.
  2. Resist the impulse to act immediately and create appropriate space (e.g., If you are in a meeting, excuse yourself to go to the restroom)
  3. Shift your state
  4. Respond (or not, if you decide to drop it)

Options and practices for shifting your state

  • Breathe (take several breaths and focus on them).
  • Move your energy (e.g., if you feel the stress in your stomach, close your eyes and imagine it dissipating and evaporating out of your fingers and toes).
  • Find the root. Is your response in proportion to the inciting incident? What else might your reaction be about? Make that connection and feel the feeling fully.
  • Connect to purpose. What is your purpose here? Will this incident get in the way of working in your purpose if it’s not addressed?
  • Drop it. If your reaction is really about something else and the situation is not going to get in the way of you working in your purpose, you may decide to drop it.
  • Limitation/celebration. Recognize your own role or limitations and exaggerate, get playful, tease yourself in the mirror – levity can be a really shifting practice for some.
  • Anchor. Find a mental image of a place where you feel totally at peace and calm. Go to that place in your mind and feel yourself there for a minute.
  • Meshing. Imagine you are a house with all of the doors and windows open and mesh screens in place so that in future situations some of the impact just flows right through and doesn’t stay with you.

Assess whether or not to have a courageous conversation

  • Identify and weigh the risks and reward for you, the relationship, the organization and mission.
  • Discriminate between real danger (actual risks) and fear – paper tigers and real ones.
  • Make a clear and committed choice regarding your next steps.

Options for if you decide to have a courageous conversation

  • Talk through or think through what the conversation is about for you. What’s its purpose? What outcomes are you hoping for? What will your process be?
  • Engage in dialogue, maintaining your practice of resilience and actively listening.
  • Engage in dialogue with help, i.e., use a neutral party to facilitate, witness or act as a mediator.

Options for if you decide NOT to have the conversation

  • Lessen your investment in the relationship, lower your expectations and make the best of the situation for the duration.
  • Restructure the relationship, minimize the need for interaction and interdependence (i.e., roles, responsibilities, and accountabilities). The may require the help of those with more authority.
  • If the situation is bad enough and change seems unlikely or impossible, make a conscious choice to leave or terminate the relationship.


Marshall Ganz, Robert and Judith Gass, Social Transformation Project, Authenticity Circles, CompassPoint Nonprofit Services.

Banner photo credit: Alison Lin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Posts