Speak Your Heart

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September 29, 2021

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Image: Jeff Hardi, Unsplash

When someone’s actions bother us, whether it’s a work colleague or a loved one, we often put off addressing the issue, hoping they’ll correct their behavior on their own, until it’s really getting on our nerves. Then we decide to give them a piece of our mind, meaning that we are going to tell them off, detailing the ways in which they are wrong and we are right. In training programs on resolving conflict or giving feedback I regularly suggest to participants that speaking their hearts — by openly stating their feelings — might lead to a more constructive outcome. The responses range from “Oh-no!-we-can’t-do-that!” to “feelings have no place in the business world” to “I know that would never work because I know how my boss wouldn’t understand.” We seem to believe that if we displayed our feelings openly it would jeopardize the relationship or that our competence would immediately be called into question. What makes us so afraid of expressing our emotions?

As children, many of us experienced an overwhelmed adult telling us to “hush” or “shut up” or “be good” when we had an emotional outburst. We learned early on that while some emotions, such as happiness, surprise and anticipation are socially acceptable, “negative” emotions such as anger, fear and hurt are not. Many of us concluded that having and especially displaying emotions is risky or inappropriate and that we should somehow overcome them. This can result in a tendency to ignore, if not deny, our feelings, especially the “negative” ones. We hope, consciously or unconsciously, that if we deny that our emotions are there, we can avoid being overwhelmed by them. This doesn’t work.

Ironically, the more we try to control our feelings by covering them up, the more they control us and are likely to manifest themselves in a destructive way. Suppressed emotions may become toxic and, like the poisons in a toxic waste dump, will eventually seep out or even explode. Signs of suppressed emotions and of high stress levels include disproportionate rage, overreaction to slight provocations and cynicism. Suppressing our emotions is unhealthy, both for ourselves and our relationships.

The ability to identify and name our emotions is an essential skill of emotional intelligence, one that all of us can cultivate. Neuroscientific research shows that identifying and naming our “negative” emotions, such as sadness or anger, moves activity away from the brain’s limbic system, the part of the brain involved in our emotional and behavioral responses, especially fight or flight, to the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, our thinking brain. This makes us less stressed and reactive and reduces physical and emotional distress. Rather than being in the emotion, we notice that we are feeling it. Identifying our emotions enables us to acknowledge and embrace them, at the same time reducing our reactiveness to them. Instead of telling ourselves to “feel better”, which often amounts to denying our emotions, naming them allows us to explore them, take them seriously and choose how to respond to them. We may find deeper emotions hidden under surface feelings, such as sadness underneath anger or anger underneath hurt. Understanding our emotions helps us to better understand our needs and how we can better take care of ourselves. This increases our compassion for ourselves and others.

Our strongest feelings tend to be connected to our relationships, and therefore voicing them seems especially risky. We don’t know how the other person will react if we open up; we may be afraid of hurting their feelings, making them angry, being rejected. I think that above all we fear vulnerability — ours and the other person’s. When we speak our hearts, we open a window on our soul. That can be scary. This fear of getting hurt or causing hurt often leads us to communicate indirectly. Through body language, oblique remarks or sarcasm we drop hints, hoping the other person will realize that we feel annoyed, offended or hurt. In both our professional and personal relationships, we frequently expect other people to read our minds and hearts and magically figure out what they should change in their behavior. When they don’t, we feel frustrated and resentful. Somehow, we believe that this strategy carries less risk of damaging the relationship because we can’t be held accountable for what we didn’t say. But facial expressions and vocal tone at odds with our words may betray our real feelings to others even if we don’t express them openly, and the incongruence often causes confusion, mistrust and defensiveness or even aggression.

When we don’t examine, own and openly voice our feelings, they frequently show up in the form of verbal attack. Instead of “I feel hurt,” we say, “How can you be so thoughtless?” Instead of “I feel sad,” we say, “If it weren’t for you, I’d be happy.” Instead of “I feel frustrated,” we say, “That was stupid of you.” The resentment we have built up from holding back our feelings thus gets dumped on the other as judgements, labels or blame.

When we don’t say what matters to us, our self-esteem suffers, and we may grow hostile. Not speaking up for ourselves turns us into the victim and the other person into the villain. Both lose because the relationship suffers. As long as we stay in this adversarial mode of me vs. you, right vs. wrong, either/or instead of both/and, we block growth and understanding. By ascribing the problem to the other person and being unwilling to open up and discuss how we can resolve the situation, we make change impossible.

When we tell someone about a behavior that’s bothering us, we may not be able to prevent them from possibly feeling hurt, at least initially. If my intention is to work together with the other person to clarify the relationship and achieve greater mutual understanding of each of our needs and ways of seeing the world, then any hurts are the pains of growth and development. When we understand the cause of the conflict or misunderstanding through open discussion we can more easily forgive and let go of the pain or resentment the situation may have caused. If I am out to change the other and express my disapproval of them by saying “You are…” or “you should be…”, the pain I inflict will linger.

When we speak our minds, we often start with “you.” When we speak our hearts, we begin with “I.” “I need” is a world away from “You should.” “I feel angry” evokes a completely different response from “You make me angry.” No one can disagree with your feelings if you declare them directly with an open heart and without expectations, but people will defend themselves when you blame your feelings on them.  And if you unload your feelings on them with the expectation that they can fix you, they are likely to feel overwhelmed and resentful.

Every human being has feelings. Feelings are. In that sense there are no right or wrong feelings. Paradoxically, if we voice our feelings, we are not ruled by them.  Think about a situation that is bothering you and differentiate facts, assumptions, judgments, and feelings. Find the word that best fits your feeling and say “I feel …” This can take some practice. Because we so habitually focus on the fault we find in the other person, closed-hearted statements like this may come to mind: “I feel that you are a jerk” or “I feel that you don’t respect me”. These will not help the other person be open to you as they are attacks disguised as feelings. Introspection, paired with curiosity and acceptance, will help you identify what you are feeling in the situation, e.g., hurt, annoyed or disappointed. When you have found the word that fits, then voice it with an open heart and an open mind.

Openly stating feelings is not a sign of weakness but of strength, a way of taking responsibility for ourselves and sharing our truth, without demands or expectations. Pain in human interaction is inevitable, but there are different types of pain. We need to ask ourselves what our intention is and what will bring us forward. When we speak our hearts, then we are open to hear the hearts of others and we can gain more insight into ourselves and each other.

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