What does “emotionally successful” sound like to you? Is it the ability to maintain grace under pressure? To walk into all kinds of social situations calmly and confidently? To find and keep a really healthy, loving relationship? To have emotional balance through all the ups and downs of life?
These all sound like great ways to be. Who wouldn’t want to be like this? But how do you get there? If you’re like most people, you probably figure that people who are like this were either born this way, had awesome childhoods, or achieved it through years of personal growth and arduous effort at eliminating, or at least drastically quieting, all their distressing, upsetting and painful emotions.
Perhaps there are lots of people who have reached emotional success in exactly these ways. But maybe the path to emotional success, at least for many of us, is not through quelling all our disturbing emotions to achieve a Zen-like state of imperturbability. It’s not how we grew up, it’s not how we’re built, and it serves neither ourselves–nor the people we care about–to try to achieve it. For us, maybe the best and truest way to become emotionally successful is not to try to overcome our emotional selves. Rather, it is to become successfully emotional.
Successfully emotional? What in the world could that be? Everyone knows that people who are successful aren’t emotional, and people who are emotional aren’t successful. The moment you get emotional, you’re no longer effective, right?
But maybe we should ask why. After all, everyone, at their core, is emotional. That’s just a fact: For all our ability to think, human beings are fundamentally emotional creatures. Though we may not be consciously aware of it, every single thing we do, every action we take, is sparked by, and fueled by, our emotions.
Admittedly, some of us live our lives with our feelings seemingly much closer to the surface than the people around us. But haven’t most of us gone through times when our emotions were not so easily put aside, no matter how calm and even-keeled we normally may be?
Yet in a world that sees people’s feelings as an inconvenience and a bother to the “important” business of life (not to mention the bottom line), more emotional people are often looked down upon compared to those who are calmer, cooler and seemingly unaffected by their emotions.
Emotions, as we all know, can be used in destructive and self-destructive ways, which is partly why they’ve gotten such a bad rap. But, just as there is constant social pressure to be thinner, we are surrounded by the message that any emotional distress or upset is “dysfunctional” or “dysregulated,” something to be embarrassed about and solved by taking meds or telling them to a therapist. And letting any of these feelings show to anyone beyond the people in our closest inner circle is even worse.
The result is that we live as though strong unpleasant emotions in adults don’t exist—until they explode, sometimes in the most tragic ways. Few of us learn how to feel or deal with any difficult emotion caringly and constructively, whether it’s our own or anyone else’s.
But what if your everyday emotional register feels too strong to fit comfortably within this narrow standard? We argue that there are great strengths to having easy access to the heights (and yes, depths) of your emotions. Those who are successfully emotional have learned how to make all of their emotions work for them rather than against them – and for the benefit of the people around them as well.
Here are seven habits that successfully emotional people use:
1. They listen to their emotions, all of them, as if to a friend, and use them for guidance.
Most people think of their difficult emotions as something that just “comes over” them, so they either react from them, without thinking much about them, or try to push them aside. But successfully emotional people have learned to value and trust their feelings, listen to them as they would a friend, and consult them for guidance. That includes all their feelings—the good, the bad and even the ugly. They aren’t afraid of their emotions, believing that all of them, even the ones they don’t like, may have something important to share with them.
2. They don’t think their feelings, they feel them. And they don’t just ‘follow their feelings.’
This may sound counterintuitive, but most of the worst feelings people experience occur from the attempt not to feel. If you accidentally touch a hot stove, you reflexively pull your hand away. Likewise, when we suddenly experience a stinging emotional pain, we reflexively pull away not to feel it. But the things we do not to feel that pain, however, are usually not so innocuous. We may lash out at others, or numb ourselves in countless ways, or attack ourselves with self-attacking thoughts. In this way, many if not most of what we think are our worst emotional experiences and reactions are in fact generated by the thoughts in our minds, which make us feel “awful” but are disconnected from our bodily-felt sensations, which is what we’re really feeling inside.
Successfully emotional people have learned to make a distinction between their true bodily-felt feelings inside, and all the thoughts and judgments about the feelings that take over and generally make feelings harder to deal with. They’ve learned to feel what they feel. This makes it easier to handle even the strongest emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them.
At the same time, successfully emotional people realize that feelings often don’t have the whole story. They don’t say, “because I feel it, it must be true.” They acknowledge their feelings as feelings, while also questioning their assumptions. They pay attention to other information and their own reasoning, especially when they sense that their feelings are leading them in the wrong direction.
3. They’re open, honest and transparent.
Since hiding what they feel is fairly pointless anyway, successfully emotional people turn this quality into a strength by learning to be forthright. They send clear emotional signals to the people around them, whether it’s their boss, coworkers, family, friends or spouse. They don’t make others try to figure out what they’re feeling. And they make a point of sharing good feelings as much if not more than negative ones.
4. But they’re not transparent with everyone.
Successfully emotional people have learned (sometimes through painful experience) not to over-share. They can and will withhold their feelings when they sense that a person won’t be receptive or will hold it against them.
5. They don’t just express their feelings, they communicate them.
The verb “to express” comes from the Latin “to press out.” From a yell of fright to a declaration of love, we’ve all had the experience of having feelings pressing inside us that had to be expressed. Successfully emotional people feel that same need, maybe even more so. But they know it’s only half the equation. Successfully emotional people are good communicators of their feelings. They convey what they feel, want and need in a way that the other person can receive. Communicate derives from words more ancient than Latin that mean “share in common.” They make a point of not “unloading” what they feel, but sharing what they feel and making it common with the person they’re sharing it with. One of the primary ways they do this is by listening in return, which leads to the sixth habit.
6. They understand, respect and value other people’s feelings as much as their own.
Many people who are more emotional were dismissed, ridiculed and rejected for their “over-emotional” nature beginning in early childhood. This left them either apologetic or defensive about their feelings, afraid of how other people react to them. But successfully emotional people have grown beyond this defensive stance. They’ve learned to respect, care about and actively listen to other people’s feelings, even when they conflict with their own, without feeling threatened or overwhelmed. They apply the same positive and welcoming attitude toward other people’s emotions, including difficult ones, as they do to their own.
7. They create emotionally safe environments for the people around them.
- Successfully emotional people make great bosses, supervisors and team leads because they truly believe that the feelings and needs of the people who work for them really matter. Their openness and emotional clarity create a humane and emotionally safe work environment. Workers feel cared about, and work gets done more cooperatively and with less stress because the workers don’t have to play games to deal with their resentments or get their needs met.
A moment’s glance at the daily news shows that we desperately need more emotionally successful people—people able to handle the stresses, strains and inevitable losses of life and continue to give, grow and love. In addition, among those who are emotionally successful, our culture, and our world, need a great many more people who are successfully emotional—people who are driven by their own deep and perhaps once barely manageable feelings and desires to help others break down their walls to communicate and connect more deeply, more honestly and more caringly. Successfully emotional people have turned the vulnerability of their emotional selves into their greatest strength. They feel acutely when something is wrong, when the status quo isn’t working or isn’t healthy. But they respond not with outrage, helpless resignation or withdrawal, but with resolution, great compassion, and love.