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Can You Admit What You're Feeling?

The same event can often catalyze conflicting feelings.

Hurricane Sandy was barreling towards the coast and the news reports were grim. This would be the worst storm to hit the Northeast region since, well, maybe ever. A confluence of factors—it was slow-moving, widespread, clashing with a winter storm from the west and cold air from the north, and hitting land at high tide on a full moon—could lead to disastrous flooding, loss of power for millions, billions of dollars in damages, and lost lives.

Meanwhile, my kids were delighted. When it became clear over the weekend that school would be closed Monday, they squealed in delight and started to make plans for how to spend the time—how much TV they were going to watch, how much candy they were going to eat. They bubbled with excitement as we got ready by shopping for food and supplies, filling bottles with water, putting candles in each room, and connecting with neighbors. We listened to news reports and tracked the storm on the internet. The city was abuzz as people prepared.

It is now the morning after and the hurricane did, indeed, wreak devastation. When I booted up my computer—I was lucky and did not even lose power—I saw that tunnels were flooded, a massive fire destroyed 50 houses in Rockaway, and power is out for millions. I cried as I read that a tree fell on a house in Westchester and killed two boys, one 11, the other 13.

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And still, as I write this, I can hear my kids outside my home office, laughing as they play freeze tag and hide and seek, enjoying another day off school. And still, it makes me smile.

This is not a simple story. I do not feel one emotion after the next. I feel both pain and joy—not in equal measures, but simultaneously.

Here's what makes it even more complicated: the joy I feel is not relief from realizing that I escaped the devastation—though I feel that too.

Both the sadness and happiness I feel are because of the hurricane—sadness about the devastation and joy from the day I get to spend with my kids.

I feel callous writing this.

But that is the reality of emotions and of life. The same event can often catalyze conflicting feelings.

Some people in your company get laid off and you might feel sadness, anger, and frustration at the loss while also feeling relief that you are not among them. All those are easy emotions to accept. But you might also feel excitement at the opportunity you may now have to step into someone else's role. Or joy at seeing someone you never liked leave the company.

And then you might feel shame that you feel joy and excitement. In fact, you might feel so much shame that you don't admit—even to yourself—that you feel the joy and excitement because it doesn't seem right to feel pleasure about something that causes pain for others.

Here's the problem though: repressed feelings leak out in inappropriate and insidious ways. Feelings are energy and if you don't acknowledge them, they lock up in your body and reappear, often in disguise.

One disguise is physical pain. You feel a crick in your neck, your back hurts, or you get sick. But that's not a repressed emotion's only trick.

Someone else expresses excitement at the opportunity that the layoff has afforded her and you respond in overwhelming anger at her insensitivity. Why? Maybe because she is being insensitive. But if your anger is a little over the top, consider that perhaps you feel shame at sharing her feelings. And, since you want to distance yourself from your feelings, you distance yourself from her.

You label her as lacking compassion, uncaring, cold. You no longer trust her. And then you lose an opportunity with her. Maybe you lose a friend. And you further distance yourself from your own feelings, pushing them deeper inside, increasing the probability that you will get sick or angry again, alienating more people.

There is an alternative and it is the skill of living well and living fully: feel everything.

One feeling does not negate another feeling; it just complicates it. The pleasure I feel at having a day with my family and watching their excitement does not diminish the pain I feel at devastation left in the wake of the storm. It just complicates it.

Here's the key: feeling everything does not mean expressing everything.

It is completely appropriate—even crucial—to feel everything. But that does not mean that it's appropriate to share it indiscriminately with the people around you. So what should you do?

  1. Feel—and acknowledge to yourself—everything you feel. And feel it deeply. Don't censor anything. It is unusual to feel a single, simple emotion. Usually emotions come muddled together: pain and pleasure, joy and sadness, excitement and fear. Risk feeling it all without censoring any of it. Recognize that your rational mind may not be able to sort it all out and let go of the need for it to make sense or feel good.
  2. Know who you can trust with your full and complicated self and trust them. We all need at least one person in our lives with whom we can truly be ourselves. Someone who will not judge you and whose opinion of you will only deepen as you reveal yourself more fully. For some, that person will be your spouse or partner or close friend. If you don't have someone like that, consider taking the risk of revealing yourself more fully to someone who you might be able to trust. If that doesn't feel safe, consider a therapist who is trained to help you accept and integrate all that you feel. Again, don't censor yourself.
  3. Think about your audience before sharing your feelings. This is always a good idea but especially important with complicated and conflicting feelings. First of all, everyone is in a different situation and will have different feelings. If someone has been recently laid off, he will almost certainly—and appropriately—resent any positive feeling you have. Also, not everyone will be as brave with feeling her feelings as you. Many people will repress their own feelings and then lash out at you for accepting yours. If you're not sure about your audience, it's better to say little or nothing at all. Here, it's not only appropriate—it's smart—to censor yourself.

I am now going to join my children for a walk through Central Park to ogle at the trees that fell and to witness the ravages of the storm. I will share with them my pain as I think about the suffering that people are experiencing, my gratitude that we escaped the worst of it, and my awareness that our position of relative privilege in the world gave us a warm safe house that protected us. And I will also share their laughter as we joke and play in the rain, splashing through puddles and enjoying a day together off school.

It feels risky to write and publish this. I am afraid that I will be judged for it.

But I am more afraid of the alternative. Of living in a world where only some emotions are acceptable while the others must be stuffed, deep down, until our acceptable, acknowledged selves are finally overwhelmed by our ravaged, intolerable, ignored selves, and we either explode or self-destruct.

And so I feel. And I write. And I publish.

Republished from Harvard Business Review

Peter Bregman is the author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done and Point B: A Short Guide to Leading a Big Change.

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