EQ can help us achieve our goals and get through hard times, even cold, wet, and trapped in the shower.  How can EQ help us stay optimistic and make new habits? When we exercise optimism, shifting from powerless to powerful, we take on new challenges, and make positive change.

Exercise optimism shifts us forward from powerless to powerful.

Since co-founding 6seconds.org in 1997, I’ve found myself so much more aware, on a daily basis, of how emotional intelligence can help us move forward, solve problems, mend fences, and even see the world in a whole new way.  And, just this last weekend, I had one of those experiences which brought with it a special challenge, but which also proved the importance of a calm, measured approach, as well as the utility of thoughtful reflection after the event.

I wasn’t teaching in a classroom, or struggling in traffic; in fact, this little moment of understand originated in the most mundane and prosaic of daily routines — in the shower.

Exercise optimism shifts us forward from powerless to powerful.

Everyday Breakthrough

I like to keep fit, and having reached my four miles on Saturday morning, I gratefully headed home to the shower.  Time was becoming precious, as I had a 12.30pm appointment I didn’t want to miss, and so I ran through my showering routine at double-time.  Hair shampooed, body washed and rinsed, and the grime of four miles finally sloughed off, I was feeling pretty good.

But then, when I turned off the water and reached for handle on our glass shower door, I found it wouldn’t budge.  I tried again, with no effect.  I had to laugh at myself, wondering aloud whether I was becoming weak and feeble; perhaps those four miles had drained me of every ounce of strength!  I gave the door a firm shove, but nothing happened.

Feeling Stuck?

We’ve all been in situations such as this, and the first rule I was always taught by my wise mother was, “Don’t Panic”.  Well, that might work well in theory, but here I was, on the verge of being late for my appointment, and uncomfortably stuck in a way I’d never expected.  It was embarrassing, but more than that, I felt exasperation giving way to rising desperation.  Will I ever get out of here?

Exercise optimism shifts us forward from powerless to powerful.

I tried to keep calm, and even to see the funny side, but this was a genuine, practical problem. Although I’d only been stuck for five minutes, I was very aware that my grandniece wouldn’t be home for hours.  I couldn’t really call for help; even if the neighbors on either side of my home  managed to hear my shouts, what on earth would I say when my stunned, bemused neighbors came to assist me?

More firm attempts to move the handle yielded nothing.  The door remained resolutely and unhelpfully (and even apparently, permanently!) jammed.  I started to experience those classic panic sensations, the feelings people have when they’re trapped in an elevator:  discomfort, anxiety, and a rising panic which began to border on hysteria.

Stick With It

By ten minutes in, I’m afraid I’d completely lost my sense of humor about this ridiculous situation, and saw it now as an actual threat to my safety.  I tried to keep a reasonable context: perhaps I was getting overwrought over nothing, but there was no denying how I felt.  Tears came next, but then I felt a new resolution to solve this problem by myself.  The nearest objects to hand were those normally found in a shower, so I reached for the big, plastic shampoo bottle – the sturdiest thing I could reach – and brought it down hard on the door handle, hoping to dislodge it from its stubborn jam even if that meant smashing the handle off.

I was feeling confident about this solution, and set to it with gusto, but the very first impact simply shattered the plastic of the bottle, spraying slippery gouts of shampoo everywhere, and entirely failing to make an impression on the door handle.  You can imagine how I felt: trapped, alone, more than a little bit silly (to be honest), and frustratingly unable to conjure a solution to this simplest of problems.

Exercise optimism shifts us forward from powerless to powerful.


Exercise Optimism

Finally, I decided I’d had enough, that I wasn’t going to simply sit in the shower until my niece got home, and that I had to take a risk. I gathered my strength, latched onto the indoor shower bar for balance,  and launched myself backward at the door, barging into it with all my weight.  It cracked open and, suddenly, I was free.  The relief was profound, although I’m still dealing with how humiliating it felt to have to endure such slapstick circumstances.

But, more than that, I felt an immediate connection between this odd little incident and the whole direction of my work.  Emotional intelligence teaches us to react realistically to problems, and not to simply hope that everything will work out.  It also teaches us to take a step back and do some planning; although my own solution with the shampoo bottle was a dismal failure, it was still an example of careful forethought being applied to a problem.

Exercise optimism shifts us forward from powerless to powerful.

Reflect and Apply Life Lessons

Then, there was the emotional side.  Of course, it’s natural to panic if you feel trapped – there are ancient, animal instincts which light up our brains with fight-or-flee chemicals in just these situations, and that’s as it should be.  But, I lost control of my emotions, and became upset and panicked, from what turned out to be a situation of minimal genuine danger.  

How did I let this problem get me down so quickly?  Could I not have kept my laughter going until that final decision to barge against the door and dislodge it?  Why did this situation leave me so bereft and worried?

The Enthusiasm of the Desperate

Since that scary little moment, I’ve come to understand (all over again) that I should take a careful look at the challenges I’m facing and attack them with what one might call, “The Enthusiasm of the Desperate.”  This is the zeal and focus that comes from being passionate about a solution (in my case, due to the absence of any real alternative) and it can power us to significant achievements.

The opening months of the new political regime seem like a perfect time to remind myself about prioritization and the focusing of our energies.  I was watching a couple of the late night comedy shows recently; they’re hooked on the new president and everything he does and says, but even they are aware that neither the media nor the comedy writers can tackle every incident and issue.  Their solution seemed to work like this, if you’ll allow me a baseball metaphor:  so many inviting pitches are going to arrive, right over the plate, in the next few years, and I have to decide which one to swing at, and which to let sail by (at least, for the moment).

Shift from Powerless to Powerful

Therefore, it is imperative that my first responsibility, if I want to make a difference is to put my full weight and strength into my priorities, and to channel that burst of enthusiasm to desperation until it becomes a powerhouse of action and ideas. I’m reminded that I have a choice exercise optimism and turn my powerless feelings into powerful ones!

This zeal can open doors (quite literally!) but when it transforms into that ceaseless passion to create change, to make things better for someone else, then it becomes an elemental human energy, one with limitless potential.

So, which of these ‘powerhouses’ of activism, research, and writing should I focus on?   I always keep in mind that Six Seconds’ vision is to have a billion EQ practitioners teaching and working in the world by 2039.  

Recently I was reading Timothy Butler at HBS about how to “get unstuck”, and use your breakthrough moments to harness change.  Getting stuck, or being at an impasse, “is an opportunity to look a little deeper and understand better what works for us.” He recommends after getting “unstuck” people “do something that shows the world and ourselves that we’ve gone through the impasse, it’s been a real experience, and now we can act in the world based on what we’ve learned.” This act is a public statement to share your breakthrough and declare a change you’re making.

So I’m taking his advice and harnessing my breakthrough moment, to exercise optimism shifting from powerless to powerful.  Here are six areas of focus to which I could devote myself with the ‘desperate enthusiasm’ of that sodden, embarrassed professor, trapped in the shower.

  1. What if I charged into the world of people and potential friends with the same energy I charged into the shower door?  Could I find ways to don my ‘cloak of extroversion’ and find news friends?
  2. I could direct my energy into giving speeches and classes, sharing my findings about the importance of emotional intelligence.
  3. I can focus on developing tools to help parents in the home.  What parent couldn’t use a helping hand, from time to time?
  4. I can take some of my enthusiasm and make sure I model the tools which help us to manage, regulate and navigate our emotions.  If I can become a beacon for others, an example of positive behaviors and habits, then my energy will be well spent.
  5. I can consider my colleagues and put energy into helping them see the power of hope during times of crisis.  A calming word from an EQ practitioner can change someone’s day; an open dialogue with such a person can change a whole career.
  6. I’m sure you agree we all need to exercise optimism from time to time, and these are skills to be practiced, like any other.  I wonder if some of my shower-busting energy could be channeled into grasping those positive strands and hanging onto them, even in the midst of crises and challenges.

I’m not normally the kind of person who shoulder-barges their way through life.  I went to a small, personal extreme in order to escape from my cold, wet shower-prison. But this little moment of clarity has shown me, once more, that energy and force applied in the right way can yield a pleasingly, surprisingly positive outcome. And despite the larger humiliation I felt, entirely worthwhile.

Anabel Jensen

President of Six Seconds and professor of education, Anabel Jensen, Ph.D., is a master teacher and a pioneer in emotional intelligence education. A two-time Federal Blue Ribbon winner for excellence in education, she was Executive Director of the Nueva School from 1983 to 1997 where she helped develop the Self-Science curriculum featured in Daniel Goleman’s 1995 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence.