Feelings: the downside

I participated in a truly excellent training on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in January of 2017 and among the many concepts we covered was one that I will shorthand as “feelings as messengers.” This concept focuses on helping us understand and recognize the feelings we are experiencing in the workplace. Sometimes these feelings feelings are caused by something happening in the workplace; sometimes these are feelings we carry with us from other situations and circumstances happening in our lives. By cultivating greater awareness of our feelings and what might be causing them, it then follows, we have a better shot of addressing our feelings using our cognitive skills, instead of reacting impulsively in ways that we may later regret.

I LOVE this concept of feelings as messengers and at the moment, this concept is also causing me despair. Because right now, and pretty much since November 2016, there seems to be a giant, yawning gap between awareness and control in my life when it comes to my feelings. In other words, understanding my feelings and what they’re telling me is not helping me sharpen my cognitive thinking on how I might better cope with and respond to my feelings. I am having more days and moments when I feel mired in bad feelings.

My hunch is that this current political era we’re living through is putting new, crushing layers of stress on us, in ways that we don’t even recognize, in ways that make the recognition and understanding of our “feelings as messengers” much more challenging, and complicated. To give just one recent example, the recent mass shooting in Florida required us to assimilate an almost unimaginable tragedy, to the point where we have seemingly forgotten about the shooting that happened mere months before in Las Vegas. And on top of the tragedy of lost lives, on top of the many lives lost to gun violence daily, we also have to assimilate the almost total indifference of legislators who could do something to prevent these tragedies, but simply won’t. So the rage we feel at the indifference and lack of moral leadership then gets added to the grief engendered by yet another senseless act of violence. All of this—the grief, the outrage, the horror at one’s own mounting sense of helpless—ends up becoming a toxic mess of feeling. And before we can even begin to process this toxic ball of feelings, another round of fresh hell happens.

Let me pause for a second here and say that I in no way intend to privilege my feelings over what others are experiencing. I know that the toxic bundle of grief, and rage, and outrage over indifference must be far, far worse for groups who have been historically marginalized in our society, and while I share some common grievances with some of these groups, I do not share all. I only share my struggle now because I suspect that there are many others out there like me, who have devoted their careers to good causes, and now find themselves in a morass of dark, bleak emotions. If you do public interest work, you do not do it for the money. (Trust me.) And you don’t do it because the challenges come with easy solutions—you know going into it that working towards social justice and better education and health care and protecting our health and environment are all going to be long, perhaps never-ending fights. You do it because you care about terrible things that are happening and shouldn’t be happening, and also, because you think that you, working with other people, can possibly make a difference. There is an almost uncrushable sense of optimism and courage in almost every do-gooder I know and even I, on my darkest days, get a glimmer of hope that we will somehow find our way out of the mess we’re in.

But the mental toll of these times is heavy. Nothing, I think, prepared us for an Administration and a legislative body so determined to let harm happen. It feels like our government is so corrupt and morally bankrupt, they might as well be pulling the trigger, or pouring the toxic waste themselves into our streams and waters, or preventing a sick patient from walking through the doors of a doctor’s office or a hospital or clinic. I just came off two and a half years of serving on a senior executive team at a large nonprofit; the responsibility to manage my own feelings felt even more unbearable than it does now because I had this constant sense–as I do on the home front, as a parent–that I had to stay on top of my emotions for the sake of others, even if I felt decimated while trying. There is just something about the spectacle of the President of the United States who is unable to govern himself on even the pettiest of feelings. It makes the millions of us who DO govern our emotions, who DO exercise responsibility when it comes to sustaining and supporting others, feel an even greater burden to not fly apart at the seams.

In thinking about how to better manage my overwhelming anger, there is a part of me that thinks, how strange it is, that I am feeling so tired of well, feelings. I’ve worked as a communications professional almost all my entire adult life and feelings are basically our stock-in-trade, they are what we practice and preach to enable the success of the causes we care about. I have either led or participated in numerous trainings that are all about teaching people that emotions and feelings are at the center of almost all communications efforts—messaging, campaigns, media outreach. If you do almost any type of communication outreach—whether it be an email program, or writing content for a website, or writing a press release, or speaking in front of an audience—and if you try to execute this task without considering the emotional connection you want to forge with your audience and the stories you will share to help them remember that connection, your communication effort is pretty much dead in the water from the get-go.

Almost every public interest communications professional I know has a stock of war stories about the time we’ve worked with scientists, researchers, policy leaders, etc., people in fields involve large amounts of technical data and skill, and our job, in these instances, was to help them understand that while of course facts and data matter, no one’s going to remember squat unless they learn how to emotionally connect the facts and data to human emotion. For example: if a researcher is doing amazing research on dinosaur fossil bones, you may think that the research is amazing in and of itself, which it probably is. But it’s how the researcher shares the data and the findings—how the story of the research effort gets told, and how excited the researcher is to be sharing these findings, and whether other people are excitedly sharing the findings, too—that will help people remember this research, and spread the word, so others can do cool dinosaur research, too.

The tools that we communication professionals use to convince others that emotions matter are very practical, and are getting increasingly sophisticated. We show examples of communications devoid of emotion or feeling, and then we show examples which have really hit the mark, stories that are told with humor, or devastating clarity, and empathy. We show how words matter, but that images, especially video, work even better. We point to stellar leadership examples like Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood, who never fails to communicate with warmth and heart and personality. (There is a really wonderful CBS News interview with President Obama talking about how one of the mistakes of his first term was focusing on policy without sharing stories of hope and change with the American people, and engaging in a conversation with them. I can’t find a working link of it anymore, I suspect because the interview was conducted by Charlie Rose.)  And in the increasingly sophisticated realm, we show how brain science is supporting all of this training, that people really do “light up” and become engaged when their emotions are activated, which is something, by the way, that product advertisers have known for decades. Behind every tube of toothpaste or deodorant or car or computer we’ve ever bought, someone has usually figured out now only whether that product’s specs will meet our needs, but also how that product will make us feel.

But none of these tools I deployed as a communications professional are helping me manage my own feelings, these days. The tools I know are for people to win the fight. The tools I need, and I suspect others do, too, are those that can help us stay in the fight. To find the will, and the strength, to just keep on going.

So I’m in the market for some new tools on feelings. New approaches that will not just teach us how to manage our emotions in the workplace, or harness emotions for the sake of doing good, but tools that will help us, you know, deal. To acknowledge the rage and the pain in ways that will allow us to move through these feelings and get to the next thing, the next day, the next good task that we can do on behalf of ourselves or others. I’ve half-jokingly posited that perhaps we all need a new form of “rage therapy,” I envision this as a training session for activists where we learn how to mobilize and advocate for progress and change, but we spend the first day of the training naming and sharing our rage and pain (with guided facilitation, because hoo boy, that could get volatile otherwise) and then we all do exercises to somehow “dump” the bad feelings, and leave them behind. (Like, boxing? Puppies? Hours of dancing where you fling yourself around vigorously, in a safely padded room?)

In the meantime, I’ve done a lot of searching online about managing feelings and BTW, if you search “therapists advice for Trump anger,” you get back a LOT of hits, and all of the advice pretty much adds up to the same points:  connect with other people. Take social media breaks. Exercise a lot. Breathe. Engage in activities that make you feel empowered. Avoid non-constructive conflicts with family members. All of this is excellent advice, but I’m already DOING all of this, on a regular basis. And it just doesn’t feel like enough.