Emotions, Combat, and Being a Good Dad

Combat is the ultimate expression of consequence. If we don’t do things right in combat, we run the risk of experiencing one, or all, of the following unacceptable outcomes: Mission failure, injury, or death. Perhaps this seems a little extreme when we include this with things like emotions and being a good Dad. But is it? What is the correlation? While being a father may feel like combat sometimes, it is not. At least in the sense of literal life and death. But are we willing to accept the consequences of not doing things right as a father? I hope the answer for all of us is a resounding, “No!”

Doing things “right” is not the same as not making mistakes. Mistakes happen all the time in every aspect of our lives, especially in fatherhood. The question, though, is are you aware of your mistakes? Are you aware of your mistakes enough that you can see them clearly and quickly and then account for them and make the necessary adjustments…and apologies? If you are aware of these things, then you are doing things right. And if you are doing things right, that means you have awareness of the key driver to all your actions, or inaction as the case may be: your emotions.

If It’s Good Enough for Combat, It’s Good Enough to Consider for Fatherhood

In 2010, while a Special Agent in the FBI, I was attached to the 75th Ranger Regiment in Afghanistan where we saw extensive combat operations. I along with others in the FBI, were selected for this kind of duty because we possessed unique skills that would allow us to add value to the Rangers’, and other Special Operating unit’s, warfighting capabilities. For my part, my primary duty in the FBI was International Terrorism investigations. I was also an FBI SWAT Operator and former Navy SEAL Officer.

Combat will bring the unexpected to just about anyone. The way a combat situation is handled one day may produce a completely different reaction the next. I witnessed this on more than one occasion: struggle to move under fire one day when the previous operations saw unwavering poise under similar circumstances. Clear headed and methodical actions handling fallen enemy combatants today, shaky hands and indecision tomorrow. A gruesome, but real aspect of war.

In each instance I saw these things and was in a position to help out my teammates, there was one observation that made all the difference. In moving a situation along to ensure mission accomplishment and giving a teammate the ability to take a quick breath so they could collect themselves and get back to work – the awareness and recognition of their emotions and the actions their emotions were driving. I would be re-miss if I did not acknowledge that the same was done for me by my teammates.

My point? If I can illustrate that recognizing emotions is a vital aspect in combat, which it is, then we can agree that it is worth considering in other aspects of our lives, like parenthood.

Positive Adjustment Only Comes with Emotional Recognition

How many times have you snapped at your children because of how you were feeling, not because what they did merited it? If you are honest with yourself, then the answer is probably enough times to remember. Does this make you a bad father? No, these are simply the mistakes we make because sometimes life gets the better of us. However, there is a profoundly serious caveat to this. What did you do about it?

Did you do the right thing? Were you able to recognize what you did? How did you address what you did with your child? Did you apologize and explain that you acted that way because of how YOU were feeling, not because of what they did? Did you commit to recognizing the emotions that drove you to act outside your best self and work to avoid the same mistake again?

If you have done these things you know how difficult they are to do. And because they are hard to do, that generally means they are the right thing to do.

Let’s break it down.

First, you had to recognize and acknowledge your behavior. Because it is something you did, you must eventually determine if this behavior is part of your personal culture and the culture you are building in your family. If you recognized your behavior, then you acknowledged some form of emotion, like guilt or shame, in your actions.

Great start, but you’re not quite there yet.

They easy way out is to overcompensate by showering your child with affection later, letting them have extra dessert, or allowing them to stay up later than normal watching the television show you swore you would never let them watch. However, the right thing to do is to address it directly. Why wouldn’t you address it directly? Most likely because of that original shame or guilt you felt after you did what you did. Emotional recognition only helps if you act on that recognition appropriately.

Maybe you decide not to address what you did with your child because you convinced yourself they are too young; they would not understand. Cue that buzzing noise, “BUUUZZZZZ”, wrong!! A child’s analytical mind doesn’t kick in until the age of seven years old or so. Until then they are simply absorbing behaviors that will eventually make up their personality. So, is it ever too early to begin doing the right thing? No, it is never too early. That is just your justification for not apologizing and the driver is your emotion, or in this case perhaps embarrassment.

Will you do it again? Probably. That is ok, though, because behavioral change is hard and so is regularly recognizing the emotions that drive your behavior. Emotional recognition is a skill, just like anything else. You must put in the work to get better at it. And you must have the courage to act on those dirty and destructive emotions of guilt, shame, and embarrassment the right way; by acknowledging them.

If it sounds like I am preaching, I am. To myself! It just so happens I am sharing my inner thoughts with you. I need to remind myself of this daily as I try to set the right example for my children and try to create a positive culture of self-awareness, courage, and forgiveness for my family. You are not wrong if you have made the mistake of not acknowledging your emotions and how you are acting on them. You are human, give yourself some grace. But you are wrong if you don’t start now.  

A Manly Example or Not?

Emotions and manliness? Sure, combat and manliness, that makes sense. But emotions, combat, manliness, and fatherhood? Let’s look at the final breakdown. You decide for yourself if you are setting the right example as a father by focusing on your emotions and the actions they drive.

Look at your daughter. Not so much on how you want her to act, but at what behavior she will find acceptable…in a future husband. Like it or not, what you say does not mean a whole lot to your children. What you do, however, means everything. Your behavior as a father will play a massive role in the behavior she accepts from others later in life.

Do you want her to absorb the burden of her future husband’s bad mood when she has nothing to do with it? Do you want her to accept being snapped at or blamed for things that are not her fault? I should hope not! However, this is the road we are sending her down as fathers if this is our behavior towards her.

How about your son? What of the first time he does something wrong where he should clearly know better and avoids responsibility and, worse, places blame on others. As a young man, wouldn’t you want him to acknowledge mistakes, apologize, and work to get better? I should hope so! Which one are you doing as a father? And which one is the behavior we want in the man our daughter chooses to spend the rest of her life with?

Making Emotional Awareness a Habit Especially in Parenthood

Many good behaviors don’t come easily. Good behaviors must be identified and practiced to become habit. But practicing emotional awareness? How do we practice that in a safe, consequence free environment? Welcome to ice baths and cold showers!

There is one thing you can be sure of before, during, and after you take an ice bath. You will have an emotion. Fear, anxiety, doubt, reticence, resistance. You name it, you will likely experience it.

The drill is simple. With the intention of identifying every emotion you are having, get into a cold shower for 1 minute or so. Before you begin, identify one or two emotions. While you are in, identify one or two emotions. After you get out, identify one or two emotions.

Now for the hard truth. Doing this once or twice won’t help you. If you want emotional awareness to become a habit, you must do it every day. There are a lot of different theories as to how many days doing something creates a habit. For our purposes, I like 66 days. Yes, 66 days of cold showers with the intention of identifying your emotions.

Why are you going to subject yourself to this? Because real men and women understand the importance of emotional awareness in relation to how they act. And parents understand that their children will not necessarily do what we tell them to do, but they will act the way we act or accept the behavior in others they see in us. The only way to know how we are acting is to be aware of the very thing that drives our action…our emotions.

Errol Doebler is the founder of Ice Cold Leader, a leadership consulting firm. After successful careers as a Navy SEAL Platoon Commander and FBI Special Agent, Errol founded Ice Cold Leader to realize his passion of empowering great leaders and better human beings. Errol provides executive coachingkeynote speaking, and corporate retreats to individuals and teams across the world.

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