Untangling strong emotions

When I work with groups in conflict, my goal is to help them talk candidly about the issues that matter most to them. Yet breakthroughs in understanding occur after people untangle their emotions.

Emotions are the key to unlocking what we believe  and what we can accomplish together.

Yet often we think of strong emotional experiences such as vulnerability and shame as the epitome of powerlessness, weakness, and social isolation.

“Shame is the fear of disconnection,” explains Brené Brown, a leading researcher on human connection, in a TED Talk on Vulnerability.  “(Vulnerability) is the core of shame, fear and the struggle for worthiness. It’s also the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, love.”

Her research reveals that shame undermines our ability to empathize, love, and belong. She defines shame as a belief that one is not good enough. Shame erodes our sense of self-worth and diminishes our ability to trust others, share ideas, and work together.

One common response to feeling vulnerable is to experience it as a threat, react defensively, and withdraw from others. We disconnect from, or numb, feelings in ourselves such as fear, anxiety, and loss—and we disconnect from feeling others’ experiences too. But we can’t numb emotions selectively. So, emotions such as joy and happiness are also numbed.

Another response to feeling vulnerable is to embrace it. “People who have a strong sense of love and connection believe they are worthy of love and connection,” says Brown. She refers to them as whole hearted people and describes them as able to see themselves and others as imperfect.

They hold compassion for themselves first, and then for others. They connect authentically with others because they are able to let go of what they thought they should be, and are able to be who they are. They willingly show appreciation first and invest in relationships that may or may not work out.

When we believe that we are enough, we notice the impact we have on others, she says. “We stop screaming and start listening. We are kinder and gentler to ourselves and to others.”

The key to transforming feelings of shame and vulnerability “is learning how to recognize them, feel them and ultimately make the choice to simply be there, with that horrible tangle of uncertainty and risk,” Brown says. “When you know what you’re feeling and why, you can slow down, breathe, pray, ask for support—and make choices that reflect who you are and what you believe.”

So the next time you feel that “horrible tangle”, try not to deny or ignore it. Get curious instead, and use your emotional insight to be compassionate toward yourself,  connect with others, and do some good  work  together.

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