Confronting emotions

It is a common experience for many people to feel disappointed by how things happen. We develop a mental map of how things should be, of what we need to be happier or successful. But many times things do not go as expected. In those cases, we can get trapped in the negative emotions of disappointment; or we can choose to overcome that situation, accept it and deal with it, accepting the positivity of the new frame.

There is an inner freedom within human beings that cannot be taken from anyone. That freedom is the one that allows us to seek the positiveness of an apparently bad situation and choose it as something good. It is the freedom that had Nelson Mandela when he was held in prison for twenty-seven years. The day he entered the jail he was seeing that situation as training for the day he would go out. This focus allowed him to see his jailers as persons. He learned to forgive without getting trapped in vengeance or despair. In our lives we will not usually face such extreme situations, but we will have disappointments or painful events. In those moments we can choose whether we fall into an emotional trap or we face them intelligently and positively.

Our brain consists of three separate ones: the reptilian brain, the limbic system and the neocortex. The first one is responsible for the “fight-or-flight” reaction in front of a danger; the second one is “in charge” of emotions and the last one is the more “rational” one. When we face a disturbing situation, many strong emotions are generated, and if we do not make a conscious decision we can fall into a powerlessness feeling: “there is nothing I can do”, “it is always like this”, “I will never overcome it”, etc. We become hostages of our own emotions.

According to George Kohlrieser, the alternative is simple: by using the neocortex we are able to see that everything that happens can become a good: that discussion with my husband can be the beginning of a more profound relationship with him if we face our differences together; that failure in the workplace can be an opportunity to recognize my limits and develop a greater trust within my team; etc.

It is not that we do not see reality: it is that we choose to see the whole reality, not only the negative side. We decide to see it intelligently. When this happens, we are not hostages anymore, we are free. When applied to human relations, the typical reaction to a disappointment is “flying,” avoiding that person. It is what our reptilian brain is telling us: “danger, pain, fight-or-flight”. But the most intelligent choice is, paradoxically, bonding.

If two siblings start a discussion or a fight, it is not intelligent to forget the love they have for each other by bearing a grudge against the other. But, when the choice is to overcome that feeling and, making concessions, confront the problem rationally, the results are completely different: the first option drives to a powerlessness feeling; the second one results in a better bonding. In a workplace context, it is typical to face these situations. The thing is: it is worth trying to live those events or interpersonal relationships as Mandela did. The context will not change, but our outlook will, so we will be able to receive openly everything that happens and extract positive outputs from it.


  • KOHLRIESER, George. Hostage at the table.