If you have the habit of stuffing your feelings or ignoring them outright because they are inconvenient, you may be causing more problems than you can imagine.
In Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence, he outlines a type of leader that he calls the “unflappables” who are particularly adept at repressing their emotional life for what they may consider the greater good. The problem, as Daniel Weinberger’s research illustrates, is that “while such people may seem calm and unperturbable, they can sometimes seethe with physiological upsets they are oblivious to.”
In other words, that emotion can squirt out in ways that we do not expect or understand.
I recently had a conversation with a leader of an organization where he was expressing his frustration with his staff and with his own perfectionism. While he talked about his annoyance with people’s inability to meet his high expectations, he remarked that he had been able to hide this frustration from his staff. After watching him talk about this, my response was “I doubt it.”
When we have a feeling, whether we are conscious of that feeling or not, our body has a physiological reaction to it. We tighten our jaw, draw our lips into a tight smile, fold our arms, or whatever might be our body’s habit of trying to express this emotion.
I say “trying to express” because the emotion wants a place to go. There is no vault deep inside us where we can store all these emotions indefinitely. (Think of the containment vault in Ghostbusters, eventually it all escapes.)
On quick reflection this leader was able to see how he was causing tension in the office by trying to withhold the feelings of disappointment. His staff were walking on egg shells as evidenced by their attempts to guess what he really wanted.
So what can we do?
1. Be more conscious of what we are feeling.
The unconscious emotions are the most dangerous because they might sneak out in ways that we do not intend. (See blog post on sarcasm.) The more that we are aware that there is no such thing as a human being who does not feel (we are biologically sensory beings), the less we will negatively impact people with our unconscious feelings.
2. Recognize how you respond physiologically to feelings.
Again, awareness is half the battle here. The clearer you can be on both what you are feeling and how your body communicates that feeling, the less likely it will leak out in inappropriate ways. (Again, think Al Gore’s sighing during the 2000 presidential debates.)
As long as you understand that those feelings you stuff down have the ability to negatively impact your communication, the easier it will be to change your behavior for the better.