There is a middle path for your emotions
In my work, Dynamic Emotional Integration®, I’ve organized the emotions into four families, and I’ve also developed four keys to help people learn how to work with their emotions in new and healing ways.
The first key is to unvalence your emotions (because there is no such thing as positive or negative emotions), and the second key is to learn a healthy option that will allow you to work directly with the genius in your emotions.
The second key: Expression, repression, and channeling
Many of us have fallen into a simple binary world where we can only express our emotions outwardly or repress them inwardly.
It’s as if we have an on/off switch with no middle ground. This situation is almost a form of valencing, in that we have two simplistic choices that obscure our intelligence and reduce our emotional options. And of course, this in turn reduces our Emotion Regulation skills and our empathic awareness.
However, expression and repression have their place
But it’s important to know that in many instances, expression and repression are good choices. If you’re happy, sometimes it’s awesome to express it – yay!
But sometimes, it’s a really good idea to repress your happiness if it’s not shared (say, when you’re happy that you didn’t get picked for a team at work, but you don’t want to offend everyone).
Expression and repression aren’t problems in and of themselves. They’re fine in many instances; they’re only problems when they’re the only choices you have.
For instance, when an intense or socially unacceptable emotion appears, both expression and repression can be deeply problematic. I’ll give you an example.
When a funny joke isn’t funny at all
Let’s say that you’re at a party, and a friend does something deeply offensive in public: He makes a sarcastic joke about your clothing that’s funny but also really cruel.
Now, because your self and your standpoint have been offended against (and shockingly so), your anger will need to arise, and it will probably be accompanied by some shame and maybe even fear. This is an intensely embarrassing attack that came out of nowhere!
If you express your intense anger, you might score some points against your friend, but you might also injure him and come off looking like a jerk yourself – like someone who’s so uncool that they can’t even take a joke.
Also (and your shame and fear might alert you to this), you might not know how your friend will respond to a counter-attack. He could become even meaner, and then the whole evening would be ruined for everyone.
So, if expression might be unwise, you might take the other option in our restricted either/or scenario: you’d repress your anger and your shame and your fear.
You might laugh and pretend not to be offended, or you might make an even uglier joke about your own clothing. Hahah, you’re a good sport – you can take a joke!
When you repress an emotion, you interfere with your basic emotional functioning. In this instance, your anger arose for a very specific reason. It required that you restore your voice, standpoint, and sense of self. You chose not to do that, and it was probably a good idea.
But by repressing your appropriate anger, you’ve interfered with its natural progression, and because you didn’t perform any appropriate action, your anger will remain activated.
You might paste a smile on your face and go get a drink, but for the rest of the night, you may repeat the situation in your head and think of what you should have said, what you should have done.
Your repressed anger won’t relieve itself; in fact, it might become more intense, and your fear might increase, and your shame might become hyperactivated, and that can be a painful situation.
Repressing your emotions – when they’re intense and immediate – can create trouble inside you.
Taking the middle path
I call it channeling your emotions, and by that, I mean directly with your emotions so that they can do the work they came to do.
In the situation above, expression and repression were both troublesome. Your anger was very intense, and it was accompanied by two other strong emotions.
As we all know, that can be a powder-keg situation. But if you have access to the gifts your emotions contain – if you know anger as the Honorable Sentry, and you know fear as Intuition and Action, and you know that shame is about Restoring Integrity, then you can work with all three of these emotions in ways that are respectful toward yourself, toward your mouthy friend, toward onlookers, and toward your own emotions.
But the path is individual to you and to each situation
I don’t have a simple, step-by-step process for dealing with the situation above, and I am really suspicious of people who do, because interaction is so incredibly situation-specific.
However, I do have a simple approach, which is this: Listen to your emotions and work with each of them empathically, interact with others honestly, and then you’ll know what to do.
If you make a mistake, you can apologize, and then you can try something different.
The trick to this isn’t any kind of trick at all: You simply listen to your emotions and pay attention to others and to their responses. This empathic and interactive approach will give you untold resources, because your emotions have evolved over millions of years to help you become a socially successful member of an intensely social species.
Emotions are millions of years older than spoken language, and simply put, they’re smarter than words, they’re deeper than any technique, and they can help you in ways you might not be able to imagine (if all you’ve ever done with emotions is to express or repress them).
Channeling can help you engage authentically
When I only know how to repress or express my emotions, and a difficult or socially uncomfortable emotion arises, then people will meet whatever emotional training I’ve had in my life.
They won’t meet me as an individual! They won’t meet my true self, my hopes, my dreams, my preferences, my intelligence, my humor, my challenges, or my strengths – no. When my emotional skills are poor, people will meet my emotional reactivity and my problems with whichever emotion has arisen – but they won’t meet me.
In a situation where I’ve only got two choices about how to work with my emotions (expression or repression), a fully empathic exchange is very unlikely (because I’m not even being empathic with my own emotions!).
But when I can channel my emotions and interact with more suppleness and authenticity, people can meet and interact with me as a unique individual — and if they feel able to, they can interact in a more authentic and empathic way with me in return.
Expression and repression are fine in many cases!
As I wrote above, expression and repression aren’t bad in and of themselves; they’re fine in many situations! When a snake crosses your path, express your panic and jump and yell a little!
Or when someone trips on the sidewalk and you think it’s funny, repress your laughter so you won’t hurt their feelings.
When you drop your phone, express your shock and anger (and swear if you like)!
When you feel like crying but you know that the person with you cannot handle it, repress your tears until you’re in a safer place.
Expression and repression are excellent options in many instances, but this third path – this middle path of channeling your emotions – gives you infinite options when repression isn’t healthy and expression isn’t wise.
Thank you for bringing your emotional agility and your empathy to our waiting world.