Don’t Talk About Feelings… You Will Feel Worse… Or Better???
Updated: May 7, 2021
"You've got me feeling emotions Deeper than I've ever dreamed of"
Emotions by Mariah Carey (Click here for the song)
To be professional and demonstrate high levels of emotional intelligence we need high levels of emotional control. Those who like a bit of neuropsychology know that the amygdala is primed to hijack our responses when we face danger and send us into a fight, flight or freeze zone. In an extreme situation this means we ignore the rational responses to situations and allow strong emotions to take hold.
So, what do we do? Squash the emotion?
Unfortunately, weird things happen and we numb our emotions. The reality is that you cannot selectively numb emotions. Using negative behaviours to avoid your feelings may help you experience less sadness and anger, but they also stop you from feeling happiness and joy. Part of the amazing thing about being human is that we are able to have a range of emotions. Trying to fight our feelings often leads to more suffering. Using negative behaviours to try to numb our feelings is akin to putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. They might make you feel better temporarily, but these behaviours do not “fix” the underlying problem. Further, using negative coping strategies to numb emotions causes people to feel even worse in the long term. But, of course there are times (i.e. if you are at work) when you may not think it always feasible to process your feelings in the moment.
So, what do you do? Schedule times to be emotional?
Not quite… but almost! You see we need to pause to notice the emotions that we experience in the moment and try to cultivate a curious and nonjudgmental view - but this is really difficult. When your colleague has just interrupted your meeting with the CEO to take full credit for a major project that you actually completed, it’s not that easy to remain as calm and composed as you would like.
How do you develop internal emotional awareness skills?
The simple answer is to ask yourself the question what am I feeling? And write down the answer (according to Tasha Eurich, this act helps to stop the amygdala response). Regular readers know that nothing is ever that simple because: You are making a change.
"We don’t like change even Positive change,
Getting the job you want,
Marrying the person you love…
All changes involve loss we have to give up the thing we have been holding on to, even if the thing we have been holding onto makes us miserable. "
Who wants to honestly admit that the conversation they just had with their direct report made them feel bored or irritated.
It can’t be right?
Surely if we give voice to our emotions they will take over.
"The truth is that by letting the tears flow, you are letting out what hurts while making more room in your heart for positive thoughts and feelings. Expressing your pain is actually a good way to make it stop"
What about the WHY?
How can I just notice my emotions and write them down but not analyse them? Trust me this bit is difficult for anyone who is trained in hypothesis testing, anyone involved in root cause analysis, art work and so forth, however, the research recommends you focus on answering the question “what am I feeling?” not “why am I feeling it?”.
"What questions… keep us open to discovering new information about ourselves (and others) even if that information is negative or in conflict with our existing beliefs"
So how do I develop good internal emotional awareness skills?
As with any behaviour change, I often get my clients to set up a ‘safe to fail experiment’ in other words they practice the new behaviour in an environment with low risk, until they are confident to take it to high risk situations. The safe to fail challenge: (low risk)
Pick a time in your day where you know you have 5 minutes, choose a place to sit quietly where you won’t be interrupted.
Open the notes page on your phone, write the date and time and write down whatever emotions you are feeling.
Stretch your body like you do when you wake in the morning.
Get back into your day.
Repeat 4 times a day, once before bed.
Repeat every day.
If you want me to keep you accountable then feel free to email me your lists, don’t forget to be as expressive as you can with your emotions. While emotion lists can help to expand your level of expression, some people find them overwhelming, so use your discretion. As you keep practicing, don’t be surprised if you start to record your emotions at different (unscheduled) times of the day. Many clients are using Dr Adam Fraser’s Third Space principles to include recording of emotions before implementing a brief relaxation. (see my previous blog for ideas).
Others are beginning to learn how to mentally list emotions as they sip a glass of water or take a breath or clench their fists in an emotionally charged situation. Another client has decided he will get into the habit of always pausing before he speaks, so that when he needs the pause to list his emotions it will seem quite natural.
But what about the POSITIVE emotions?
Barbra Frederickson’s research has found that positive emotions, open our minds, broaden and expand our awareness, and facilitate the building and development of resources, including knowledge, skills, abilities, and relationships. So naturally it is highly beneficial to be including positive emotions in your lists. Her 'undoing hypothesis' proposes that positive emotions might correct or undo the after effects of negative emotions. She explains that a positive emotion may loosen the hold that a negative emotion has gained on that person's mind and body by dismantling or undoing preparation for specific action.
"Our day-to-day positive emotions function as nutrients for our overall wellbeing.
Today’s positive emotions do not simply exemplify today’s wellbeing, they also help to create next month’s increases in wellbeing"
A client recently told me he felt elated and privately did a happy dance when he realised he had not ‘taken the bait’ and did not shout at an aggravating colleague. Finally, it is important to remember that internal emotional intelligence is not the silver bullet, according to Martin Newman, it's only a third of the Emotional Intelligence required for leadership. However, improving your internal emotional awareness will go a long way to improving your wellbeing and your relationships at work and at home . As with any homework, I shall follow you all up in a few months and see how you are tracking.
If the intensity of your emotional experience is impacting your ability to function in the world the way you want to please make an appointment to see your Doctor and discuss the need for a referal to a clinical psychologist.
As always please be in touch if you or anyone in your network would benefit from coaching or a comprehensive wellbeing assessment.
References: more are available on request https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/between-cultures/201611/positive-emotions-and-wellbeing https://www.healthline.com/health/stress/amygdala-hijack#overview Tasha Eurich (2017) Insight The Power of Self-Awareness in a Self-Deluded World http://www.psychpage.com/learning/library/assess/feelings.html Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218–226. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3122271/ https://www.rochemartin.com/how-it-works/ Positive affective processes underlie positive health behaviour change Van Cappellen, Patty; Rice, Elise L; Catalino, Lahnna I; Fredrickson, Barbara L.Psychology and Health; London Vol. 33, Iss. 1, (Jan 2018): 77-97 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5682236/ https://positivepsychology.com/negative-emotions/ https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/mindful-musings/201611/3-reasons-let-yourself-feel-your-emotions