Emotions Are Your Guidance System

When on the openhearted life journey, we each have experiences that can take us to some deep places.  Depth invites exploration – if we want it to, of course. In a conversation awhile back,  a good friend who is near and dear to my heart asked me how I was.  In that moment, I said, “I’m discombobulated and my emotions are near the surface.”

“My emotions are near the surface.”  What an interesting turn of phrase.  What I meant was that sadness, sorrow, angst, tears were all near the surface and tears would spill easily and effortlessly with the slightest provocation – sorrow or joy.

I dug a little deeper to discover what was stirring in my soul that caused these emotions to be so near the surface.  In that exploration, I identified and released things that had been swirling around and in me about decisions and choices I have no idea if I will even need to make.  I began to settle into a place of not knowing and not needing to know in this moment, trusting clarity will arise in due course.  No need for decisions or choices today.

a moment of reflection

I surrendered back into peace, joy and delight as I had a little realization, an aha moment.  My emotions were near the surface again.  They were just different emotions than previously.  Which got me to wondering.  Do I even think of joy, delight, peace as emotions?  Seems I do.  But not in the same way as I think of sorrow, sadness, anger and grief as emotions.  Without being conscious of it, I’ve been making value judgments about my emotional experiences – just like I tell people we do in the coaching and teaching work I do.

Yup.  There I was, doing it too.  Sorrow, sadness, anger, frustration, anxiety – bad.  To have those emotions near the surface is bad.  Like they need to be contained.  We don’t really know what to do with them but many of us have learned that trying to contain them, while it might work in the short term, just doesn’t work in the longer term.

How many times people apologize for their tears, one on one, in circle, in some meeting or gathering, and how many times I say, “I look forward to the time we no longer feel the need to apologize for our tears.”  I have, for the most part, stopped apologizing for mine.  So it is always delicious to discover what all is still alive in me when I explore my own emotional state.

Today, when my emotions are near the surface, instead of a tear sliding down the side of my face, a smile might break out for no reason in particular, when I’m by myself, with my son, with my partner or directed at a stranger.

The strange thing is, just like we don’t necessarily know what to do with the emotions we judge as bad or negative, many of us also don’t know what to do with joy, love, peace, delight.  We can be pretty good if it’s episodic.  If there is a reason – like we have to have a reason.  We’re not so good at knowing what to do with prolonged bouts of happiness, joy or delight – but what a beautiful challenge to embrace.

If we are used to chaos and negativity in our lives, it just feels different to shift into a new normal – of peacefulness.  A new pattern.  A new way of being in the world. Shifting the shape of our experience. Quite delightful to cultivate actually.  And this state of being does grow on a person.  Thankfully.

What I’ve been learning in the course of my life’s journey is that our emotions – the full range of them – offer us guidance.  I used to think they made me weak – at least the ones I judged as bad.  I use to think being vulnerable was the opportunity for someone to attack me.  Now I know differently.  There is strength and power in vulnerability when it comes from authentic open hearted space.  And it takes courage to step into vulnerability.

My emotions are my guidance system.  They tell me how close or far away I am from my centre, from my soul essence. They are a clue to what I’m thinking, whether I am present or living in the past or future.  If I inquire into my emotional state I can find myself.  And I can change my state of well being by paying attention to my thoughts, discovering what I’m holding onto that doesn’t serve me.

I like finding myself in a place of peace and joy but it’s okay if I find myself somewhere else too.  My preference now, through the journey of life, is to find my way, continuously, through daily practice, back to a steady state of feeling good.

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Shame: Releasing Its Hold

I have been reflecting on shame for a couple of months now, how it sneaks up on you, robs you of your vitality, robs you of your voice.  How it feels almost impossible to reveal but liberating even just when you can begin to understand that it is at work.

Shame

Most of us, if not all of us, have experienced shame at some point in our lives.  The work of shame is so powerful that it can shut you down, deplete you of your energy, make you want to hide.  It works in partnership with the voice of your internal judge so the whole experience is amplified.  Sometimes it feels as though there is an antennae on your head, sending out signals that you are a person who has failed, that here is someone who wasn’t smart enough to figure out something, someone who misjudged a situation, someone who totally bombed.  It is particularly bad when the situation you misjudged, misinterpreted, misread, mismanaged is something you generally do quite well and may, in fact, earn your living by it.

This happened to me awhile ago now, in a public way with a client. That’s when I drafted this post and it has taken me this long to finish it and post it. It was the client’s end of the year employee appreciation day and dinner. They wanted to build on some of the past work and amazing speakers they have brought in. After a few conversations and meetings with the leadership team, that were full of promise, we decided to do something different for them – an appreciative inquiry to engage their large group in conversation with each other and in discovery of what they already do well to apply in other ways.

Aside from the wireless mic dropping on the floor and breaking open, it all seemed to be going well.  People seemed engaged and in conversation with each other.  We did a rapid fire harvest.  I ended with a lovely poem and added in Rule 6a and 6b – don’t take yourself so fucking seriously, don’t take other people so fucking seriously.  The CEO was speechless at the end but, in the moment, I didn’t understand why.

A bit later, someone else on the leadership team shared with me how severely the organization looks down on the use of profanity, even though it was meant in a lighthearted way, and I immediately felt bad. And not just bad.  The voice of my internal judge was activated and it gave me a very hard time – I should have known better, this is what I do – hold space for other people, sense into the dynamics of a group – how could I possibly have so misjudged the client dynamic – a new client that had started off with such a high degree of possibility.

Although I apologized to the client instantly, I became aware I could not find it within myself to talk about what happened – to anyone, not even my closest friends, not even my partner who is incredibly supportive of me in work and life.  That’s when I realized I was ashamed.  Deeply ashamed.  Shame shut me down and made me miserable – for days, weeks, even months.  It was reinforced and amplified when I got the feedback from the group, forewarned it was a “mixed bag”.  While that was true, it was easily the harshest feedback I have ever received from a group in all the years I have been in this work.  So, it was doubly, triply hard because I really should have known better.

All the little and larger things in my awareness that have not gone right or have not flowed over the last months and maybe even years were activated and then compounded upon themselves. Until I finally, finally found the words to share my experience, my shame, my personal self-disappointment, first with my partner, who just listened, who supported me, who did not try to downplay my own responses (whether they were out of proportion or not), did not try to make it better or to dismiss it and did not judge me; and then with other friends who are also colleagues in my business field.

It still feels bad when I think of that moment, when I cannot understand how I so clearly misjudged the moment, but the shame of it is no longer defining me, shutting me down or playing itself out larger than life, compounded by building on any other unresolved incidences of shame that might exist in my history – known and unknown, aware and unaware.  The most important thing is that it illuminated the power of shame to close me off and I know I am not alone – which is why I chose to write about shame.

I realize this shame is minor compared to the shame some other people assume or carry, unwarranted shame where they blame themselves for someone else’s actions like in cases of abuse, sexual assault, abandonment or other issues. Shame that keeps people in relationships that are not healthy, do not function well; shame that keeps people from reaching out for help because they are ashamed at finding themselves in the situation to begin with, because they blame themselves so completely they shut out sources of support. Shame that buries our stories until they become deep dark secrets instead of stories that naturally shape our lives and help us know who we are.

Brene Brown offers some powerful research on shame, its origins and its impact, sharing her own personal stories of shame and vulnerability, paving the way for so many others of us to share our own stories of shame and vulnerability so we can embrace all aspects of the stranger within, for each of us in our journey to openheartedness.

Who do you know who you might be willing to share a shame story with, or where might you seek professional support to do so, to release the hold of secrets and shame and shift the shape of how you show up in the world, to claim greater resiliency,  your power and your path?