Thursday, December 17, 2009

Composure - Controlling Your Emotions in Stressful Situations

It's been over 40 years since my years as a cadet at West Point, and I’m sure the institution has made many changes since then. However back then, in addition to being physically and academically challenging, Plebe (freshman) year was a period of trial and indoctrination. During that first year I experienced countless stressful encounters with upperclassmen.

For example, during meals I had to sit on the front edge of my chair at rigid attention. At any moment during the meal, an upperclassman at my table might shout, “Mr. Coates, what’s for supper and what’s the movie tonight?”

Plebes were required to memorize and recite these details on command.

“Sir, for supper we are having baked ham, snowflake potatoes, and mixed vegetables. For dessert we are having carrot cake. The movie for tonight is 'From Russia With Love,' starring Sean Connery.”

“A James Bond flick, huh?”

“Yes sir.”

“Who’s the female star?”

I didn’t reply right away. Sweat broke out on my forehead and upper lip as I frantically searched my memory. If I wanted to eat my lunch, I had to have the answer.

“Well?” the upperclassman demanded.

I gave my memory one last search. Nothing. “Sir, I do not know.”

The upperclassman slammed his fist on the table and shifted his attention to my classmate seated next to me. “Mr. Kovak, who’s the female lead?”

“Sir, the female lead of tonight’s movie is…” I hated that my classmate was put on the spot because of my failure to remember what I was required to know.

“Daniela Bianchi,” he said. He knew!

“Right! Good work, Kovak! Fall out. Relax and enjoy your lunch. Not you, Coates. How come you didn’t know that?”

“No excuse, sir.”

“Bang your head in, mister! Don’t you know that the female lead is the most important fact about a movie? Bang your head in!” he shouted with genuine outrage.”Now, give me The Days.”

The Days involved a complete recital of every meal, movie, and sport event for every day of the current week. I was about to be the one who ruined the meal ambience for everyone at the table. It would take nearly the rest of the meal time to recite it all, and it was extremely difficult to do so without making a mistake. I figured that lunch wasn’t going to happen for me that day. And if I made a mistake, which I eventually did, there would be unpleasant consequences.

“Listen, Coates, you’re supposed to know this stuff cold. I want you to drive around to my room tonight at nineteen hundred hours. Full dress gray and be ready for inspection. And I’ll want to hear The Days again. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll get it right this time, Smackhead.”

Talk about stress! Actually, incidents like these were a frequent fact of life during my freshman year. I hated it. But it taught me to keep my cool. To survive, I had to learn to face this kind of pressure calmly, so I could do what I had to do. None of my classmates who failed to learn composure survived Plebe Year.

Which was the whole point. In combat, bad things happen and you have to do hard things anyway, no matter what.  Human lives are at stake.

And in the end, all this dealing with pressure served me well. During my first three years as a lieutenant in the Army, I faced much more intense situations—Ranger School, early command of a Hawk missile battery in Germany, and a combat tour as an infantry advisor in Viet Nam. By the time I experienced my first firefight, I had become a kind of ninja grand master in the composure department. To this day, nothing rattles me.

Not everyone receives this kind of military training or gets the chance to serve in combat. Not everyone has to save a life, fight a fire or enforce the law. Not everyone has to face danger on a regular basis.

But sooner or later, something will happen to you that will upset you. At some point you’ll be faced with an unexpected problem, disappointment, frustration, risk or loss. As they say, “stuff happens.” Somebody will let you down. Someone won’t do what you were expecting her to do. She might even work against you. Too many problems all at once can push you to your limit. And when this happens, your emotions will surge and begin to cloud your mind and impair your judgment.

The all-important question is, what will you do then? Will you panic? Will you lose your temper? Will you lash out in anger? Will your brain stop working?

Or will you keep a cool head? Will you be mentally tough?

When you feel your emotions rising, mentally take a step back. Refuse to say or do anything for a moment. If you don’t focus on and feed your emotions, they’ll subside. Then you can more calmly think about your situation. You can do what has to be done and say what has to be said so people don’t get hurt and damage is minimized and problems get solved.


Find a calm place in your heart, and a calm voice will tell you what to do.

The key to composure is wanting your actions to be effective, to first think about what would produce the most beneficial consequences for you and the people around you. The next time something bad happens and you feel your emotions are about to explode, do this:

1. Take a moment to calm yourself. Let your emotions subside.

2. Consciously choose not to react with a display of emotion.

3. Shift your attention away from your emotions. Choose to deal with them later, if necessary.

4. Focus on solving the problem facing you. What action would produce the best consequences?

5. Exercise patience, tolerance and forgiveness.

*     *     *

Think before you say, think before you do - and you'll have control over what happens next.

“The little reed, bending to the force of the wind, soon stood upright again when the storm had passed over.” - Aesop

This article appeared in the December 16th issue of the newsletter, Golden Eggs. Used with permission. To receive your weekly issue of this multi-media, multi-contributor newsletter, sign up at the top of this page.


Meredith Bell said...

You had to deal with an amazing amount of stress at West Point! I can see why those incidents prepared you for other challenges. I wonder how many of today's young people could withstand the kind of pressure you went through. Many of them have not been raised to be mentally tough.

Steve said...

Using stress as a way to weed out people who are not truly committed to being part of the team is a time honored tradition in sports, the armed services, etc. It's part of the character development program of certain groups that put a high value on self sacrifice and compliance.

However, I've also observed the price that many people (and those close to them) pay for undergoing this kind of conditioning. Their emotional distance from, and perceived lack of genuine empathy for, those who do not buy into those same values often seriously damages their relationships with family and others who did not voluntarily sign up to be inculcated with these values.

I'd appreciate your perspective on this.

Denny Coates said...

Steve, that's a good question. My take on any strength is that it's possible to take it too far. Then it has detrimental consequences.

In the case of composure, ideally one learns to be mentally tough when the going gets rough. But it's not appropriate to apply this kind of emotionless problem solving when there's no crisis. For example, at home interacting routinely with your family.

I'm not saying it's easy to turn it on and turn it off. If this stuff were easy, I wouldn't refer to them as "strengths."

Steve said...

Interesting, thanks, Denny. I guess that developing that kind of flexibility is a personal development goal in and of itself.

Rich Bradford said...

Sir, your plebe years sounds tougher than mine (July '81-May '82). Your story still brought back some amusing memories. We did not have to know what was playing at the movie theater, but meals were always stressful for me. For 11 months, I could not master the art of cutting a dessert into 8, 9, or 10 equal pieces. After all these years, I am still proud of finishing plebe year, and eventually graduating in '86.

Anonymous said...

So sad I didn't get to read this writeup before now. Before now, I made a very big mistake that cost me my relationship. I overreacted based on my emotion and I blew Things up. And now I'm.