”We also have to invest time attending to our own fears, feelings, and history or we’ll find ourselves managing our own unproductive behaviors. As daring leaders, we have to stay curious about our own blind spots and how to pull those issues into view, and we need to commit to helping the people we serve find their blind spots in a way that’s safe and supportive…The difference between leading from hurt and leading from heart is not what you’ve experienced or are currently experiencing, it’s what you do with that pain and hurt.” — Brene Brown
A major factor in authentic vulnerability is the consensual aspect: You choose what you share, with whom, and when.
And because it is so simple, that’s the reason we all get along in this world with perfect equanimity. It’s why no one ever struggles with relationship issues and we all have friendships that are deep and rewarding.
It’s why our work is always so meaningful and why there is no such thing as child abuse or addiction. Etc.
Our Bodies, Our Iceberg
I came across a graphic that uses an iceberg to illustrate our feelings manifesting in ways that don’t really look the way we hoped they would.
My vivid imagination superimposed a human body on top of the iceberg and realized that our feelings, felt deep in our bodies, often in our bellies often have a difficult time expressing themselves in a way we comfortable with.
Especially those feelings we call “negative”. Here are 8 of the most common:
Here is a super helpful graphic showing our emotions on a wheel — similar to a colour wheel, where emotions opposite each other on the wheel are, in life, opposite. (h/t positivepsychology.com)
Often, those feelings manifest as:
- lack of focus
- numbing (addiction)
- chandeliering (this is a term coined by Brene Brown that explains the action when you suppress your feelings until they can’t stay in any longer and come out in an explosive rage for seemingly no reason)
The iceberg graphic resonates with me because I am one of many people who had a difficult time learning what feelings I was feeling — if I go back a couple decades, I can say that my gut felt very close to an iceberg.
You may not feel like your body is an iceberg, but for many of us there is a disconnect between what we feel and how we behave.
And that is the reason my introduction is so out of whack with reality — even though, on the surface, you’d think it would be so easy. We live in these bodies of ours, don’t we? We’ve had them from birth, haven’t we? Shouldn’t we be able to control them better?
It’s probably no surprise, though, that in fact, we have a really difficult time expressing negative emotions.
They’re a huge part of any human life, but weirdly, for many of us, the only tip we get about them is to make sure we don’t show them.
And therein lies the problem.
Sharing With Who(m) We Want
We don’t have to share our emotions with anyone we don’t want to share them with. It’s that simple. Now, I’m not a rocket doctor (or a brain scientist ;)), but the obvious counter-balance to that is that if you are in any kind of meaningful relationship, coming to terms with what you feel you want to share with a dear friend is a key part of a real friendship.
You share nothing with strangers.
You share a lot with your life-partner.
Between those extremes lie an infinite combination of sharing. Sometimes you think you can trust someone to hold an emotion and you try but they aren’t ready. They may grow to be ready. They may not. Sometimes you are certain that a friend will never understand but they do — hallelujah! That’s a great feeling and most likely, the beginning of a wonderful and deep friendship.
Of course, humans and human relationships are complex systems and we are in a state of constant change. That makes us lovely but also sometimes difficult.
But you’re human, so I don’t have to tell you that. You already know.
Sharing What We Want
I’m pretty sure I don’t have to spell this out for you either, but (so-called) negative emotions and feelings can be really really strong sometimes.
In a life well lived, they certainly are. (Excuse the parenthetical, but I can’t come up with a life where no negative emotions exist…can you?)
Just as much as I probably don’t have to tell you that negative emotions are often strong, I probably don’t have to tell you that they aren’t super welcome in many places.
And that’s okay. That’s great, in fact.
Because, if you’re honest with yourself, holding space for someone else’s negative emotions is hard work. It just is. We also need to rein in our (so-called) positive emotions (for example, if you’re feeling pure ecstatic joy and you’re at a statistics lecture and you’re older than 5…you may need to rein it in.)
Not everything can be shared — and that means we need to get really good at running interference with our emotions before they go ahead and express themselves in ways we don’t want them to.
Sharing When We Want
And, for anyone who has ever been around small children, there’s the constant issue of trying to hold their negative and difficult emotions for them at the worst possible times.
Small children clue in pretty quickly to the “who” part of the equation. They rarely lose it with people they don’t feel comfortable with. But the “when” — oh, man — hello, grocery store. Or 3am. Or your birthday.
For adults, we know very well when we should not share our negative emotions. The problem is more in finding appropriate times when we can.
Because we must.
When we don’t, what happens is so common and obvious: often our most lovely, most cherished relationships suffer.
We know — we’ve known since we were very young — who we feel most comfortable with. And those are the humans who get the brunt of our poorly tended negative emotions. Those emotions we did not catch early enough. Those emotions that cried out for us in our bellies (or hearts, or throats) and we didn’t hear, or ignored, or pushed down harshly.
As we must have experienced at some point, what happens when we don’t give those emotions a safe, controlled expression, is that they chose their own way out. Now my graphic image needs to change from iceberg to volcano…because often those emotions build up pressure and find a way out that is unexpected and wilder than we can manage.
So — as we have all experienced — we say something mean to our life-partner. We scream at our small children. We yell at an employee (note we somehow manage to never yell at our boss…) Or we get sick. Or we disengage, lose sleep, become resentful and blame — etc.
How To Manage Our Emotions
In three easy steps! (Just kidding)
First, we need to get quiet and learn to hear our emotions in our bodies. We all have them — men, women, tough people, snowflakes, artists, insurance salespeople, moms, dads, grandparents — all of us.
There’s no one way to best learn what emotions you are feeling, and it takes practice. And you don’t have to tell anyone you are doing this. It’s a private toolbox you’ll create and use that you’re free to share with people — but you do not have to.
Here are a few tactics to try. See which ones resonate:
- Journaling: this kind of journaling can be in the form of “morning pages” done first thing before you do anything else, or before you head to sleep. Important that the journal be private, that you allow yourself to free write, and see what comes up for you.
- Body scan: get quiet. Ideally lie down or sit with both feet on the floor. Close your eyes, calm your breathing. Mentally scan your body, starting with your toes. Bring awareness to each part of your body and notice whether there is tension there. If there is, make a note of that. It is possible that your body is holding emotion there. If you can observe that tension. You don’t need to name it, but you might. You can visualize it — as a red pulsing blob, maybe. Or a blue-green dripping ball — whatever.
If it’s helpful to you, some people feel that emotions are associated with certain organs:
Heart and small intestine — happiness, joy, excitement, hate, impatience
Spleen, stomach, and pancreas — trust, openness, anxiety, worry
Lungs, skin, and large intestine — courage, sadness, depression
Kidney and bladder — calmness, gentleness, fear
Liver and gallbladder — kindness, anger, frustration
- Read a list of emotions: Some people find it helpful to simply read a long list of emotions to better get an idea of what feelings are even possible. You can use the wheel of emotions above or find an extensive list here.
Control Your Emotions
Once you feel comfortable naming your emotions, it’s time to take control of them. You lead. You are the one who decides when your emotions will be shared, what will be shared, and with who(m).
If you are afraid of your negative emotions, you’re not alone. We all are — they are scary (!) and we’ve all had experiences where they have gotten out of control or we have witnessed them out of control.
It’s important to remember that our emotions, our feelings, are just that — feelings. Go back to a body scan, but this time, when you come to a place of tension, stay with that tension and breathe, slowing your breath and observing the emotion passing through your body.
You can also visualize this as a wave of emotion passing over your body. You’ll notice the emotion crests and then falls, ebbs and flows. This is what emotions do.
Once you are comfortable with watching your emotions come and go, you are ready to manage them — using exercise, art, art-exercise like dance :), meditation and prayer, hiring a coach or therapist, or writing.
It’s your choice. As adults, we have the ability to acknowledge emotions as they occur and breathe deeply to bring calm awareness. We can, with practice, observe the emotion occurring and make a note to do something to express that emotion as soon as appropriate. As long as our emotions get acknowledged, they can wait for a bit to be expressed.
Learning to manage negative emotions is a powerful exercise. There’s such a lovely feeling of mastery when we can quietly tell our bodies that we’re in control. We’ve got this. We know what to do.
Using professionals is always a good idea — it’s often a necessary step before we can really own the process.
I am spending all of 2020 focused on providing solutions for what happens when we’ve let our negative emotions control us for too long: burnout, insomnia, distraction, anxiety, etc.
Join me, won’t you? I’m starting with a simple newsletter called “10 Things”. It’s not a cure, but a start. I send 10 Things each Monday — a careful curation of quotes, quests, songs, and videos that might gently open your heart and help you grow more authentically vulnerable.