Positive Psychologist & Parenting Coach- Teodora Pavkovic

What are emotions to you?

To me personally, they are the most valuable fabric of life; I think of emotions in these terms: I feel to live and I live to feel. They are what makes being human so incredibly special, but they also pose one of the biggest challenges to being human.

Much of our emotional life takes place below the level of awareness - this is certainly true of our most basic emotions - but what we know from research in neuroscience and from mindfulness practices is that we have much more power than we believe. On the most basic level, emotional awareness is so important because it leads to self-knowledge, and on the next level, it is crucial for our effort to exercise our power over how we feel - to shift from autopilot to presence and from reacting to responding. Emotions essentially give us information - about ourselves and others.

Spanning 3 continents, 9 countries and being a third-culture kid - what are some memorable differences in self-expression you’ve personally experienced when communicating with people of varying backgrounds?

It’s a fascinating thing - seeing how much culture, religion and language influence how we express ourselves. What I have found though, is that there are 2 levels of expression in virtually every culture in the world: there is the level on which the majority operates when in public and that is officially deemed acceptable by that culture, and then beneath that is the level on which our common humanity resides and on which we all express our emotions in the same way when we are with an individual we trust.

I spent several years living in Germany for example, where people are stereotypically characterized as very stiff and humourless - that couldn’t have been further from the truth as far as my personal experiences went. I spent most of my childhood in the Middle East where, according to outside perceptions, women are meek and quiet and submissive, but I have met some of the most gutsy, witty and confident women there. I have also, of course, witnessed some wonderful examples of cultural stereotypes, such as the friendliness of the Irish, the animatedness of the Italians, and the short-temperedness of the Eastern Europeans (I am one myself!).

So while I have indeed found there to be differences in self-expression, I have also found there to be so many similarities as well.

Do you notice a difference in the way people in Asia / Singapore deal with and express their emotions?

Yes and no; I have certainly found there to be a generational difference at play, where the older generation is much less comfortable expressing their difficult emotions such as sadness for example, or embarrassment. Although, that is not that dissimilar to the generation of, say, my grandparents, who grew up in World War 2-era Europe.

I have found the younger population in Singapore to be perfectly expressive, which is reflected in the budding art, music and poetry scene in the country. What I would say can be improved upon is the awareness of the granularity of emotions - something I spoke about in my talk at the TEDxPickeringStreet conference in 2018.

Dealing with our emotions is infinitely easier once we learn how to identify them in very specific terms; for example, if we are experiencing something that feels like anger, we would be wise to stop, observe, and become curious to further identify what we are feeling exactly - is it a mere irritation, or impatience, or rage, or is it a response to an entirely different emotion such as humiliation. Once we know that, then we can look in the direction of how we want to respond to the emotion.

How has technology impacted the way we deal with our emotions and our communication?

This very question has been the focus of my work for the past year, so I am always excited to get the opportunity to try and answer it. The bottom line seems to be that it has not impacted them well. Although I have to add that, scientifically speaking, we still can’t say for sure - not enough time has passed since we invited technology into our pockets and our homes for us to be able to carry out research that could answer that question definitively.

One could argue that technology has helped us in some ways - platforms such as Talkspace have made it much easier for people with mental health problems to communicate about their emotions and access psychotherapeutic care, and platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat have made it easier than ever to connect with others.

However, some essential questions need to be asked (and answered) first, before we conclude that such technologies have improved our lives overall. What is the quality of these connections? How has this new form of communication affected our behavior? How has it affected our language? How does it affect how we feel? How has it affected our brain?

As we now know, the great problem with how modern technology has been built is its inherent addictiveness. And this was done by design - look no further than the Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab, and the relatively new fields of neuromarketing and neurotechnology for proof. What this means in practice is that our communication has become more fast-paced, brief and superficial, which has lead to increased feelings of anxiety, depression, a fear of missing out (FOMO), and in extreme cases, even suicidal thinking.

What are #thelittlesteps an individual can take to get more in-tuned with her emotions? Any technology tools that can support this?

The first step is always about looking inward and exploring. I recommend people spend at least a week noticing the emotions they feel on a daily basis and take notes, preferably with a paper and pen. What research has shown us is that, on average, we tend to only experience about 2-4 emotions on a regular basis, so don’t be surprised if you find that to be true for you too.

As you are creating this list, begin noticing when these emotions arise - where are you, with whom, what is going on around you, how much sleep have you had, have you been eating well? A high-def picture will begin to emerge, in which you will be able to see the matrix of your emotions embedded in everything else going on in your life. If you notice the presence of mostly negative or unpleasant emotions, think about which more pleasant and stimulating emotions you want to feel and about the ways in which you could experience them - what would you need to be thinking, doing, and where and with whom, in order to experience them?

I prefer tech-free ways of exploring our inner world, in addition to which there aren’t really any apps that I am aware of that have been designed to help with this specifically. There is a wide variety of ones that are focused on mindfulness and happiness though, such as Headspace, Calm and Mood Kit.

How about #thelittlesteps for parents, moms and their kids?

For parents, their kids are actually their shortcut to becoming more in-tune with their own emotions! Children act as a radar, sponge and mirror to their parents - their brains are constantly tuned-in and detecting the emotions of their parents, they are absorbing all of the emotional, verbal and behavioral content they get from their parents, and finally, they internalize it as their own and then start putting it back out there into the world and acting out what they see. So, the first step for parents is to pay close attention to the emotional and behavioral output of their kids.

What I tend to do with my parent-and-child clients is send them home with a colorful poster of emotions, and have them use it on a daily basis to share with each other how they are feeling and why. Another wonderful thing parents can do is use reading time to increase their children’s emotional intelligence by pointing out the emotions of the characters in the story.

When it comes to parents and their children, I don’t encourage the use of any kind of tech - direct parent-to-child connecting is crucial for the child’s verbal and psycho-emotional development.

What are some simple, useful Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) tools a busy woman can use to take control of her emotions, especially when faced with stress during a decision-making process?

My first tip for any ‘busy’ woman would be to take out some designated time on a regular basis for self-care - both physical and emotional self-care.

One of our biggest obstacles to emotional well-being is that we wear the term “busy” like a badge of honor - and sacrifice a whole lot for it. So the first step, again, is to look inward and become very specific about the emotions that you experience when faced with making decisions.

The use of the term “stress” is actually another issue I’ll be addressing during my TEDx talk - it is far too much of an over-general term and as such, prevents us from addressing with any specificity what is actually going on. Perhaps you are scared of sounding stupid in front of your superiors, or you are annoyed that you are having to make this decision instead of someone else in the company, or you are resentful of your partner because you have to decide where you will vacation yet again. So, specificity is really important. Once you are clear on the exact emotion, you are much better equipped to address it because you can explore the whole matrix within which it is embedded.

There are many more tools out there, but one of my favorites that I have picked up from the wonderful Dr. Brene Brown and that I often use in my own life, is to unravel the story that you are telling yourself in the moments when you are experiencing your difficult and unpleasant emotions. Next time you are experiencing these, stop for a second and ask yourself: “What is the story I am telling myself right now that is making me feel this way?”.

For example, when you have a conflict with a friend, you may find that this is how you are explaining the situation to yourself: “She is so selfish, she just couldn’t care less about me!”. Of course, this leads you to feel annoyed and hurt and insignificant! See how true that story is to begin with, and how you can change it so that it sounds more reasonable and so that it leaves you feeling a lot better than that.

How about tools for parents and their kids?

I would recommend that parents do the same thing. Children have a singular way of pulling on and provoking their parents’ emotions, so tune-up your awareness next time that happens, and look for the more reasonable explanation as to why your child is acting a certain way.

It often has far more to do with them and their inability to manage their own emotions, than it has to do with you. Sometimes, by the way, they may well be acting out with the intention of hurting you, or provoking you, or annoying you! Work on maintaining your calm in those situations too - it will do wonders for your psychological well-being and your ability to parent from a place of presence and purpose!