The subject line read “Help!”
He sent me a long string of emails to read. His organization is engaged in a deep change process, and that the work has produced some conflict that has anxiety spiking in multiple places. The emails started out as a conflict between two principle leaders on the staff and these two quickly triangled several others, including my client, into the conversation. My client sent me the string of emails and said, “Help! I’m struggling to see how to define myself and stay connected in what has become an increasingly complex and emotionally charged conversation.” He’s asked me to help him sort through his own emotional process so that he could show up as his best self in these conversations.
My last post was titled Managing Painful Feelings. I write about this in part because it has been an important part of my own growth and development as a leader. I also write about it because there is growing evidence that it is not strategy, technology, or intelligence (IQ) that makes strong, healthy organizations. Emotional process is at the heart of almost everything that stops us and, unlike IQ, it can be increased with effort over time.
This is part two of that post, which is built on several deep convictions that I hold.
- All of our feelings, pleasant and painful, are a part of the reflection of our design. God created us this way and the feelings serve a purpose.
- Many of us are taught to hide, ignore, or compartmentalize painful feelings and the result is that we are cut off from an important part of what it means to be fully human.
- An important part of the adult journey is doing the work of fully reconnecting to our whole self. Another way of saying that is that learning to experience and express your painful emotions is one of the ways that we become more whole.
As you grow your capacity (as I described it in my last post) to experience and express your feelings, that process will give you access to more information about the world around you. It will grow your emotional maturity and give you greater capacity to connect to yourself, others and God.
To gain that experience, we coach people to become intensely curious about their feelings. As you experience and express them, then you ask yourself what the feelings might be attempting to communicate to you. The answer is not always simple and straight forward, but there are some guide posts that can help you as you reflect on what you might need to attend to.
One purpose of feelings is to help us navigate our environment in healthy ways. Consider the following, but not as a rigid template against which all of your feelings get measured. Instead, let it serve to trigger your imagination and foster your curiosity.
Anger can be an indicator of selfishness. Someone or something is stopping you from getting what you want, and your response is anger. Anger can also be an indicator that your boundaries have been crossed. Or, when you see injustice, you may feel anger. Sometimes anger is a secondary emotion. The primary emotion is fear, and your anger becomes a tool for staving off the threat. Getting curious and seeing the source of your anger gives you access to action that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
Sadness tells you that there is grief work to do. This can show up in small and large ways. We tend to know more about the large ways and to make space for that grief work. When a spouse dies or you are laid off after years in a job you love, we all tend to know and to make room for grief. But what about the grief that comes when a new generation of people in church don’t want to sing your generation’s music or a familiar place that you have shopped for years goes out of business. Grief shows up in a thousand ways in our lives. Jesus says you are blessed when you mourn (Mt. 5:4). I don’t think he is saying that grief is a positive feeling. I think he’s saying that if we don’t grieve, it’s challenging to embrace the possibilities of the future because all that grief is still swirling around inside of us.
When we feel fear, we have the opportunity to be curious about whether it grows out of chronic or acute anxiety. In acute anxiety there is a real threat. A snake is about to strike. A child is about to be run over by a car. The house is on fire. These are life-threatening occurrences that demand a response. But, so much of the fear that we experience in life comes from chronic anxiety.
In chronic anxiety your physiological responses are the same as in acute anxiety – your chest burns, your focus narrows, you act without thinking. But the threat is not a real life-threatening experience. When we have experienced and expressed our feelings, the intensity goes down and we have more access to determining how we will respond to fear that is based in chronic anxiety.
Growing your emotional maturity is a life long journey. Learning to appropriately experience and express your feelings so their power is diminished, and then getting curious about what the feelings are attempting to convey to you will ultimately make you more whole. At first, for someone with little or no practice, this will seem almost impossible. Early on you may need a coach who can help you think through what happened and walk you through the process of getting curious. But with practice over time, this can happen in real time in your conversations and conflicts. The by-product is that you will be a more whole, healthy human being who contributes positively to all the group to which you belong.