Recently I wrote a post on my take-aways from Brene Brown’s speech in Sydney, on how frequently we bypass our emotions and make up stories about what's happened to us. Many of us reflexively push away uncomfortable emotions, to the point we're unaware we're feeling anything. Today I want to explore why we do this, and why I believe it's crucial we re-value our emotions and the wisdom they bring to our lives.
We get our emotional default patterns from our early experiences, especially our families. In Australia, it was common to be shown in our families how not to feel. If you cried, you’d be told anything from 'chin up' to being shamed for showing vulnerability, which unwittingly taught you not to trust your feelings.
Families have unspoken emotional rules. Some like to pretend everything’s ‘happy’ and ‘lovely’ whilst dark shameful secrets get swept under the carpet. Others don’t do softness, hugs or spontaneous affection. They don't touch. Some families do selective emotions - false cheer and harsh anger, but no grief or sadness thanks. Too uncomfortable.
All of this is unconscious of course, as family rules and patterns get passed down from generation to generation, largely unquestioned. In family therapy, it's understood it takes seven generations for patterns to leave a family system. Unless someone is willing to become aware of the patterns and make different choices with their children.
At school, the focus was on academic intelligence, with emotional development largely confined to what you experienced in the playground. If you think about the level of emotional repression in our culture over the past few generations, it's not hard to see why this aspect of our intelligence is still so stunted. It just wasn’t done to show vulnerability growing up in Australia. The majority of us unconsciously equate emotions to being weak and losing control.
I'm not advocating we all fall about weeping! We need to function, and yet, there's plenty of room in our rational reality for more feeling.
Taking time to feel your emotions is just as valid as taking time to think things through.
I believe we're born with a full emotional range because it helps us to make sense of our complex lives. If you're dealing with loss or a big change that brings emotional upheaval, to rearrange yourself internally to appear fine, stoic and coping causes crazy chaos in your body. A huge amount of energy is needed to repress the emotion, and it typically comes out physically, emotionally or behaviourally down the track, perhaps in a gush of misplaced rage, an illness or a full scale breakdown.
Maybe that’s why you shout at your kids. Or why you can’t stop crying in private. Maybe it’s why you were triggered by a mundane conversation. Or why you’re so tired all the time.
There’s always a cost when you shut down valid parts of your humanity and pretend everything's fine. It dries up the well - the part of you that nourishes and connects you to the heart of life, to its joys and sorrows, flatlining your sensitivity, playfulness, creativity and passion.
But a far more serious cost is you can become more wedded to denial than reality. To black and white thinking. To believing I’m right and everyone else is wrong.
When you stay in your head around complex situations and intellectualise what's happening to you and others in the world, nothing gets felt. It's too easy to ignore the part of you that cares. When you disconnect from your feelings, from your heart, you can justify and rationalise just about anything, without any empathy or compassion for the consequences. That’s how leaders do unspeakable things, because they easily disconnect from their humanity and rationalise their actions. History is testament to this.
We've mistaken emotion for weakness in character, whereas now we're seeing the consequences of such a ludicrous assumption. The rational mind without a heart is clear, but cold.
That’s why we have a heart! So that empathy and compassion for our common humanity is accounted for in our actions.
I believe the reason we are so biased against emotions (aside from our conditioning) is because deep down we know the moment we allow ourselves to feel what's going on in the world, we won't tolerate not doing more about it. Because the heart doesn't lie. It's far easier to distract and deny than it is to feel.
In these times, we need to harness the wisdom of the heart together with the clarity of the mind. It’s not either or, it’s both. We have to re-learn how to process our emotions and extract the wisdom from them, and I’ll share my thoughts on how in another post.
It's no longer enough that this type of learning is confined to a self-help book or the therapy room, largely out of sight and connection to the general arena in which we all live. It's when we utilise all of the capacities we have within us that we'll really start to become the change that we wish to see in this world.