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“I don’t do emotions.”
As I heard this statement by a workshop participant many years ago, I found myself at a loss for words.
I was facilitating a group of health care leaders as we explored the skills of effective communication in the workplace. I was teaching about the importance of being aware of our complete experience and the positive results of describing it to the members on our team. This included sharing our emotions as they related to the issues being faced.
I took a deep breath, and asked for others’ opinions. A lively discussion followed. It became clear that emotions were seldom talked about or acknowledged at work. We discovered that emotions are present whether we know it or not and often we are unaware of how decisions are influenced by our feelings.
Reactivity happens “out of the blue” when people are not aware of their emotions and a trigger causes them to lash out or shut down without them knowing the cause. We went on to realize that the ability to know what we are feeling and to be able to describe that to others is a powerful tool in communication.
In her book, Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown describes the importance of language in the human experience. She writes, “Language shows us that naming an experience doesn’t give the experience more power, it gives us the power of understanding and meaning.” She goes on to explore and elaborate on 87 emotions and experiences (thoughts that lead to emotion).
I have been inspired by this book to reflect on my relationship to emotions, and why this is so important in my life.
How to become friends with our messy emotions:
1. Understand that emotions can be felt in our bodies.
I have worked at becoming acquainted with the messages that my body is giving me as I learn about my emotions. This means that I pay attention rather than distract myself. What might my tense shoulders be telling me? Why is my stomach swirling with pain and upset? How can I get rid of the tightness in my jaw? Rather than popping a pill or pouring a glass of wine, I stop, take a breath, and focus on what is going on in my life.
2. Name the feeling that is present.
Is it fear? Anger? Grief? Most of us have a limited vocabulary for naming our emotions. So, I have been studying the language of emotions and fine-tuning what it is I am feeling. This helps me to pinpoint what is going on for me.
3. Accept the emotion just as it is.
In the past, I have been critical of my “bad” emotions. The reality is that all emotions are just emotions. Neither good nor bad. It was freeing for me to learn this and be compassionate with myself no matter what I am feeling.
4. Understand that emotions must be expressed, not repressed.
They do not disappear by me ignoring them or pretending I am okay even if I am feeling a storm of anger or sadness. They remain in my body and can cause future problems if not released.
5. Ask yourself: what keeps me from expressing my emotions?
I grew up in a home where I was not allowed to question my parents or yell and shout if upset. My job was to keep my younger siblings in order and to act calm and dignified no matter what I was feeling. Any crying I did was done into my pillow where no one could hear me. I was influenced by the expectation placed upon me as a girl and the eldest child in the family. This included pressure to keep quiet, not take up too much space, and be agreeable and sweet, no matter how I was feeling inside.
6. Ask yourself: what happens to my relationships when I do not express my emotions?
When I am continually hiding how I am really feeling, I am not being authentic. This takes a tremendous amount of energy and instead of getting to know others, I focus on making a good impression and not offending others. I project my inner turmoil onto my loved ones and end up being critical and judgmental. I may feel lonely and lost. My relationships remain shallow and are often easily broken.
7. Understand that we can shift the patterns in our lives.
I wanted to make a change and that meant getting help. I read books, took courses, and worked with a life coach as I searched for a healthy way of living with my emotions. This took courage and I took risks with my friends and family. I started describing my emotions to myself. Then I expressed them to others, learning to do this in ways that honoured them and me. Emotions are messy. I often felt a lack of control, especially if I began crying. I used to think that if I started crying, I would never stop. In fact, just the opposite happened. I cried until the tears stopped flowing, and somehow the tears cleared the way to peace and calm. Often, it was then that I was able to ask for help, and I received the love and support waiting for me.
There are many examples of expressing emotions that could be highlighted. I want to focus on what it is like to suffer the loss of a loved one. This could be a sudden death or a long awaited release from a painful illness. Whatever the case, the healing will come as emotions are felt, described and expressed.
Loss and grief are a winding road with unexpected stabs of pain and anguish. If a person is not familiar with expressing their emotions, it can be a frightening time. As they are sobbing, they may feel panicky. Who am I? Is this really me that is wailing and crying uncontrollably? What’s wrong with me? The truth is this: this is a healing experience that will cleanse and bring a sense of calm. Intense sorrow is normal after a trauma such as the death of a loved one. As the grieving person allows themselves to weep and mourn, they will come to accept that this is part of their healing.
Perhaps you are the one who is witnessing a friend’s loss. Just as you have been learning to accept and express your emotions, here is an opportunity for you to accept the messiness of loss and sorrow that your friend may be experiencing. There is nothing to fix. There is no specific timeline or set of actions to focus on. Being aware of one’s feelings, naming them, and allowing them to be expressed are some of the steps on the path to healing.
Emotions are part of being human. We will all have them impact our lives, whether we admit it or not.
I invite you to open your heart to the adventure of being a partner with your emotions and see what happens!