How to Feel

Did I think I was going to light the world on fire? Not exactly. But I couldn't help myself. I was seized with the notion that if people talked more openly about their emotions they could change their lives. My thesis was listening to your feelings helps you to understand yourself better and understanding yourself better means knowing what you want and knowing what you want leads to actually getting it.

I'm realizing, though, that I'm up against a big giant called hundreds of years of socialization, and with an iPhone app as my slingshot, it would seem I'm hopelessly over-matched.

There are a ton of "mental models" or beliefs about emotions or feelings (I use the terms interchangeably) circulating in our culture. Perhaps the most popular one is that feelings are positive or negative as opposed to just, well... feelings. Feelings don't make you a good or bad person, either.

Still, it's easy to see why we carry around these misguided notions - we are constantly bombarded with messages that it's not okay to feel. It's so pervasive it's often difficult to put your finger on. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish in their book How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk summarized the types of responses we're used to hearing when say trying to talk to a friend about a problem:

Denial of feelings: "You're over-reacting." or "Your probably just tired and not yourself."
The Philosophical Response: "Nobody's perfect - life doesn't always turn out."
Advice: "You know what you should do..."
Questions: "Has this ever happened before?" or "Why didn't you..."
Defense of the Other Person: "I can understand why that person reacted that way."
Pity: "That's terrible!" or "You poor thing!"
Amateur Psychoanalysis: "I think the real reason you are upset is..."

These responses are meant to be helpful, but instead often prevent us from dealing with our emotions and therefore our problems.

However we may deny it feelings underlie all of our interactions and everything we do. Yet, we walk around, stepping over the roots of the issues. Sometimes, I think I must be going crazy because I see how emotion affects children at school, adults at work and even our physical health, but no one actually talks about it.

I can empathize with just how difficult a topic feelings is. Emotions are numerous, complex, and facing them is challenging. Sometimes we even couch our feelings in the few feelings that we believe are okay to have like only women can be sad or only men can be angry.

Understanding emotions and how they affect our communication and behavior, are so important however, that one of the finest institutions in our country, the Stanford Graduate School of Business in a class called Interpersonal Dynamics (ironically dubbed Touchy Feely by students) teaches future business leaders emotional awareness skills. Which should be a sign that self-awareness skills differentiate leaders who rise to the top. And frankly, also makes me wonder why these skills aren't taught elsewhere.

Sure, we may have received a few lessons in feelings when we were children, but like a language left unused, if we don't continue to practice identifying, expressing, and managing our feelings, our skills deteriorate.

I suppose I'm so adamant about it all because for the longest time I didn't know how to feel. I'm well educated - I went to Stanford University and Stanford Law School, but the difficult truth is I didn't get what I could from these fine institutions. I didn't know how to extract the value the experiences yielded or what I needed from them, because I was too distracted by my emotions. I was having a lot of them but without the tools I couldn't manage them and I missed out on a lot.

I find myself catching up now. I don't think I'm alone in the effect mismanaged emotions have had on my life. But it does seem sometimes like I'm alone in seeing it as the cause. Still, as Patton and Heen in Have Your Feelings or They Will Have You put it, "Solving problems seems easier than talking about emotions."

I get that expressing our emotions feels risky. It feels scary because we think it makes us vulnerable. Yet, we have that turned on its head. Not saying what we feel or not accepting how we feel is what truly makes us vulnerable -it leaves us open to the decisions, whims, and judgments of others. We risk something alright - we risk losing ourselves; we risk forgetting how to feel.