The Invisible Fight to Own the Respect and Power of Emotion
i was eleven years old when my father took me to the hospital to see my mother who had gone in for “some tests for bursitis”. He warned me that she might be hooked up to some tubes and that it shouldn’t upset me. An emotionally buoyant little girl, I was not cowed by that warning and I bounced into the room and up onto her bed to hug her.
Which is when she told me that she was actually in hospital for a biopsy. And that she had breast cancer.
I started to cry. And she – alarmed because she didn’t want to turn into a river of tears herself – said urgently, “No, no! Don’t cry!” And I stopped. Immediately. My emotional reaction was too much for my mother to bear, and I would have done anything for her. So I held it all back.
Years later when I entered the business arena, I encountered a different type of fear of emotion, one that all women come to understand in this Western culture of ours: emotion is both the butt of too many jokes about us and an accusation leveled against us when we seem too powerful. I was a little surprised, some years even further on, when I began to hear emotion referred to more positively, more as “a consummation devoutly to be wished” (to quote Mr. Shakespeare) when someone (generally a man) needed to laud his intuition.
But it is clear to every woman that emotion is judged differently for women than it is for men. To highlight this situation, allow me to usie a very recent and notable example.
When Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford took her grit and her courage and her deep sense of social duty into her two hands and testified about something breathtakingly personal that had happened to her – a rape – she was attacked by some for being “too emotional”. Her demeanor was, in fact, self-possessed, unendingly kind and respectful in her responses, brilliant in explaining how the brain works – she is, after all, a Professor of Neuroscience – and visibly nervous as she sat not only on a world stage but in front of politically and socially powerful men who could be expected not to view her positively. She stuck to the facts, Jack! And still, afterwards there were men in that room who chose to publicly shame her for being nervous about talking about her rape in front of people predisposed to attack her.
In stark contrast to this self-possession, the man vying for the position of Supreme Court Judge was the one who screamed, cried and lost his composure, and those same men of power excused his non-judge-like behaviors on the basis of his having been – oh the painful irony! – attacked.
The double standard of emotion on full display there.
By dint of being women in business, we are all “guilty until proven teflon”. Women, particularly women in places of power, are not “supposed to” show emotion. In the arena of business (and politics) we’re supposed to be “manly”, to “suck it up”, to play the game of kill-or-be-killed, to be rational-and-not-emotional rather than to show that we’ve already got game: the game of building relationship, defining and holding boundaries, speaking truth to power, building transparency, accountability and healing.
[Read more: Women, Self-Expression in Leadership, and the Powerful Effects of Acting Authentically]
For women, messages about being “too emotional” carry meta data about our weakness as adults, our unworthiness to own an obviously emotional opinion, the worthlessness of the opinion itself, and our inability to be seen as anything more than childish. This meta data is reinforced by “jokes” in media, and by our own behaviors, and we end up feeling stuck and wounded, trapped in negative, powerless ways in which we come to view ourselves as professionals, as leaders, as women, and even as human beings.
We know – or at the very least we correctly suspect – that emotions are critical to understanding ourselves and others. And yet we strain under a socially “invisible” yoke of shame and unworthiness that is born of that insult of being “too emotional”. We are shamed for having an intimate connection with the very human gift which helps us use our business intuition, make informed choices, try to navigate this “man’s world”, and build relationships and trust with others in our leadership responsibilities.
Emotion has been having a very, very slow … millenia.
But then along came Emotional Intelligence, which quickly became an increasingly major piece of the business landscape. Suddenly, emotion was, maybe, A Good Thing? It could be used to define and to understand emotion’s place in the world and maybe even its usefulness. Intuition started to be okay – hey, even Steve Jobs had used his intuition, so how bad could it be?
Fantastic writers like Daniel Pink started to come forward and make a compelling case for the importance of E.I. in our work world.
Exciting stuff! But just a few days ago I started thinking about Emotional Intelligence and how odd it is that this respect for the Emotional Intelligence is not reflected in respect for women’s relationships to emotion, and how that works in our business worlds.
Uncomfortably, I began to wonder if Emotional Intelligence isn’t a kind of “masculinization” of emotion – a way to make use of its feminine benefits (relationship-building, intuition, a working sensitivity to others) without having to admire and respect the experience of the actual feminine; a suggestion that we should somehow be capable of wrestling the unpredictable – which is emotion – to the ground, to define it, to control it and to defang it in order to use it for our business purposes only, rather than to use it for higher purposes like deeper connection.
Emotion is more than a nifty tool for making more money and more business connections. When emotion in communication is truly understood and embodied as a goal for betterment even beyond the business outcome, there is no one that comes out of a conversation without having been either positively challenged, or changed for the better.
As leaders practicing that kind of emotion-based communication we heighten the recognition, practice and understanding of our mutual, forgivable humanness, and we extend the possibilities of our businesses.
We yoke together the mundane and the transcendant, giving up the benefits of neither.
Many years ago I recognized one of my primary gifts, that of creating authentic emotional connection even with those I have just met. I explored just what made that work, and I realized that it is an ability to “speak” others’ emotional “languages” without giving up my own. On phone calls with prospective clients and customers, people regularly join me in moments of authenticity, laughter and communion. Phone calls…where connection usually goes to die.
I coined the term Emotional Linguistics™ to define all of the aspects of what makes greater connectivity possible: that we humans all share one…common…language. You know what that language is: it’s emotion.
I may not speak Russian, but I can read the emotion in your face when you speak it, and I can hear and identify the emotion in your voice. I can keep myself open to empathic and empathetic feeling while staying in my own emotional space as well – which gives me incredible facility and responsiveness. I can respond more appropriately and creatively to a greater range of people, and I can create business relationships that are both authentic and a call for both participants to reach for a higher standard than greed or personal goal.
I don’t know about you, but I need to feel that I am living for something that is money-AND. If I’m just making money as the goal in my days, I find that boring. If I’m making money AND creatively bringing more good into the world in the ways that I enjoy and excel at while being as much myself as I can, I’m feeling pretty great.
Since I had been thinking about the differences between Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Linguistics, I thought I should brush up at least a little bit on my understanding of E.I.
So I went to Google and typed in “writers about Emotional Intelligence”, and my investigation was stopped. I was struck by something. I wonder if you can spot what stopped me
I might not need to point it out, but there is not one woman’s photo there.
So, while the business world increasingly lauds social skills, intuition and communication as desirable tools in their tool belt, women+emotion is still not as visible as men+emotion. The real beauty and uses of emotion, when embodied as openly as women do, are still invisible to those who would distill and control emotion simply as a “tool”.
So then I got to thinking that we women are not emotional enough!
Are we writing enough, talking enough about this topic? I have to find out, so there’s a Note to Self.
But seriously, why is not one woman on that lineup, there? No, it’s not a big conspiracy. But it is absolutely true that we have been culturally brainwashed to view our feminine connection to emotion as a deficit. The Emotional Traffic Cop of “they” runs alongside us as tirelessly as a puppy chases a car, distributing shame and punishment to us for daring to show “too much” emotion. And riding along inside that clanking car is us – taking on the role of our shamers, telling ourselvesnot to be so emotional, so that we can survive (or avoid) the effects of a power-over culture that loves to punish anyone who tries to rise.
And that. is enough. of that. Are we really going to allow the men of power to define emotion? To quantify and “defang” it, turn it into a tool and sanitize it?
Are we really content to allow not just others – but our own selves! – to continue to demean us for feeling, and for responding?
I think not. (And it seems Harvey Weinstein would agree that the mode of silent suffering is being challenged.)
Here are some of my strong suggestions for a world in which we creatively, and with integrity, utilize our emotions to uncover more of who we are, instead of shaming ourselves for its mere presence in our lives and in our working environments.
Consider not joining the choir
In other words, maybe not be so damn good at helping others shame you; I mean, hey, there are enough people who will tell you to feel bad about yourself – why should you make their job easier? We have bought into the cultural norms so strongly we will even do the job of the norms themselves and shame ourselves for feeling something, or having an “unpleasant” response to someone in our work environment.
Having emotions is a human, healthy, and rich experience. The fact that we have been shamed into believing we are not “supposed” have them does not alter that fact. And whether you knew this or not, I’m here to tell you that there are ways to respond to those emotions that both empower you and allow you to feel really good about who you are.
Try first listening to yourself before you shame yourself
Tough, right? So first, breathe. Yep. Just breathe. Can you give your emotion just a little oxygen? God knows it needs it after all these years of being pushed aside! You might be surprised to see just how much can shift on its own if you just…breathe.
If that’s not doing it for you, imagine exploring a given emotion in the same way that a baby would investigate a bug, not knowing enough to say, “Ewwww!” Let it “talk” to you. I know, it can be unpleasant, but not nearly as unpleasant as just letting that sucker do a wet blanket number on you for another obnoxiously long amount of time.
You can shame yourself later, if you need to. But first, give that emotion some oxygen. And listen.
Try a tantrum – no, you goofball, of course I don’t mean at work!
I read somewhere, once, that when it comes to losing your sh… – uh, your self-control – “God can take it”. When I make room for emotion, one very powerful way I do that is I talk it out or scream it out or tantrum it out or cry it out, out loud to someone else – in my case, to my distant spiritual teacher. I can hear myself better when I’m conversing outside of my head, I feel better, and I start moving into other modes with it instead of being stuck in a place I don’t want to be. You know which places I mean: resentment, powerlessness, victimhood. We don’t like pitching our tents in places like that. Nope.
Talking it out (ahem, screaming it out, crying it out) gives me the room to see where I’m holding myself to a two-choice limit: to let it go, or to plot some kind of juicy revenge. Instead, I shift, and in shifting, a little bit more of the hair on my head gets to stay there, and a whole lot of rich options for creative and healthy responses/solutions start arising in my consciousness. Ahhhh…lovely…
Don’t take it anymore
Someone I worked with told me that a co-worker was coming on to her repeatedly. But she wouldn’t report it because, she said, she would have to report half the people in the building.
“Then report half the people in the building!” I said. She is 20 years old. She doesn’t yet know that if you don’t stop it, it doesn’t stop. She doesn’t yet know that it actually is a big deal.
I like to think that as leaders, and as women, we are beginning to open the emotional doors in the ways we approach responses, systems, other people of all business levels, and decisions in the business arena. I am certainly seeing it in political arenas since so many women entered politics in November 2018. So many of them are just. not. playin’! They are bringing their entire selves to the job, and that includes their emotions both unapologetically and professionally. (Yes, Virginia, those two can go together.)
Learning from and managing our emotions is a beautiful and creative skill that is as little taught as communication.
As my mother became more ill, the family began not to communicate. Her illness became a part of the fabric of the family dynamic and we did not know how to address the emotional fires and interpersonal holocausts that were happening. Honestly discussing our emotions as a tool for deeper interpersonal understanding, accountability, and growth is something I believe was something we didn’t do. Most of us don’t! We simply have not been given the tools.
Because I’ve been on both sides of that one, a childhood of emotional repression and a chosen adulthood of freedom and creativity in authentic communication, I can tell you emphatically that one is better than the other.
Communicating with openness in self-expression is empowering and freeing and healthy. Keeping feelings at bay and then expecting another person to understand them is a practice that breeds self-repression, disappointment and frustration.
My hope and vision is that we women not hold back from joining the emotional revolution. Let’s not join anyone who might be looking to understand emotions in order to have more power over them or over other people. We don’t want to only be emotionally intelligent; we want also to be savvy, compassionate, creative, passionate, self-expressive and we want to do it all for big rewards. We want to create new discussions, and to make our professional and personal worlds better by using the kind of emotional self-expression and interpersonal communication that is rooted in authenticity, integrity and a fierce joy of what our lives and careers can be.
When I think about my mother, I like to think that if she had known about her right to be emotional, she would have traversed her journey with more depth, understanding, and even more support.
Certainly she would have traversed it with more ease, and maybe even without cancer.
The least I can do to honor my life – and hers – is to never back off from being emotionally who, and what, I am.
And to help others to do the same.
Women's Leadership Coach and Speaker Lori is the author of Call Center Crazy and The Human Solution: Human Solutions to Every "Unsolvable" Business Problem,
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