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Building Emotional Muscle

When I returned to the gym two years ago it had been 30 years since I had lifted weights. Since I would never again play college football I didn’t see the point. But at age 56 when I began falling over when trying to put on my underwear I knew I needed to get with it.  My initial goal was simply to make the rounds on the weight machines at a relatively light weight.  But slowly and surely I began to get stronger. After a year and a half I decided to leave the machines and go to free weights. The week after my 58th birthday, I bench pressed 300 pounds. What seemed impossible just a couple of years ago was now happening as a result of some consistent steady work.

Emotional intelligence is a kind of muscle that we can develop just like physical strength.  Here are some things you can do to make you into an emotional strong man.
1. Practice Learned Optimism: Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, proved that optimists were higher achievers and have better overall health than pessimists. According to Seligman’s research, optimism can be learned by the practice of three thought processes:
  • Permanence: Practice believing that bad events are temporary and that good things that happen will have a permanent in your life. 
  •  Pervasiveness: Do not believe that failure in one area of life will generalize to all of your life. Compartmentalize helplessness and generalize your success.
  • Personalization: Refuse to personalize failure. Choose to attribute bad events to causes outside of yourself. Stay out of self-doubt and introspection. Refuse to go into a shame spiral and accept that life has its challenges which you are able to control.
2. Strengthen Vital Attachment:Relational neuroscience suggests that people who are more securely attached are less anxious, depressed, and have stronger immune systems. Developing strong attachment begins with the people that are the most important to you. If you are married this is usually your spouse. If you are single it may be family or a close friend. Here are three ways to strengthen attachment.
  • Stay out of negative cycles: Attachment weakens when we develop negative cyclical arguments that result in explosive outbursts, blaming and character assault. Slow down your arguments with your loved one and become curious about the primary emotions that are fueling the discontent. By showing empathy for what hurts the person who is lashing out you will stop the argument in its tracks.
  • Be Vulnerable : Vulnerability is relating your innermost feelings and fears to others with the possibility that they might use such feelings and fears against you. Brene Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston, says that “vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage”. By definition, vulnerability feels risky but it is the opening that we must do to grow in emotional strength. Vulnerability fosters trust and grows attachment.
  • Be Responsive: The promise of love fades quickly if it is not strengthened by responding to needs of those we care about. By giving our full attention and responding to cries of those we love, we let them know their place of importance in our lives. They in turn naturally do the same for us when we are in need.
Taking Time to Grow Emotionally Strong: The truth is that for most of us the biggest enemy to our building emotional strength is poor time management. We think that doing more will make us more productive. The truth is that excellence trumps activity every time.  In the past strength was equated with a lack of emotional expression. Nothing could be further from the truth.  By taking the time to grow in emotional muscle you will be surprised at what you are able to accomplish.  You will have more people working with you. You will feel better. And you may even be able to put on your underwear without falling over!


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