Connecting with Intense Emotions: Going Deep

This work is like digging for hidden treasure, buried emotions. You are seeking out hidden rivers. Water is certainly a metaphor for emotions, so by creating the space for old feelings being plumbed and released, you are literally priming the pump. The work is dry at first, but one creates the space for feelings to come, (sad music, a relaxing back rub) and finally the pressure of the tapped artesian well which lies underneath will spout up and all that insanity will be right in your face: the rage, the wound, the unmet expectations, the scar tissue. –Anita Sands Hernandez 1 

I grew up in a household where only three feelings were acceptable: happy, thrilled, or excited, so I tend to freeze when I’m confronted with intense anger. When people express their emotions at high levels of intensity, they’re letting us know they’re touching on something vital to their well-being. Instead of reacting with judgment, we can acknowledge intense emotions as an opportunity and train ourselves to listen for the unmet needs, even when we’re triggered.

As Art Janov says, “Anger is just another word for frustrated love.” With practice, we can reframe intense emotions as passion and begin to see:

  • Anger as an intimate experience
  • Guilt as coagulated grief
  • Hopelessness as the desire to trust again
  • Terror as an opportunity to reclaim what really matters
  • Fear as a signpost of where to move next
  • Rage as a mobilizer for social action

Although emotions are universal, how we express ourselves varies widely with culture. Since emotions play a valuable part in the change process, I encourage people to fully express their emotions in whatever way is comfortable for them. When emotions are expressed with intensity, that’s usually a sign of a deeply unmet need. When emotional expression is suppressed, that’s another sign of an unmet need. People can connect and really hear each other if the facilitator creates a safe environment. Awareness of emotions is the precursor to change. Especially when people are triggered by anger, we need to create emotional and physical safety to create open, honest dialogue.

When we’re working with people from emotionally-reserved cultures, where people rarely express emotions openly or understate their emotions, we can help them feel safe if we meet them where they are. In some cultures very few feelings are openly expressed. For instance in many corporate cultures, the full extent of acceptable emotions is: annoyed, irritated, uncomfortable, disappointed, concerned, happy, or excited. Other emotions are considered “overly emotional.”

In an emotionally-reserved culture, if someone claims he’s mildly irritated, but we interpret his body language as fuming or outraged, we have a choice about helping him express himself more fully, or meeting him right where he is, in the space of emotional safety. Instead of heightening the drama, we can reframe the statements slightly to begin building comfort with emotions. To help people ease into emotional awareness, we can offer metaphors such as, “The line has been drawn in the sand,” or “you’ve hit a brick wall,” or “you’re pushing the rock up the mountain,” before articulating the emotions – “maybe you’re feeling tense, hopeless, or exhausted.”

In contrast, people from emotionally-expressive cultures feel very comfortable with their feelings and tend to overstate their emotions. They describe how much they’re suffering from the air conditioning, or how ecstatic they are that everyone is on time. They’re more likely to express at top volume, greater range of pitch, faster speed, with more animated gestures, dramatic facial expressions, and use profanity because they’re much more comfortable with emotions. If we reframe their strong statements into less emotional language, they won’t stand for it. They welcome an emotional outburst because it gives them the freedom to express fully and trust that the real issues will be explored. The same emotional outburst in emotionally-reserved cultures leaves people feeling threatened or frozen. They find ways to change the focus or create reasons for leaving the room.

When we have both reserved and expressive people in the room, we can support their process by helping people feel more comfortable with both ends of the spectrum. Instead of insisting on drawing out the emotions of reserved people or defusing the emotional content of expressive people, we can help everyone feel more comfortable with their unique personal expression – that’s empathy! By being present to emotions, regardless of how they are expressed, we can foster connection, understanding, and change.

1. Anita Sands Hernandez Healing a Wounded Friend (included with permission)

Written by Martha Lasley, Originally published in Facilitating with Heart

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