Emotional Mindfulness: What Anger, Vulnerability & Despair Teach Us
When I wrote the original version of this article two years ago, I was experiencing many contradictory feelings and wondered – how can so many potent emotions sit side by side within me?
This week, I’m again experiencing a whirlwind of feelings, many in response to global events; the Boston Marathon bombings, an ugly and seemingly intractable battle over gun safety issues in the United States and a near paralysis on the part of leaders and most citizens in the face of the inevitable climate crisis we will all face in one form or another – to name a few.
Fortunately, I don’t get lost in sadness or despair, even when times are hard. I feel grateful to have developed an emotional resiliency that feels balanced in light of so much pain – and joy in the world. But I can, at times, feel a sense of vulnerability because of the limitations of my power to effect change. Popular TED talker (7 million +) and author of Daring Greatly, Brene Brown spoke about the complexity of allowing ourselves to feel vulnerable and joyful, “As someone who spent more than a decade studying fear, vulnerability, and shame, I never thought in a million years that I would say that joy is probably the most difficult emotion to feel. It’s hard to feel joy because we are so keenly aware that it’s fleeting. When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, we lose the courage to be joyful. Joy is a daring emotion! We are going to let ourselves stop in a moment that won’t last forever, that can be taken away. We feel almost that “you are a schmuck if you let yourself feel too deeply because the bad stuff is going to happen.”
Ever feel this way? Of course you do. You do, because you’re a human who is experiencing a range of feelings that can often seem completely at odds with each other. Brene Brown struck a deep chord with her TED talk and her later work because individually and collectively we aren’t used to talking about emotions like vulnerability and shame that leave us feeling powerless.
The truth, as writer Susan Piver, shares is, we are vulnerable. All the time. It is the truth of the fragility of the human condition, except that we forget it, deny it, bury it. We delude ourselves with the trappings of external power, but we are never far from our vulnerability. Susan Piver reminds us that what is sweetest and most tender about us is also a source of power. But, most of the time, we don’t allow it. Mostly we don’t extend ourselves the gift of self–compassion or reach out to others for support when we feel emotionally weak or troubled.
We live in cultures that don’t respect vulnerability and sensitivity. It’s 2013 and we still don’t get our own human fragility and need for love and support.
People often ask – What do I do with my contradictory feelings? Which feeling do I pay most attention to? Do I have to choose one feeling over the other?
No – you don’t! All of your feelings are valid and they are all an expression of some energy within you. But learning to ride the waves of these different, often difficult energies within can be challenging.
Underneath feelings are more feelings. Some emotions are easier to feel and express than others – more socially sanctioned, more comfortable. The pain of grief, the isolation of fear and the unremitting stress of frustration are difficult for everyone, especially when we try to bear them alone.
Emotions are not meant to stay “stuck.” The English word emotion is derived from the French word ‘emouvoir.’ The French is based on the Latin word emovere , where e- means “out” and “movere” means move. Not stay inside. But to move – out.
In other words – emotions need to be released. Too many people still think that emotions can be suppressed. While we can attempt to keep emotions “down,” recent research shows that trying to do so comes at a cost.
Dr. Daniel Beal co-authored a Rice University study examining emotional suppression in the workplace, “Our study shows that emotion suppression takes a toll on people. It takes energy to suppress emotions, so it’s not surprising that workers who must remain neutral are often more rundown or show greater levels of burnout. The more energy you spend controlling your emotions, the less energy you have to devote to the task at hand.”
New neuroscience definitively shows that when we attempt to remain “neutral” and suppress what we really feel – precious neural energy is siphoned from the neocortex (the so-called “rational”) brain, limiting our thinking processes and sapping our neural reserves.
As part of my work, I’ve spent countless hours listening to people talk about their feelings. One thing is common – people tend to speak about how they feel in dichotomous language.
Feelings,some people say, are either good or bad. Negative or positive. Black or white. In my work, people often create lists of the positive (good) emotions and the negative (bad) emotions. You can guess which feelings get placed on each list.
Why is this?
According to Miriam Greenspan, author of How the Light Gets In; “We have less difficulty with the so-called positive emotions. People don’t mind feeling joy and happiness. The dark emotions are much harder. Fear, grief and despair are uncomfortable and are seen as signs of personal failure. In our culture, we call them “negative” and think of them as “bad.” I prefer to call these emotions “dark,” because I like the image of a rich fertile dark soil from which something unexpected can bloom. Also, we keep them “in the dark” and tend not to speak about them. We privatize them and don’t see the ways in which they are connected to the world.”
What Did You Learn About Your Feelings When You Were a Kid?
The answer is often a window on how you are experiencing your emotions to this day. Few of us were taught how to understand and relate to our emotions in healthy ways. In fact, many of us were taught to mistrust and devalue our emotions. Miriam Greenspan explains, “Nowhere in school does anyone tell us that paying attention to our emotions might be valuable or necessary. Our emotions are not seen as sources of information. We look at them instead as indicators of inadequacy or failure. We don’t recognize that they have anything to teach us. They are just something to get through or control.”
Imagine if we had been given a rich vocabulary to describe our emotional palette when we were young?
Imagine if we had been given tools to manage feelings as they arise to constructively channel those energies?
Imagine if we grew up with the skills to cultivate our emotions and use them as a resource to enhance our lives?
Tools to Build Emotional Mindfulness
- Get More Emotionally Literate – Emotions continue to suffer from a “bad rap.” Some people are downright phobic about them. One of the key principles of emotional intelligence is that emotional learning is infinite. No one is ever “done.” Learning more about the range of your emotional experience can liberate you and build the foundation for greater emotional choice.
- Notice What You Feel – To become emotionally mindful, you’ll need to learn to pay better attention to what you feel – and where you feel it. Emotions live in the body, not in your head. We’re often cut off from our physiological responses (like our breath) and misread how we feel as a result.
- Accept What You Feel – This can be a tough assignment because sometimes what we feel is scary, exhausting, unattractive or embarrassing. YOU are not your anger or fear. You have feelings of anger and fear. While you may choose to gain a deeper understanding of how and why those feelings “show up,” you feel what you feel. Suppression and denial are temporary palliatives, not solutions. Most deep-rooted feelings don’t simply vanish. They are there to get your attention.
- Identify Your Addictive Emotions – Yes, our own emotions can be habit-forming. For some people anger is a repellent – to others it’s a stimulant. Emotions like anger and resentment can act like “cover” emotions to hide the scarier and less socially acceptable feelings (depending on our cultural influences) like sadness, hurt, grief and fear. Some people only “do” happy. They develop a philosophy and language to keep things “light.” While that’s fine, it often acts as a form of repression and keeps others from comfortably expressing what they truly feel.
- Pay Closer Attention to What Triggers You – Triggers or “hot buttons” are like maps to our thoughts and beliefs. They are offer invaluable insights into how needs are being met or unmet. Chances are your emotional triggers carry a lot of old emotional baggage. The more you know about what triggers you – the greater the opportunity to use your conscious awareness to deactivate those reflexive emotional reactions.
Much of how we experience our emotions has to do with what we believe about them. If we believe that grief and rage have no value, then we will have a difficult time when those feelings arise. If we believe that all emotions are intelligent and carry important information about our experience, then we can stay open to the inner wisdom that is trying to emerge.
This isn’t easy. Experiencing the so-called dark emotions is hard. But what we gain can be deeply rewarding.
Miriam Greenspan expresses it beautifully; “The “dark emotions” are inevitable. They are part of the universal human experience and are certainly worthy of our attention. They bring us important information about ourselves and the world and can be vehicles of profound transformation.”
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants