Get up! Get back out there.” My middle school gym teacher, Mr. Shonta was yelling at me.
I was laying in a heap along the wall of the gymnasium floor. The indoor soccer game had come to a halt, kids wondering why I was still on the ground.
The boy who had just shoved me to win the ball, hovered over me as I braced my arm. Brian. I’ll never forget his name.
I didn’t know at the time, but I had just fractured my radius.
I hated that everyone was staring at me. Sadness rushed through me. Tears welled in my eyes. I’m not sure if it was more because of the radiating pain in my wrist or the radiating shame that I was feeling. I swallowed it all down. The fear of being laughed at, of being ostracized, was greater than the pain. That’s what 11-year olds did. Belonging mattered too much to acknowledge how I felt. I needed to get up and get back out there. To pretend I was ok. To fit in. To choose not to feel.
Growing up there were many incidents like these. Times where I was trained - and trained myself - to push aside my emotions.
Emotions, especially the more challenging ones, were inconvenient. Sometimes overwhelming. They were disruptions to the flow of life. And so I grew to distrust them. I made a practice of stuffing them away, swallowing them down. Emotions were never welcomed.
The Mind Deceives What Emotions Reveal
I chose instead to trust my mind. Thoughts were easier to manage, easier to work with. I invested in intellect. And I used my mind to rationalize feeling even less.
Moments of joy quickly morphed into finding what’s wrong or not good enough about the current situation. When people give me a compliment, I experience a brief moment of gladness and lightness as I take in their words. Then my mind takes over. Externally, I thank them for their share. Internally, I reject their compliment. “That isn’t really true” is my mind’s go-to when I receive positive feedback. In fact, I usually have counter-evidence already prepared to convince myself that I need to be better than I am. That I’m not good enough. And therefore I have no right to feel glad about the compliment I just heard. No, my mind told me that there’s more I needed to do before I could let myself feel good.
Patterns like this were signposts that my mind wasn’t always telling the truth.I noticed the same situations and people were triggering me over and over again. The same obstacles tripping me up. And my mind seemingly powerless to help navigate these situations. “Oh no, not this again” became a common internal dialogue. Will I ever be free of these things? Is this how it will always be?
Our minds have been trained through creating beliefs, mindsets, and mental models. And those beliefs, mindsets, and mental models that I relied on were a byproduct of past emotional experiences. Those feelings that I had on the 7th grade gymnasium floor formed me.
To break free of those beliefs I had to understand the emotions that created them. Emotions may be overwhelming, but they don’t lie. Each emotion is a visceral reaction to some stimulus. They always hold a deep truth - both of myself and my relationship to that stimulus - if I’m willing to feel.
Starting to Feel Again
It took well into my 30s to dare to feel again. And when you’ve been shut down for that many years, it’s challenging to come back online.
What helped me was slowing down every now and then to check-in with myself. What am I feeling right now? When I do this, I look for sensations in my body. It may be a tightness or a lightness. Perhaps something feels unsettled or twisted. My chest, stomach, shoulders, and throat are common places where I’m feeling things. When I do this my mind get quite active. Thoughts about how this is silly or not a good use of my time are prevalent.
For identifying the emotion, begin with a simple palette so you can clearly see the message behind each emotion. Here are the six to start with:
- Glad - I have something that I value.
- Sad - I have lost something that I value.
- Mad - A boundary has been crossed. Someone or something has taken something that I value.
- Fear - Something that I value is under threat.
- Shame - Something is wrong with me and I feel bad about it.
- Guilt - I did something wrong and I feel bad about it.
With each feeling, by naming the emotion you can connect to your truth. Sometimes it’s quite simple: I’m eating ice cream and I’m glad because I value sugary goodness. If a close friend moves away, I feel sad about losing their presence in my life.
Other times emotions can be much more subtle, often inter-woven: Along with that ice cream gladness, I might feel fear or guilt. “Is this going to make me out-of-shape?” (i.e. I value my health). Once comfortable with the primary six emotions, variations on them offer more insights.
Stress, for example, is persistent form of fear tied to an ongoing experience of something I value being under threat. Leading my last business was fraught with stress, always fearful that I’d fail at my opportunity. Acknowledging the stress helps me move from coping with the fear/stress to wanting to honor a value of seizing opportunities - for me a much healthier basis for action.
Emotions are happening all the time. There’s so much to learn. Even as I type these words I can feel a tightness in my sternum. That’s where fear shows up for me. That fear wonders if my words make sense to you. It hopes that I’m being clear. It wants to belong, to connect on our shared human experience. And as I’m with that fear as I push publish, I can be free.
There’s much to learn if we dare look inside.