Not all of us can be great scholars, doctors, lawyers, scientists, etc. Not all of us can be great athletes. But all of us have the ability to develop our emotional intelligence and I’d argue that emotional intelligence is the key to the survival of both our species and our planet. Academics and physical fitness are both important, but so is our emotional and spiritual health. We are multi-faceted beings and all aspects of our make-up must be treated equally. Today I am looking at the matter of emotions, which we are never taught to study. In fact, emotions are seen most of the time as negative, something to be avoided at all costs. The truth is that emotions are neither good nor bad; they just are. Problems arise because of our ignorance surrounding our emotions, ignorance which leads to inappropriate expressions. When we don’t understand what we are feeling, we can react in ways that others will find to be negative. When we don’t take time to look within ourselves to see why we are feeling the way we are, then we can and do lash out in ways that harm our relationships.
In earlier posts I have written about my reactions to anger. I react badly to anger which is expressed violently, and my reactions are triggered by my own childhood traumas and my PTSD. Anger is just one of many different emotions which all of us feel. Anger is neither good nor bad. But our society is quickly becoming much more violent as the expressions of anger take on confrontational and even physically violent expressions. The old adage that “sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me” is horribly false. Words have the ability to inflict enormous harm as well as enormous good. Weapons harm, whether they are actual guns, knives, fists, etc., or whether they are verbal weapons, and personally, I fear the angry word more than any physical weapon.
I recently had a friend tell me that she hadn’t lashed out at me in anger, but rather that she’d been really hurt. I don’t know if she is aware of it, but both emotions were operating. Yes, she was hurt, and yes, in her pain, she lashed out in anger. Anger isn’t always the primary emotion. It is, as far as I can tell and I am not an expert by any means, also a very common reaction to both hurt and fear, among others.
For example, while anger is definitely not my first defense strategy, I have certainly been known to be snippy or cutting, lashing out towards others when my pain levels escalate. I have lived with constant pain for a number of years now, and I have had to learn to guard my tongue very carefully, especially when I am really hurting. My pain can make it easy for me to lash out in anger, trying to take out my pain on whoever is close by. Obviously, this is not only inappropriate, but it is also shooting myself in my foot as actions like that only drive people away.
I have seen people lash out in anger as a defense against various fears as well. People yell at the clerk at the grocery store because they can’t find what they want. Maybe they are afraid to go home without it as they will then disappoint someone they care about. And possibly the yelling prompts the clerk to find or get whatever the person needs. As another saying notes, “the squeaky wheel gets the oil.” However, in the long run, such strategies are neither the most effective, nor healthy for either party.
I lived through three years of remodel and I witnesses a number of angry shouting matches when things weren’t going the way people wanted. I tried to say that getting angry and yelling wasn’t going to help anyone, and I was told that I am “too nice,” and that if you are nice you will get walked over. Unfortunately this is a common belief, that being ruthless is power and nice guys finish last. I don’t believe that. I believe that kindness and gentleness are not weaknesses and that “you get more with honey than you do with vinegar.” There are ways to set my boundaries so that I am not getting walked over, and at the same time I am able to live effectively and productively.
With a growth in our emotional intelligence, we could learn better techniques. First, we need to acknowledge and honor our emotions. Emotions are part of us and they are not evil. When our emotions get triggered, I think we need to take the time to figure out what is going on inside us. Why are we feeling whatever it is we are feeling? How is this emotion speaking to us? We must get in touch with our inner being first, before we do a knee-jerk reaction.
Several years ago I was taking private yoga lessons from a wonderful teacher. She told me a number of times just how well she thought I was doing. During one particular session she kept correcting the pose I was learning and with each very gentle correction I felt more and more as if I were a total failure, as if I would never be able to get it right, and as that trigger of mine progressed, I became convinced that I would never get anything right ever again. I struggled through the rest of the lesson holding back my tears until I could finally leave. Later, after talking to my therapist about this, I realized that my old childhood programming had gotten triggered. This programming, especially since it began when I was so young and lasted for many years, structured my reality of the world, specifically, that I would always be a failure no matter how hard I tried. I forgot all the praise my teacher had given me; I forgot that this was a brand new pose; and I forgot that my teacher always encourages her students to do their very best. Once I was able to sit with my emotions, to look at them for what they were, I saw that I’d been triggered and that my teacher would have had no way of knowing what had happened. At my next lesson, I explained what had taken place and she and I worked out a set of guidelines so that I could feel safe to say “enough,” or whatever word we came up with, when I began to feel myself slipping.
All of us have our own set of triggers, and what is important is that we recognize them for what they are. And when our emotions get triggered, we need to be able to sit with them, figure out what is happening, and then the hardest part of all, speak our truth from our heart without judgement or blame. My teacher had no idea she had triggered me. Other times, I’ve been around people who do deliberately set out to push people’s buttons. But either way, what is important for me is that I stay in touch with my emotions, that I set appropriate boundaries so that I can look after myself, and then when appropriate, I speak my truth. The old adage about counting to ten is a good one, provided that we spend that time in reflection, rather than in thinking up a retort. Communication is a very difficult skill. Most of us are horrible listeners, and all too often we only hear what our life experiences have programmed us to hear, rather than what the other person might be trying to say. And when someone is angry, there is no point in trying to explain anything, because in anger we really shut down any ability to listen. One of our graduates last year gave a presentation on non-violent communication and it was very powerful to hear this young man explaining how we do and don’t communicate. We all have so much baggage we drag along into any conversation and we all seem to have a need to be right. The reality is that we can always find evidence somewhere to prove ourselves right, but being wedded to the notion of always being right makes for a very lonely existence. We need to listen more attentively and we need to chose our words carefully so that we speak only for ourselves, our own truth, without casting any judgement or blame on anyone else.
Our emotional health is a vital component to our overall well-being and we need to develop a great deal more intelligence around it. We need to understand ourselves to the best of our abilities, our strengths and our weaknesses. Unfortunately, in the current culture, everyone seems to be encouraged to move has fast as they can, doing as many things as possible, and this allows no time for introspection. Personally, I kept myself incredibly busy for over sixty years so that I wouldn’t have to face myself. I thought it was working just fine, until, of course, my adrenalin ran down and I couldn’t keep going at anywhere near that pace. Not surprisingly, what I found when I stopped running was that I was still there, with all the problems I’d denied for so many years, and so finally, with the help of an excellent therapist, I am discovering myself, and I am learning to “show up” in the world as an authentic being, speaking my truth and listening to the truths of others.