A Coaching Power Tool Created by Nicole Kett
(Transformational Coach, UNITED STATES)
When we experience discomfort triggered by our external world, it is a natural response to want to protect ourselves. In attempting to guard ourselves against uncomfortable emotions, we tighten up to attempt to shut ourselves off from the outside world—we disconnect. We hold in our tears, we keep our anger inside, and we escape the grief that we feel by distracting ourselves—all in the hopes of protecting ourselves from the discomfort. As Brené Brown suggests in her TED talk, the Power of Vulnerability (2011), the coping strategies we use to distract and numb ourselves from the pain of feeling real emotion, also numbs us from experiencing the joy of positive emotions such as love, belonging, creativity, and empathy. We cannot selectively numb certain emotions—we have to either feel all of them or we feel none. While in our society it can be necessary at times to hold our emotions, overtime repressing, and stifling our emotions can impact our physical and mental health. When we are out of touch with our emotions, it can take a toll on us. According to Brown, vulnerability is the core, the heart, and the center of meaningful human experiences. She says—”Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” (Brown, 2011). Feeling and processing our emotions can offer us specific advantages that help us adapt to our environment.
Our external environments can overtake us and make us feel things that are uncomfortable and hurtful. Emotions are quick, unconscious responses to our environment. To shield ourselves from pain and discomfort, we often repress, or push our emotions down, as a way to avoid them. To deal with challenges, a common response is to shut down, become numb, or turn off. Suddenly, we become disconnect from our bodies and our thoughts take over. To adapt, the human mind can keep pushing through life. In today’s world, we tend to quickly push our uncomfortable emotions away, telling ourselves mantras like “mind over matter” and “get a grip”! From a young age, we are told to ignore our emotions, being told things like “don’t cry”. In our professional life, we are expected to push our emotions away. Without being taught proper strategies to deal with the discomfort of our emotions, we use screen time, food, busyness, alcohol, and an array of other harmful behaviors to repress our emotions.
Our bodies also use methods to protect themselves from these uncomfortable emotions –we constrict our muscles and hold our breath. The mind blocks the overwhelming emotions which leads to further psychological stress. When we suppress emotions over the long term, it can cause depression, anxiety, heart disease, stomach pain, headaches, insomnia, and immune disorders (Hendel, 2018a). Energy diverted to defenses against emotions not only has costs to our health but it also keeps our true selves hidden. Taoism suggests that emotions are just information in the body. When we block this flow of information, there are blockages. From this perspective, many physical illnesses can be linked with repressed emotions that live in the body.
The perspective in which we look at uncomfortable emotions can greatly impact whether or not we are likely to use strategies to repress our emotions. When we view uncomfortable emotions as something that we should not experience or something that we are weak for experiencing, we will naturally resist them. Beginning to accept these emotions as a part of the human experience and allow us to wholeheartedly engage with our lives.
Questions for Reflection:
- When it comes to emotions of anger, fear, and shame:
- Can you accept what you are feeling?
- Do you feel these emotions are permanent?
- Do you seek pleasure to escape from these emotions?
- Are you anxious to rid yourself of these emotions?
- Do you feel that only weak people feel these emotions?
- Do these emotions scare you?
- What are some of your emotional defenses?
Processing our emotions allows us to gain important information to guide our actions. They tell us what is bad for us and what is good. They help us connect to our most authentic self, and allow us to deepen our relationships with others through empathy. When we process our emotions to completion, they lead to positive affect—we feel better (Hendel, 2018b).
Core Emotions (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise) are the main physical sensations that we can recognize that provide us feedback on our environment (Burton, 2016). They give us cues: am I safe or in danger? What do I want/need? Am I feeling down? What do I enjoy? These emotions are unconscious, triggered by our environment, and they set off physiological reactions that give us information for action. Emotions help us adapt to life, if only we allow ourselves to feel them. These core emotions are like waves—they rise and fall, ebb, and flow. When we are aware of what we choose and why suddenly we can create the life that we dream of.
Inhibitory emotions are those of shame, anxiety, guilt. When our core emotions conflict with what pleases others or when the core emotions become too intense, we will begin to experience these inhibitory emotions. The more conflict that is experienced with emotions, the more anxiety that will come up (Hendel, 2018a).
In supporting a client (or ourselves) who is dealing with the effects of a stressful external environment, creating awareness and support structures around feeling core emotions. Steps for feeling and processing our emotions:
Grounding and Breath
Take a few moments to calm yourself and feel the feeling inside. Feel your feet flat on the floor and the ground underneath them. What does this feel like? As you feel your feet on the floor take 5 slow belly breaths.
Ask yourself about each of the core emotions, for example: Is there sadness here? Approach this with a feeling of curiosity and compassion instead of judging yourself. Where do you feel the emotions? In your head, throat, chest, gut, feet? How does it feel—hard, soft, cool, hot, vibrating? Connecting the core emotions with physical sensations will provide a reference for your brain later. For example: which sensations are telling you that you are feeling sad?
Identify all of the core emotions that are involved (there maybe be more than one). The more we can name our emotions the better—there may be multiple opposing emotions at play and validating all of them will help with processing them. Let all of the emotions exist together. Go slowly (20 seconds for each core emotion).
Understanding emotions and triggers allow each individual to understand themselves and their environment, and take appropriate action.
Fill in the following statement for further understanding:
I am feeling ________because__________________.
As we gain clarity and understanding as to why we feel a certain way, it gives a choice for action. What is our goal? What do we truly want? Which action allows me to reach this goal?
Questions for Reflection:
- How are you feeling today?
- What are you feeling in this moment?
- What is causing these feelings?
- What choices do I have in handling these emotions?
- What are my emotions telling me?
- What am I learning about myself?
Working with Clients to Recognize and Feel for Emotions
Helping clients feel in their emotions can help them gain clarity and awareness about themselves. This can be used for both positive and negative emotions. Oftentimes, understanding a positive feeling is an important step in reaching a goal. As a coach you can ask them to reflect “what does this emotion feel like?” or “take a moment to sense where this feeling is in your body and what it feels like.”. Taking a moment to help clients understand what they are feeling and how it contributes to their learning can help them gain valuable awareness. Emotional information lives in our gut, heart, and lungs and is processed up the brainstem, to the limbic system, and then to the cortical brain which allows us to put sensations and feelings into words. To allow our left brain to put into words what we are feeling, we have to lean into what we feel in the right brain (Leven, 2013).
After the message from the body has been named and understood, then this can be taken a step further to help the client understand what it is that they need. Ask your client “now that you see the message being sent from your body, what is it that you need? When you visualize this need being met, is there anything inside that shifts for you?” New knowledge and awareness for the client can help them feel a sense of empowerment.
Kelly is feeling anxious but can’t put her finger on exactly why. When she takes a moment to ground herself, breathe, then connect with her physical sensations, she observes that her anxiety is a mixture of the core emotions of feeling sad and feeling fear. She connects her sadness with the approaching weekend and the realization that her husband John will be traveling for work again when he was already gone last weekend. She fears that they will grow apart if they are not given space to connect. Connecting with her core emotions allows Kelly to understand, acknowledge, and validate her feelings. She recognizes that she values quality time with her husband and also needs to feel they are connected and sharing their life. These realizations allow Kelly to take appropriate action and communicate these needs with her husband. The conversation is well received and the couple agrees to take a two-day trip together the following weekend to spend quality time together to reconnect.
How could this conversation have gone differently if Kelly was not able to connect with her core emotions?
By understanding and labeling our emotions, we can calm ourselves down and have more compassion for ourselves. Naming our emotions allows us to see the gap between our thoughts and our feelings. When we say “I am feeling this way” versus “I am this way” it reminds us that our emotions are temporary and allows us to see the emotion as a source of data. There is value in this pause. In the moments of acknowledging our thoughts and feelings, it provides us with more clarity and understanding.
Martin Seligman, a leader of the positive psychology movement, suggests that our ability to handle challenges with resiliency involves the Use of the 3Ps: Personalization, Pervasiveness, and Permanence (Sandberg and Grant, 2017). The 3Ps allows for a powerful perspective and processing of our emotions. Personalization is the belief that we are at fault—the lesson is here that not everything that happens to us is because of us. Not taking failures so personally allows for forwarding movement. Pervasiveness is the belief that one event will impact every area of your life. The reality is that not all areas of life need to be impacted by negative emotions in one area. Finally, permanence is the belief that all bad feelings will last forever. The reality is that no feeling, whether positive or negative, will last forever. When we feel sad about feeling sad, it holds us back from feeling better faster. The key is to accept these emotions and know that they will pass. The 3Ps can be used to help accept our emotions, lean into our current realities, and continue to move forward.
As we process and work with our emotions (and with those emotions of our clients) it is important to show love and acceptance. We can use visualization to bring comfort to ourselves during times where we experience difficult emotions. There are a few ways to offer comfort to ourselves:
- Verbal reassurance (mantras)
- Wrap yourself in a blanket
- Making eye contact
- Giving yourself a pat on the back or shoulder
- Listening to your favorite music
What are some other ways you offer yourself comfort and compassion when processing difficult emotions?
Brown, Brené. “The Power of Vulnerability.” TED, Jan. 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o
Burton, Neel. “What Are Basic Emotions?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 7 Jan. 2016, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201601/what-are-basic-emotions.
Hendel, Hilary Jacobs. It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self. Spiegel and Grau, 2018.
Hendel, Hillary Jacobs. “Ignoring Your Emotions Is Bad for Your Health. Here’s What To Do About It.” TIME, 27 Feb. 2018, time.com/5163576/ignoring-your-emotions-bad-for-your-health/.
Jeffrey, Scott. “Repressed Emotions: A Definitive Guide to Liberating Yourself.” Repressed Emotions, 20 Apr. 2019, scottjeffrey.com/repressed-emotions/.
Leven, Daniel. “Connecting Emotions to a Felt Body Sense.” Psychotherapy Networker, 2013, www.psychotherapynetworker.org/blog/details/931/connecting-emotions-to-a-felt-body-sense.
Sandberg, Sheryl, and Adam Grant. Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.