We go to a lot of effort to pretend we're not human animals. We walk around with all these clothes on and try to keep all our bodily fluids and noises contained. We don't like to think we smell or need to burp. And yet, emotions, of all things, are what feel like the most uncertain and out-of-control part of being alive and human.
Having emotions makes people feel vulnerable and we don't like to feel vulnerable. People pretend that they're not feeling things they are, instead pushing these messy emotions away or trying to hide them. When the emotions come roaring out fast, they feel terrifying. People think they can pretend they're super-human and always on top of it all, or they might try to numb their emotions because not feeling gives them the illusion that they're in more control.
The truth is that we aren't really in control. We can anticipate, but don't actually know what is going to happen from one moment to the next. And when we hide our feelings, we are lying to ourselves and to each other. It's important to be honest about what we are feeling. This increases intimacy with ourselves and with each other. We come to know and understand ourselves more fully as we increase our emotional awareness.
Emotions are not fluid in our world. We have feelings trained out of us. Well, they're still there, but they get backed up. Some other cultures are more emotionally expressive than we are. The irony is that when we actually connect to our emotions, we develop emotional stability. When I'm sad, I can experience that emotion without being dominated by it. Same thing with anger. In my twenties, I expressed anger for the first time. I was so enraged, I was stomping and pumping my fists. I was absolutely consumed with the emotion because I had stuffed it for so long. When it got big enough, it came out as an explosion. I was by myself, having the temper tantrum of a 3-year-old. This is why it's important to learn to share emotion fluidly. Don't save it up! The way to get past an uncomfortable feeling is not to bypass it but to actually, truly feel it. Imagine that.
Hiding emotion is a learned behavior. Society teaches us that we need to keep a lid on it. Remember when Hillary Clinton got choked up on the presidential primary campaign trail in 2008? It made headlines for two days. It was a big, big deal that she showed real emotion. When I work inside organizations, sometimes I get tears in my eyes when I speak to the employees. Inevitably, some of them come up to me privately afterwards and thank me for being human. People want this!
Suppressing emotion greatly affects health, too. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to try to subdue what we're feeling. It's like a beach ball that's been shoved under the water and then pops up sideways. Consider how much energy it takes to keep it under water and think of the unnoticed and unacknowledged stress so many people experience living this way virtually all the time.
You may not realize this, but withholding your emotions has a profound impact on others as well. The people you care about most might be unsure of your love for them when they see you holding back. When you're open, it creates room for others to be vulnerable, too. Somebody has to be brave enough to "go first." Why not you? Once you let your own guard down, others can drop theirs which results in lots more authenticity, aliveness and joy for everyone.
Emotional fluency is a big part of our focus in our coach training at CTI. As a coach, it's important to have room for a wide range of human emotions, which is rather difficult if the coach themselves does not have permission for their own emotions. Really, when working with people in any capacity as a coach, a teacher or a manager, it's helpful to be able to stay present in the face of strong emotions. Emotions should not be relegated only to actors and therapists.
Here is the hard truth about going numb: You don't get to choose which emotions you numb yourself to. You can't numb anger and grief but cut loose with joy and passion. You turn down the volume on everything. Who wants to live like that? Is it really that painful to get real?
Here's how to let your guard down safely and make it worthwhile:
- Know what you're feeling. When I met my husband, Henry, the only feelings he could voice were "weird," "strange" or "interesting." He didn't have the vocabulary to connect what he was feeling to words. In my earlier coaching days, I had a sheet of words -- 100 feeling states -- that I sometimes gave to clients, especially males, so they could begin to identify their emotions. Men in particular often get blocked because they're taught boys don't cry. (I saw my girlfriend's 7-year-old son get knocked in the head with a water ski. She told him not to cry. I asked why and she said she didn't want to baby him. I thought, but he is a baby! This well-meaning but misguided parenting is deadening and ultimately separates men from compassion and from their own humanity, making them brittle and hard.) If you need a stronger vocabulary for emotions, try looking here or here. Or if you need more visual help, search on-line for "pictures emotions".
- Slow down and connect to your body. Start looking for physiological clues. Our bodies do things when we experience emotion. The heart feels heavy when we're sad. I get a burning feeling behind my eyes when I need to cry. When I'm angry, my jaw gets tight and my breath gets shallow. What sensations do you feel? What are they trying to communicate? Paying attention to your body's messages can take you to the center of what you're feeling. Sometimes I like to think of it as my weather report. What is the present condition of the continent of Karen? Rainy? Partly sunny?
- Be gentle with yourself. If you've bottled things up for a lifetime, beware of the internal critic admonishing you for trying to change things up now. Remember why you want to grow into a new way of being and escort the critic out.
- Start practicing showing emotion. Not at your workplace. You don't need to inform the planet how you're feeling. It's important for you to know and then try it out on the home team first. Let them know what you're doing and ask for their support to make you feel safe. Invite them to ask you how you're feeling every so often. See if you can figure it out.
- Let go of trying to understand why you're feeling this way. Who knows why? It doesn't really matter why. Emotions are like the weather -- they blow through. Getting in touch with your feelings doesn't always have to be about unpacking all the intricacies of the source behind them. Sometimes in therapy that's a good thing, but generally it's enough to just feel them.
- Don't worry about who's to blame for your emotions. You're having an emotion because you're a human being. You burp, pee, fart, have orgasms and you feel emotions. They're organic. It doesn't help to get intellectual about them.
- Allow your emotions to move. Emotions are just energy and energy wants to flow and move. The problem is we're afraid we'll get stuck in an emotion forever. (I'm not sure why -- has that ever happened to anyone even once? Maybe the Guinness Book of World Records should be alerted!) The irony is that the more we are with what we're experiencing, the more it shifts and changes. So let it flow.
- Share your emotions appropriately. Once we get connected up to our feelings, I think we naturally know when we should speak of them. Ask yourself if being emotionally vulnerable will create more intimacy in this situation or not. Will it bring us closer? If so, then speak it. Balance your urge to express an emotion with an understanding of what's needed among others in the moment.
So, it's your choice: Brace yourself, tamp down those emotions, dodge those raindrops, tuck yourself in to endure the ride... or let your guard down, be brave, share your feelings and reap the rewards of experiencing the fullness of life. Being emotionally open, you'll probably sweat a lot, but that's what you're here for. And it's what the world is striving for already anyway.
Karen Kimsey-House, MFA, CPCC, MCC, is the Co-founder and CEO of The Coaches Training Institute (CTI), the oldest and largest in-person coach training school in the world, and the co-author of the best-selling Co-Active Coaching: Changing Business, Transforming Lives. Karen was one of four pioneers of the coaching profession, and in honor of its 20th birthday this year, she shared her insights about human transformation in this ten-part HuffPost series,"Disrupt Your Life in a Good Way".