Our culture derides emotions. One common belief is that emotions are bad, and not to be
trusted. As doctors, we are taught to remain detached from our emotions, lest they affect our clinical decision-making or we appear less than strong in front of patients. And each
gender has its own limiting rules about emotions. While men are labeled assertive for showing anger, women are given less appealing adjectives. Men are instructed from an early age to always appear strong and tough and derided for “acting like a girl” if they show sensitivity or indecision. Both genders are labeled weak when they cry. We are often admonished, “Don’t be emotional.” Yet, the truth is that emotions are a part of everything we do.
Our excitement spurs us to become involved and work hard on something we’re passionate about. Our fears hold us back from being all that we can be. We eat, sleep, communicate, and work differently if we’re happy than if we’re sad. Emotions also help us connect with people who are like-minded; together, our efforts may accomplish more than if we acted alone. Emotions even influence clinical outcomes. Years ago, I cared for a woman with advanced rheumatoid arthritis. She had diminished vision, limited use of her hands, and very painful hips. Due to financial difficulties, the family’s washing machine was repossessed and my patient had to wash her family’s clothes by hand. I became determined to find additional services for her and ensure she had access to necessary medications. These efforts, born from my compassion, positively affected her clinical course.
Our emotions are a crucial source of information and the best indicator of what’s true for us. While we can usually think ourselves in or out of different thoughts and beliefs, it’s harder to change our emotions. How many times have people told you to not be sad, or to not be angry? I bet their suggestions did nothing to change your emotion – except, perhaps, to make you feel angry, frustrated, and unseen.
This is because our emotions are triggered when there is an issue at stake that matters to us. And that means that we can use our emotions as a compass to guide us toward living in alignment with what is most important to us.
Unfortunately, we are often taught to hide our emotions, lest we “make a scene,” hurt someone’s feelings, or burn bridges. The truth is that we usually fail. We’re betrayed by an unconscious eye roll, our body language, the sarcastic tone in our voice, a rise in the pitch or quickening of the cadence of our speech. If emotions are going to make themselves known anyway, we can use this simple, three-step process to intentionally put them to use, creating the outcomes we want.
Step #1: We often recognize we’re feeling an emotion when something changes in our body. If our heart starts racing, we might be excited or fearful. If our jaw clenches, we might be angry. If a smile comes to our face, we know we’re happy. Once we become familiar with these signs, we can use our bodies as an early warning system to let us know what emotion we’re feeling.
Step #2: We feel an emotion when something we care about is at stake. After we decide what emotion is present, we can ask ourselves what issue feels like it’s being threatened or honored.
Step #3: Once we understand the issue, we can construct a statement that reflects our position – why we’re feeling the way we are. In this way, we can skillfully speak out, without acting out. A statement might include a reference to the emotion we’re feeling, the issue that’s at stake, and why we are concerned or excited about what’s happening.
Emotions are a wonderful part of life. While most of us prefer the highs of happiness, excitement, love, and joy, we wouldn’t appreciate them as much without the contrast of sadness, disappointment, loneliness, and despair. And since emotions provide the best clue to what’s important to us, it’s crucial that we befriend them, appreciate them, and learn to let them guide us to a life that feels congruent with who we are and what we value most.
This work was joyfully developed in collaboration with my friend and fellow coach, Deborah Munhoz