Too Emotional? Are You Sure?

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Working with some educational leaders recently on improving schools, someone remarked,"The problem is simply that many of our teachers are just too emotional."  Years of experience hearing comments like this in schools and companies has taught me to slow down and ask more questions.

"What do you mean by "too emotional"?  What are they saying or doing?" 

What followed was a list of self-sabotaging ways some of the staff were choosing to express their frustrations:

  • Silently - but dramatically - rolling their eyes during meetings

  • "Forgetting" to implement certain policy changes

  • Expressing their displeasure in raised voices at a fast pace, or

  • Expressing their discontent with rhetorical questions like, "Are you seriously adding yet another thing onto our plates?"

We've all been there.

I am super tempted to start writing about

  • how we need to hear the message before we start going after the delivery

  • or, about resisting our habits of diagnosing and creating enemy images in misguided attempts to "solve" something

  • or, to point out how feelings are connected to our needs...

But, I am going to exert some self-discipline and focus on this one narrow aspect of that complex interaction today:

In Defense of Feelings. 

The problem as I see it, is not that people are "being too emotional." (I'm not convinced that is even a thing) but rather that we don't know how to work with emotions effectively and so we waste our energy either resisting or reacting to them.

The "problem" if you will, lies in the habitual privileging of thinking and the suppressing of emotion.

The "problem" is the power struggle we keep having with emotional data.

It's far more practical to have them working in partnership with one another.Let me explain.Judging ourselves and others as "too emotional" is one of the many ways we've learned to oppress ourselves and suppress our own inner truths.  Our cultures teach us to disconnect from our emotions, our bodies, our subjective selves and to privilege rational, logical thought.

In cultures where educational and social practices focus disproportionately on critical thinking, analysis, assessment and obedience, we learn early on to use our minds to control and contain our emotions.

  • We learn not to reveal how we really feel about something.

  • We often learn to act in opposition to how we really feel.

  • We learn to suppress our feelings and our deeper needs in the service of fitting in, belonging and staying safe.

And, let's be clear, these are good skills and capacities to develop:

  • They allow us to achieve some mastery over our emotions so that we aren't puppets on strings, reactive to every environmental stimulus.

  • They allow us to practice delay of gratification - the ability and willingness to be uncomfortable in the short term in the service of a long term, larger desire.

  • They help us practice self-control, self-mastery which increases our choicefulness.

All useful capacities.

However, when unexamined and unbalanced, these skills can have a dark side.

If I see you as "too emotional," what I usually mean is that I don't want to work with your feelings, know about your feelings, want to deal with your feelings.  I have very little internal capacity for sitting with a range of feelings, yours or mine.

Since I have a habit of disconnecting from and numbing out from my own feelings, I believe that you should too.

Especially at work.

I don't like dealing with my own feelings, and so I like dealing with your feelings even less.

The result?

Fragmented, unhappy people who think that the solution is to create more fragmented, unhappy people because they need to be prepared for the "real world."

Cold, self-serving systems that run on systems of judgment and criticism, unwilling to care about the human beings or care about the impact policies and practices may have on people.

When you tell someone they are "too emotional," you are telling them to care less.  The last thing this world needs is more uncaring people.

Ugh.

Furthermore, unfelt, unexpressed, unacknowledged feelings gather a momentum of their own. 

  • We can become more reactive, irritable and distracted

  • We swing between various ways of trying to numb out our feelings in order to manage them (drinking, smoking, shopping, binge-watching shows etc.), and then

  • We find ourselves expressing judgments, irritation and stress with vehemence, force and exasperation.

Believing that being "emotional" is a problem that needs to go away, usually just leads to more intense feelings and other problems down the road.

Like water, emotions are full of life-serving energy.

We all need fresh, clear, mineral-rich spring water.

When we drink fresh, pure water, it nourishes us.   Too cold? It freezes out our ability to get anything good from it. Too hot? It burns and scalds us.  

When we freeze out our emotions we have no access to their energy or motivational forces.  When we allow our emotions to heat up like boiling water or in a pressure cooker, the force or heat will eventually become harmful to ourselves and others.

Perhaps we'd be better served to ask,  "At what temperature do you like your emotions?"

  • Cold, freezing, frigid?

  • Mild and temperate?

  • With hissing steam, bubbling and boiling?

When we allow emotions to get too hot or too cold, the ways in which we express them may be self-sabotaging and ineffective. The more we take emotions "off-line" (and, the more we just act them out indiscriminately) the more toxic the systems become.

We need to bring our emotional, felt-sense data back online in practical and effective ways.  Caring about how we and others feel is integral for building healthy relationships, families, schools and workplaces.

The next time someone tells you, you're too emotional, thank them.

Acknowledge that you care deeply about something. Invite them to share what they care about too. Listen to their concerns. Make room for their feelings too. And keep your focus, as always, on What Will Help?

"Thank you, it's true that I care about this really deeply and it helps me to know you see that. I'd like to hear more about what you care about ... Let's me see if I can express myself in a way that may be easier to hear... I'd love to find a solution that works better for us all."