What is your relationship to emotions?
Are you able to be aware of what you’re feeling as you read this? If so, then congratulations.
You’re fairly unusual.
Tasha Eurich, the author of Insight, says, “Our data reveals that 95 percent of people believe they are self-aware, but the real number is 12 to 15 percent,” she says. “That means, on a good day, about 80 percent of people are lying about themselves—to themselves.”
I guess, even when we think we’re self-aware, we’re probably not.
Whether we think we’re self-aware or not, one of the key markers is our ability to notice our own emotions.
Try this. What are you feeling right now?
If you’re not sure, chose one of these: mad, glad, sad, scared, lonely.
You can have more than one feeling, but the goal is to try to pick at least one.
When I ask this question of my clients, I find that many of them don’t like the choices.
Many will want to find different emotions like “frustration” or “annoyance” to describe how they feel about a situation, which I point out are basically offshoots of anger.
Why do we resist naming our emotions? What are we worried about?
First, if you’ve grown up in the USA, you most likely have an uncomfortable association with emotions.
We tend to think of them as messy, chaotic, and unproductive.
The truth is, they are, especially when we suppress them.
I wonder, how many of us are aware of the emotions that we feel each day, and how those emotions drive our behaviors?
Here’s Mister Rogers talking about his own experience with emotions and how they impacted his behavior.
Here’s a clear example of the power of self-awareness and the impact on others of letting our emotions get the better of us.
So why do we stuff them down?
One way to understand how we feel about something is to put it in the framework of fight or flight stimulus response.
If you’re not sure what I mean, think of an intense situation at work or in your personal life and ask yourself whether you feel like going towards it or away from it.
The fact is that we are wired for survival. Fear and desire play a huge role in how we interpret ourselves in the world.
We are always moving towards or away from the stimulus we experience, and fear is a big emotion at the center of that.
When we ignore the emotion, our actions will inadvertently be driven by it.
Importantly, when we are feeling fear, our brain gets flooded and our pre-frontal cortex shuts down.
We essentially become “hijacked” by our amygdala, which makes it almost impossible to think and see clearly.
For some, especially those who had difficult childhoods, all it might take is a certain kind of body language or tone to send people into a mild panic.
Awareness is the key.
The good news is that the more self-aware you are, the easier it is to interrupt and redirect the hijacking of your brain.
Even the act of noticing that you’re feeling fear can reactivate your pre-frontal cortex and help to reset your neurological response.
The problem is that you have to be aware, which means that you have to be willing to notice your emotions, which gets us back to that resistance.
I’ve noticed that we have a strange relationship with fear. It’s an incredibly strong emotion, and it seems to drive a lot of behaviors. Even anger as an emotion is often just a cover for fear.
One of my favorite quotes about fear is from Danny Musico as they relate to boxing. (From Men’s Health Magazine, by editor David Zinczenko)
Guys who chicken out, who panic, are in most cases the guys who are trying to hide from their feelings. Tough guys feel that fear; they embrace it. Experience what’s happening inside you, accept it, and keep going.
I sometimes wonder if most of us are either unaware of the fear that we feel, or we are overwhelmed by it.
Either way, unchecked, these emotions leave us with little freedom to make choices.
And that freedom is the key to feeling empowered in this world.
Without that self-awareness, we become puppets of the situations that we are in.
Driving, politics, work conflicts, marriage, parenting, it all becomes unmanageable when you are unaware of what’s happening to you at the moment.
Start with your body.
What is it doing? Where is the tension?
When you feel stress, what happens to your breathing?
What do you clench?
Use your body as a path to more self-awareness, which will then lead to more freedom from self.
As I said before. Pay attention.
The more aware you are of your body and your feelings, the more power you have to be the person you want to be in this world.
Take a deep breath. Release the tension. Sit back in your chair. Center yourself over the heels and balls of your feet.
You will have more courage, more composure, and more choices.
All you have to do is begin with what you’re feeling right now. Notice what your body is feeling.
Do that multiple times a day, each day, and you will begin to catch the thoughts and the reactions before they hijack your mind.
Like Fred Rogers, you may even begin to notice the ways that your emotions from your day can sweep you up and carry you away, even when you don’t mean them to.
Breathe. Open your heart. Notice.
We appreciate your presence.