Developing Emotional Awareness: What We Can Learn from Children’s Instincts

When Kenneth Hill’s study on wilderness survival rates first came out, his discovery shocked people: Children aged six and under consistently survived more effectively than even trained demographics like experienced hunters, fit hikers, former members of the military, and skilled sailors.

How is this possible? Laurence Gonzales breaks down what children do differently from adults in survival situations in his book Deep Survival

“Small children do not create the same sort of mental maps that adults do. They don’t understand traveling to a particular place, so they don’t run to get somewhere beyond their field of vision. They also follow their instincts. If it gets cold, they crawl into a hollow tree to get warm. If they’re tired, they rest, so they don’t get fatigued. If they’re thirsty, they drink. They try to make themselves comfortable, and staying comfortable helps keep them alive. They do not yet have the sophisticated mental mapping ability that adults have, and so do not try to bend the map. They adapt to the world they’re in.”

In other words, the secret to children’s survival skill is that they act on their instincts. We have these same instincts, but we have learned not to act on them. Most of the time this is a necessary and good thing. When we feel tired during a work meeting, for example, we don’t wander into the corner, curl up, and fall asleep. However, in our effort to act according to a working world that doesn’t operate on a life-and-death, moment-to-moment basis, we’ve unlearned more than just acting on our emotions. We’ve actually unlearned how to pay attention to our emotions at all. The result is that when we feel stretched, frustrated, exhausted, stressed or mad, and we don’t stop to understand why we feel that way, these emotions can build or take over and compromise our work and our relationships. We may accidentally lash out at a colleague, lose our ability to focus on our work, or make a glaring mistake during a presentation.  

The good news is that we all have access to that same degree of emotional awareness children show in survival situations. We are simply out of practice. We just need to get practicing again. This means noticing what, when, why, and how emotions affect our well-being, and what to do to manage these emotions successfully. This may sound simple, but only a well-practiced person can do this proactively and in the moment when emotions grab ahold of them. Here are three strategies to help you practice getting back in touch with the self-awareness your brain is already wired to tap into:

Adapt to the world you’re in. At the end of each workday for a week, answer the following questions: What emotions affected my well-being today? They can be good or bad. When did they happen? Why did they happen? How did they affect my well-being? Did I attend to them in the way I needed to? What can I do next time? For example: After I finally ate lunch at 1:45pm I felt reenergized, less worn down, and more able to concentrate. I should be more disciplined about finishing lunch by 1:30.

Learn the subtleties of your emotions. Anxiety, apprehension, hesitation, and resistance can all feel somewhat similar, but by labeling each one, you take a big first step toward knowing their subtleties and how you need to react to take care of yourself, your relationship, or your work. For example, apprehension could mean worry about your preparation or skill level, but resistance might mean you really don’t like that type of work. Your next steps depend on your knowing the difference.

Feel your emotions in your body. Backaches, headaches, sweaty palms, general soreness, your hip tensing up, body odor…the list goes on. We all react to our emotions differently. By starting with your body, paying attention to how you physically feel, you can often catch emotions you didn’t realize you were suppressing or repressing. On challenging days at work, take a moment to close your eyes and ask yourself, “What does my body feel right now and why?” For example, “I’m fidgeting more, opening new tabs, checking my email compulsively, and I’m making lots of typing mistakes.” Jot this down somewhere with a date and time. That evening think back and maybe add a word explaining your feeling. For example, Preoccupied by the deadline. This specificity helps you put together a plan of improvement: Next fidgeting spell I need to catch myself early, get up, and stretch or take a quick walk.

From Insights to Action. Children may have the upper hand in the sense that they haven’t spent years unlearning attention to emotions, but adults have the upper hand once they begin to practice. We have access to a more sophisticated vocabulary of emotions and a more nuanced perspective on where emotions come from, what they feel like, how they manifest, and how we can best manage them. Keen emotional awareness is also the first big step toward recognizing emotions in others, and in turn, managing your relationships. In other words, emotional awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence (EQ).

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