On Emotional Integrity – An excerpt from The Creative Fire: 10 Weeks to Emotional and Creative Fitness
By Dr. Bob Beare
The language of emotional truth can be, at best, simple and powerful and, at worst, abrasive. Many of us were not encouraged to let others know what was going on within us, and probably have a stronger charge behind our emotions than we would if we had spent a lifetime of free expression. It is like a dam holding back rising waters, and we hold back for fear of the sudden onrush … and how releasing this might alienate others.
On the other hand, if you have found your way to a book like this blog post, it is probably no longer an option to remain in that prison. At this point in your healing process, the risk of saying what is true, or at least being very clear what your emotional truth is, becomes increasingly worth the imagined consequences. In my experience, most of the folks that I want to hang out with on this path healing appreciate clear feeling language, and I have probably begun to alienate exactly the right people!
“I’m angry” or “I’m scared” can be given and received as a gift of honesty. We’ve all experienced the moment when the word-dance stops, and the emotional pachyderm reveals itself.
When my marriage was ending, I joined a men’s group that encouraged me, week after week, in strong and gentle ways, to “just say it.” The pain was squeezing the poetry out of me in those days as I groped for a seemingly inexpressible reality. “It seems like a mountain of pressure” and “the world is stacked against me” were attempts to relieve the pressure and communicate the perceived oppression. This unconscious poetry was a kind of sustenance.
I clearly remember the first night I said, “I’m angry,” and I noticed that no one died or called 911, as I had imagined they would. This was soon followed by a few blasts of “I’m f***ing angry!” as the group breathed a collective sigh of relief. The expression that I thought would alienate these men forged connection. This was an important moment that opened a doorway to some very satisfying grief. The flow of feeling had been blocked by a wall of convenient fear that said, “People are just too fragile to hear what’s really true.” As I think about it now, that notion seems more condescending than respectful.
This is not to imply that strong or course language is appropriate everywhere, but when the environment is inviting depth and our internal dialogue takes us elsewhere, it’s worth taking a look at antecedents. These kinds of beliefs usually have their roots in childhood fears of upsetting the carefully balanced family mobile. I’m reminded of Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men and his reluctance to disturb the dysfunctional military system with the line, “You can’t handle the truth!”
Joe Laur, an early leader in the men’s movement, said, “Avoidant language is an act of violence.” At the time it seemed a wild exaggeration, but with reflection it can be seen as a shorthand reference for the species-wide problem of repressed aggression. Aggression is not, in itself, bad. It is the much-maligned masculine power that gets things done, and it is that powerful feminine instinct sometimes referred to as “bitch” that protects children from danger. But in their denied form, as are all of our dynamic energies that have been relegated to the shadow, they can become destructive forces.
This is also the breeding ground for victim language. Although saying “I don’t trust you” may be a step in the right direction of honesty for someone early in their recovery process, it can also be a step in the direction of the victim. A riskier, and potentially more powerful truth is: “I’m scared.” If we agree that honoring each other’s humanity includes an acceptance of the full range of emotion that exists between us, then to withhold or hide that reality is at least a breach of contract. Further, when we realize that this repression is at the root of most personal misunderstandings and plays a large part in the ultimate human violence – war, the importance of clear feeling language cannot be over-emphasized.
I see the problem and the solution vividly illustrated in my practice when working with couples. Usually, therapy begins with an outpouring of complaints about the other person who long ago, before years of unspoken truths built up, was the perfect image of love. The complaints are met with defensive comments and, as the drama that they have been enduring daily unfolds before me, it becomes obvious that neither partner is able to hear anything being said. They are encouraged to take a hiatus from the battle (even though I value a good fight over passive shame rockets), and I give them some simple dialogue tools to express feelings and begin to hear each other. Couples counseling is the art of helping people hear and be heard. If they can also begin to validate their partner’s experience, it’s just a big bonus. The act of sitting still long enough to put attention on the emotional truth of another person, whether it matches the listener’s intellectual truth or not, is a powerful and healing magic.
Many very intelligent people are broadsided by the cliché therapist question “What are you feeling?” The response is usually in the range of storytelling or judgment – something like “Well, let me tell you what she did to me,” and it is seldom a direct report of the inner feeling sensation. Because looking outward is a default protective mechanism, putting attention within is a learned behavior. The development of emotional integrity is essential if we wish to align our inner truth with the way we show up in the world.
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