Giving Ourselves and Others Permission to FEEL

We are forever changed…

The non-stop VUCA-extreme nature of 2020 sometimes has me feeling like I’m in a bad 1990’s infomercial…waiting for the man with the beard to say, “But wait; there’s more!” Sometimes I wonder how much more we can possibly bear. Other times, I’m able to rally and find hope. I constantly refer to it as the rollercoaster of 2020.

I sometimes find myself having an odd reaction watching movies and TV shows filmed pre-COVID and seeing crowds, people shaking hands, and even people crowded into restaurants and malls. And I know it will be quite a while before that is our reality again. I also find myself in disbelief over how we’ve moved from science to politicizing how we protect ourselves and others during this pandemic. And, although it’s become a strategic mantra for our business, I’m sick of the word pivot.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a sucker for awesomely painful, sweaty workouts. In fact, since May I’ve been voluntarily torturing myself extra with one of my favorite Beachbody trainers – Shaun T. He has created truly ridiculous 60-day challenges (#SurvivingShaunT) with training calendars of literally all of his hardest, craziest workouts. He set this up saying this will be “very f*^%ng difficult” and it’s all about us “Digging Deep.”

Long before I started lovingly swearing at Shaun T during my workouts I was digging deep and encouraging others to do the same. It’s about pushing through when things are tough. And that’s what I do…when things get tough, I get into action – however, many times to a fault. Getting into action helps me to not have to FEEL the anxiety, worry, stress, etc. Here’s the thing, we can only dig deep and push through for so long. This means we need to acknowledge and embrace our own humanity; we will have rough days and fears…and so will our colleagues, kids, neighbors, friends, and loved ones. We have to give ourselves permission to FEEL. 

Feeling Instead of “Sucking it Up”

We ask some variation of “how are you feeling?” over and over; yet we never expect or provide an honest answer. We don’t want to spend time dealing with people’s feelings. If someone responded to our question saying something like, “overwhelmed”, “anxious,” or “a little depressed,” we would think, “Crap!” Because such answers tell us we’d have to stop what we’re doing and provide unconditional love and support. So we’ve been conditioned to give a canned response and say, “fine” or “hanging in there” or something neutral and benign.

Dr. Mark Brackett is the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. In his book, Permission to Feel he describes the importance of building our emotional and social literacy. Too often, we deny ourselves and one another the permission to feel. We suck it up, avoid the difficult conversations, explode at loved ones, stress eat or drink without knowing why, and the list goes on and on. We lose the ability to even identify what we’re feeling and go a little numb inside; when this happens, there’s a long list of unwanted outcomes that follow.

He suggests that we need to become “emotion scientists” – learning the skills to use our emotions wisely rather than suppressing or ignoring them. Our emotions and feelings are related. Feeling is a core experience; emotion is more specific. The language of emotion is what we need to get at in order to help ourselves and others thrive. Brackett describes how our cognitive abilities matter; however, our ability to deal with the feelings around receiving tough feedback, things not going well, etc. is critical.

People are 50% more inspired when they work for an emotionally intelligent leader and experience 30-40% less frustration as well as lower burnout.

His RULER model can help us on this journey:

  • Recognizing emotions in self and others. We must start paying attention to cues in our body and mind, and in other people that reflect our mood before attempting to get at the details of what we’re feeling and why. Recognition is the first key step towards understanding anyone’s present emotional state and improves with practice. It’s not about trying to nail down a precise emotion, just the general area where it exists on the Mood Meter.

Our greatest barrier to this is not pausing and not being self-reflective or self-aware. We’ve also been trained to mask and fake our feelings or project our emotions on others rather than observe what’s happening within ourselves. For example, someone could come home yelling and screaming and we assume they’re angry; but perhaps what they’re actually feeling is shame and that’s how they’re dealing with it.

  • Understanding. This is knowing the causes and consequences of our feelings; it is one of the most challenging skills to acquire in becoming an emotion scientist and where the real work begins. This is the moment of truth and can be like opening Pandora’s box; we don’t know what will emerge, how it will affect us or what we’ll be expected to do about it. Understanding becomes a bit of a detective investigation, as we have to learn the underlying themes around our feelings. 
  • Labeling. Being able to properly name our emotions is key to being able to know how to process and deal with them. Yet, most people find it challenging to find words to describe their emotions; we have a vocabulary gap. However, labeling and naming our emotions is critical and does four main things:
      • It legitimizes and organizes our experiences. It gives our emotions substance and creates a mental model of the world that we can compare with other feelings we have as well as others.
      • It helps others to meet our needs. When we can communicate with specificity what we’re feeling, the people in our lives can look beyond our behaviors to understand their causes – creating more room for empathy.
      • It helps us to meet the needs of others. Once we know how someone is feeling, it’s easier for us to support them.
      • It connects us to the rest of the world. Our emotions become a form of communication and a way to share our experiences; the words give us a story to tell.
  • Expressing. We have to be able to express our emotions and have people who will listen to us; it’s a co-skill that we can’t really do alone. This requires us to be brave; essentially, we are removing our armor and stepping into the arena – which can be the scariest of the five letters. So many of us are taught to suppress our emotions.
  • Regulating. This is the most complex of the five skills and pertains to how we handle our feelings. Emotional regulation is not about not feeling; it starts with giving ourselves and others permission to own all our feelings and then decide what we do with them. It’s being with the feeling and not letting it have power over us. For example, we might engage in mindful breathing to help us be present and less reactive or overwhelmed by what’s happening around us. Or we might prevent an anticipated unwanted emotion by looking forward and steering clear of it or modifying our environment. We can also shift our attention to something else or repeat a positive mantra to ourselves. Or we can shift our narrative and story we tell ourselves about an experience. All of this is challenging to do if we’re not practicing good self-care.

“Unfelt emotions are not benign; they metastasize. Unprocessed emotions don’t dissipate.”

It is critical that we work to build resiliency – as individuals and for organizations. This is not the same as Stockdale Paradox (or what Viktor Frankl called “tragic optimism”); pretending everything is fine or washing over challenges with optimism doesn’t help people cope or become resilient. We have to be able to build emotional literacy to name and then regulate tough emotions. We can apply RULER to help us do this and process what we’re experiencing in our world. And then we can have unwavering faith that we will get through things and become stronger as a result.

“Emotion and cognition unexplored drive every decision you make; you either develop self-awareness or these things control you.” ~Brené Brown

A couple of nights ago, my son, Peyton, had a bit of an emotional breakdown. He was crying about the state of our country and all that is wrong and scary in the world. Instead of simply reassuring him or dismissing it, I gave him permission to feel. We talked about where his emotions were coming from; I listened deeply. And then we were able to find ways to help him regulate his emotions. It was a powerful parenting moment. I took that lesson and applied it to myself.

I don’t usually watch the news. However, last night it was on. I saw what happened with the ruling in the murder of Breonna Taylor and what is happening to threaten our democracy with the election. On top of the recent death of the incredible Ruth Bader Ginsburg (and recognizing I wouldn’t be here doing much of what I love in the world had she not paved the path), I felt sick to my stomach. Instead of pushing it down, I gave myself permission to feel. I let myself feel anger, outrage and worry. I let myself sit in that space rather than rushing to layer on half-hearted positivity while not feeding the flames by continuing to watch the news. Then, I remembered a powerful tool for helping me regulate my emotions – Digging Deep in a different way.

Rethinking Digging Deep

Recently, Brené Brown released her 10th anniversary edition of The Gifts of Imperfection along with a hub with new resources to apply this work. I re-read it and found it super helpful. One of the tools she’s added is the Wholehearted Inventory based on the ten guideposts for moving from armor  to wholehearted living. I was happy to see I’ve made great progress in many areas; and I still have work to do. Damnit!

She suggests we rethink this notion of “Dig Deep” from pushing through when we’re exhausted (an area where I still have work to do) to a wholehearted living approach:

  • Get Deliberate in our thoughts and behaviors. We can acknowledge our fear, anxiety and feelings of scarcity (i.e., permission to feel) and then transform them into a mantra or saying that grounds us or expressions of gratitude. 
  • Get Inspired to make new and different choices. If we pay attention, there are so many daily doses of joy that happen in ordinary moments. For me, it’s Peyton’s out-of-the-blue hugs and “I love you’s”, laughing at watching Peyton and Dave (my husband) be silly and tease each other, sharing family meals, seeing people live courageously, and hearing good news of people helping one another. When we acknowledge that life is really about these small moments, it is transformative. Inspiration brings us energy.
  • Get Going. Take action. Create deliberate practices to live authentically (i.e., permission to be fully human) and make wholehearted living more intentional. I have a visual of the 10 Guideposts for Wholehearted Living hanging on my office wall next to me, and we have the Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto hanging in our son’s room and in our kitchen as visual reminders (both can be downloaded here).  

Last night I applied DIG. I acknowledged my feelings and fears and then refocused on what I was grateful for in that moment…my family being safe and healthy, getting through another day of hybrid learning, having a helpful neighbor let me use her washing machine while mine is waiting for repair, voting early, and knowing I made a positive difference that day. I let myself be inspired by the people standing up to injustices in the world and knowing I, along with so many others, stand on the shoulders of the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And then I reminded myself of living wholeheartedly, hugged my family, and went to bed.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still digging deep with my workouts; it’s a huge part of my ability to be my best, reset my emotions, and feel strong to handle what life throws at me. But I’m re-learning when pushing through isn’t productive and I have to DIG deep in a wholehearted way.

Applying These Principles in Your Life:

Here are some ideas for putting this into practice in your own life (and supporting your teams, family, and communities to do the same):

  • Start all your meetings and interactions with a 2-word emotional check-in. This helps you level-set and see how people are doing as humans and create a safe space of support.
  • Make a practice to ask yourself: What am I deeply grateful for today? And ask others (we have this as a dinner conversation topic).
  • Practice compassion – for yourself and others. These are incredibly challenging times right now. We have to extend some extra grace and move towards connection.
  • Be a source of inspiration. You have the opportunity to show up as a leader and be a bright spot in someone’s day.

I’d love to hear other ways you’re applying the DIG Deep model in your life that’s helpful!

Stay brave. Stay human. Stay safe. And never dull your sparkle!


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