I was raised to believe that feelings were like alcohol: something to be experienced only in moderation, if at all. Yeah, it might be OK to laugh a bit or tell your lover that you love them, but most of the time feelings just got in the way. So I'd start to feel angry or afraid or sad and then "get a grip" and shove it away so I could carry on.
I became master of the poker face.
Life in the Pressure Cooker
Thing is, the feeling was still there, like water in a pressure cooker. And it would leak out in my body language or as snide remarks or in my demeanor. Other times the pressure would build up to the point that I'd blow off steam all at once -- a huge burst of feeling out of scale to what was really happening (aka "going postal), once with near disastrous results for my career.
The truth was that while I was tamping down all those feelings so I could control them, they were really controlling me.
Going with What Comes Up
So rather than spending energy to tamp down those pesky emotions even more, I took the opposite tack. Taking a cue from the Japanese martial art of Aikido, I began to go with the flow of emotions rather than resist them. I learned to experience them as waves, sometimes big and sometimes small. The results were surprising.
My first step to mastering emotional literacy was to notice when I was having an emotion. After years of ignoring emotions, it took some time to recognize the clues. First, there were the body sensations -- tension in my back or jaw for anger, butterflies in my stomach for fear, tightness in my throat for sadness. I began to use them as an early warning system for emotions and pay attention to what was happening "down there" (anywhere below the cerebral cortex that had served me so well as a business executive).
Then came the hard part: instead of ignoring it, or distracting myself with thoughts or words, I learned to just be still and make space for that emotion to blossom. That was scary: what if others noticed I was sad or angry or scared or even happy? Thing is, they were noticing it already because it was leaking out despite my poker face. So I was doing everyone a favor by dropping the charade.
Go Big or Go Home
Sometimes it was enough to just notice the body sensations, realize I was having an emotion and let it go -- like a little coffee break for the soul.
Other times, the emotions wanted bigger expression -- a sound or a movement to really let it out there. Maybe an NFL end zone dance or a roar of anger. Sometimes just shaking my hands or wiggling my fingers was enough.
Regardless of whether the expression was big or small, silent or loud, the result was the same: I felt refreshed, enlivened and relaxed. Rather than spending my energy faking a poker face and holding in real feelings, I was giving myself the luxury of full expression. At first it was scary, but as I practiced, I became more comfortable and so did the people around me, to the point I could say something to myself like: "Today is Tuesday, and I feel angry (or sad or scared or happy)."
I began using my emotions as clues pointing to important issues -- why was I feeling angry about being asked to edit the website? Was the fear I felt before giving a speech a reminder to double-check my presentation slides? Was I feeling sad because I knew I was about to make a big move and leave behind people or places I cared about?
There were other benefits, too. The people around me got to feel closer to me -- they were getting a genuine experience rather than a facade.
I began to feel closer to them, too; I got good at noticing their feelings and intuiting what was going on with those around me. That allowed me to connect more effectively with others.
I didn't just experience the benefits at home. I also saw a positive impact in my business life. Nearly 20 years ago, researcher Daniel Goleman studied the qualities of successful leaders and found that while intelligence and skill were important, the biggest differentiator of successful leaders was their ability to notice, befriend and manage their emotions.
Tim Peek is a certified executive coach who advises leaders and their teams on using disruption, consciousness, and strategy to create their desired future. www.peekdisruption.com
Meg Dennison is a certified conscious leadership coach who has reinvented herself many times. She coaches busy women midpoint in their life or career to consciously create their next step based on genius and life goals. www.megdennison.com
Together, Meg and Tim write about how they turned around what had become a stale and uninspiring 28-year marriage to return to the passion and purpose to their lives. Motivated executives come to Meg and Tim for help reinvigorating their careers, companies and intimate relationships.