I came across a post on Facebook the other day that shared a wonderful TED Talk given by Susan David (The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage). That, and some conversations I’ve had recently, got me thinking about why I do what I do.
Susan grew up in South Africa during apartheid which affected her deeply. I spent my childhood in Belfast at the height of The Troubles and while I was fortunate not to see some of the worst of the fighting, it was an ever present background that coloured my younger years. Perhaps that’s why I am so passionate about getting in touch with our feelings and learning how to work with them in a positive and creative way.
One of the lasting memories of my time in Northern Ireland is the banner that used to hang across the City Hall which read ‘Belfast Says No!’. That spoke volumes to me of the rigidity of people’s thinking and the lack of openness that was keeping so many trapped in their fear and pain.
And I think this is just as true on an individual level.
In her talk, Susan says that she has come across so many people who say they don’t want to carry on feeling the way they do. They are referring to emotions such as anger, sadness, disappointment and fear. But Susan believes that these are ‘dead people’s goals‘ because only people who have died no longer feel these emotions.
We generally live in a society that pushes for a positive outlook and has little time for what it has come to label ‘negative’ emotions. (See my earlier blog series: ‘Positive thinking – is it always a good thing?’) I think this has forced many people into feeling that they have to play a particular role, and to disconnecting from their true feelings, causing a part of them to ‘die’ inside. From this place we can easily feel lost, overwhelmed and hopeless.
Susan talks about the women who are told that they ‘shouldn’t’ feel angry, or the person who’s been diagnosed with cancer being told to ‘just stay positive’. And of course there are the commonly held beliefs such as ‘boys don’t cry‘. But what does this do to someone who is feeling angry, or who is reeling from hearing that they have a potentially life-limiting illness? And how are boys – and men – supposed to deal with feelings of hurt and loss? This creates a society of individuals who feel unheard, unseen and forced to wear an uncomfortable and ill-fitting mask, just to be accepted.
So what happens to the real feelings? Do they go away?
No, they just get pushed down, go underground, where they grow and fester.
And we can start to use outside things to cover them up – or push them down and keep them buried – eg food, alcohol, busy-ness and other ‘addictions’.
But deep down, our body still knows that all is not well. E-motions are meant to flow. The word itself gives us a clue to the fact that these feelings are energy in motion. They are there for a reason – they are our barometer; our guide to what is working for us and what isn’t; data that we can use to find our way to a life of joy and wellbeing. In an ideal world we would explore these emotions and process the data they offer in order to make the choices that best serve us. But when we push the feelings down, when we haven’t developed the tools to learn from them and grow, then they get stuck, magnify and lead to dis-ease.
I heard, just yesterday, about a friend of a friend, who is living a life of chronic anxiety. Even when there is nothing immediately obvious for her to worry about, it’s as if she has to find something to fret over. She has become so accustomed to this way of being and her body craves the adrenaline and the energy it brings, but her health is suffering and she’s no longer able to cope with many of the things that she used to do, including her work. Even just leaving the house has become an ordeal for her.
I believe that this happens when we don’t face the truth of what we’re feeling. For a while we can get by behind the mask, but as Susan says in her talk, it’s not sustainable. Like one of those stress balls, we might be able to push our feelings down in one place, but they will generally then surface somewhere else.
As I said above, our feelings serve a purpose. Not only do they give us valuable information but they can be our motivation to make things better.
I think that a large part of the problem is that society labels our feelings and conditions us into certain expectations of behaviour and conduct. However emotions are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, they just are. You feel how you feel. It’s what you do with those feelings that’s important. If we could stop beating ourselves up when we feel certain emotions then a large part of their hold over us would be gone. Instead we could choose to look at things from a more objective viewpoint and with the perspective of a beginner’s curiosity.
We need to start by exploring the nature of the feeling. Giving a name to the emotion – being as accurate and un-dramatic as we can – is the first step in developing Emotional Intelligence. When we do this, we know exactly what it is that we’re dealing with which helps us to move on to the next step…
What is going on behind the feeling?
- Why am I feeling this way?
- What triggered this feeling?
- Is there an unmet need here?
- What resources can I draw on to meet that need?
We can use journaling, somatic dialogue (tuning in to a part of the body and asking it about how it’s feeling and what it might be holding), art, movement and other techniques to explore the many layers of our being in order to tune in to our inner wisdom.
This can be a very empowering process but with that comes responsibility. We need to be conscious in the way that we use this new knowledge about ourselves. The aim is to show up with authenticity, integrity and even vulnerability and to allow and encourage others to do the same. (You might like to explore Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B Rosenberg for further ideas on this.)
If you are someone who has wanted the painful feelings to stop, or you feel that you’re wearing a mask, and you feel ready to explore a different way, then please get in touch. I’m very happy to have a no obligation chat to discuss ways that you can tap in to all the wonderful resources that you hold within yourself.