Saturday, 1 October 2011

Q5: Bottling it up, or letting it out?

Our reader this month asks about strong emotions.  

Lesley writes: 'I have a question about managing a strong feeling that arises in response to something that someone does or says. ... In these situations, I usually end up saying nothing (because it would only be inflammatory) and then withdrawing feeling dissatisfied. Or, showing the other person just how furious I am. I imagine that the answer is to focus within, right? Empathise with the furious feeling. But this doesn't answer the question of wanting someone to hear the strength of feeling. Perhaps I am even wrong in wanting this?'

Dear Lesley,

It sounds to me as if you have the classic dilemma: do I bottle it up, or let it out? 

Speaking out can be risky
I am sure you are right that speaking out can be a risky option, if there's a problem. When we feel any edge inside us - irritation, anger, stress, or we're just jarred or overtired - it's usual for this to affect our communication. At those moments, it's very hard not to speak without judgements or blame. What we say is likely to have a prickly undertone. However reasonable, calm or measured we believe ourselves to be, these underlying feelings are likely to come through. 

Strong feelings contain a strong energy - often a 'No!' of some kind. This makes it hard for another person to hear. We may also fear opening our mouths because of the response we get back if we do. So it's often a rather wise part of us that counsels us to keep quiet at these moments.

Bottling it up is risky too! 
But 'bottling it up' isn't a real solution either. Messages that are suppressed gain an energy and momentum of their own. If you're feeling furious, it may be precisely because you've bottled something up and it's now determined to find a way out. That's when we can find ourselves at the explosive stage, blurting things out at just the 'wrong' moment, or saying things in ways we don't really mean.

Having a voice 
We all have a natural, human wish to be heard. If our needs are not met, we are likely to feel diminished in some way. We may find it extremely painful, and lose our sense of worth and value. So it's not 'wrong', Lesley. We need to know we can change things, if they aren't okay. This is what it means to be empowered. We genuinely need to have a voice.

A problem!
The big question is: if we have got to the furious stage, how do we let the other person know what's on our mind in a way which will leave them willing to listen? And be considerate of them, too?

There's a lot going on
Before we start, it can help to take stock. When conversations are tough, there are usually so many things we'd like to say. Things we feel are unfair or unmanageable; things we don't like about the other person or what they've done; things we don't like about ourselves. Where do we even begin? Sometimes our 'No!' energy clashes with our efforts to be nice or reasonable. As we saw last time, we may feel triggered, swamped or engulfed by the situation (See: Q4: What would you say to a 9/11 bomber? Extreme Communication)

A gentle pause
A good start is to pause. We stop to acknowledge how complex, difficult or unbearable the situation is for us. This gentle understanding can make a surprising difference. It's such a relief to realise how much is going on, and how impossible it can feel to say it.

Empathy brings change
This brings empathy into our fraught situation. Yes, Lesley - we might focus within, or chat it through with a friend. The extraordinary thing about empathy is that when it's present, it has a big impact. Curiously, it doesn't matter too much who the empathy is for. Empathy has a unique quality. It affects our understanding and our feelings. While it doesn't change the facts, empathy can radically change our response to them. We grow larger. 

Finding our voice
So if you're in the thick of a difficult conversation, and feeling things strongly, here's something that you might do: try saying what's on the top of the pile. This works whether you say it to the other person, or silently to yourself.

Say what's on the top of the pile
Don't try to explain what the issue is (that's too hard!). Just describe what's happening right now. You might feel like one mass of confused feelings, thoughts, sensations and impulses. It doesn't matter. Just acknowledge this. In other words, you 'step outside' the conversation for a moment, and you comment 'on' it. You move away from 'content' (the issue or problem), and point instead to the 'process'.

Create a signpost
So we don't need to go headlong into a difficulty in order to tackle it. We can just stop and notice (and maybe express) what is most pressing or current. This creates a signpost which helps the other person see where we are now, and where it is we'd like to go with the conversation, if they are up for it.

Remember that when conversations flow smoothly, we do this naturally. For example:
  • I'm not sure how to tackle this, what do you think?
  • Err, I'm not sure what to say...
  • I didn't know that. I need a moment to think it over.
  • I notice I'm flagging - could we take a break?
In your case, Lesley, you might let the person know that you feel (whatever the issue is) very strongly; that you're struggling to say anything, because of all the emotions battling inside you. If it feels right, you can say how much you'd like to resolve this, to be in harmony, but that you aren't sure how to do that right now.

How this helps
Our gentle pause, our inner empathy and simple acknowledgement bring many benefits:

    • We are straightforward and honest about how we are - always a place of strength. Now we can take a deep breath and feel calmer. We feel more confident - even about what we don't know. 
    • We are more able to stay with the dialogue if that is what we want; or to find some respite for ourselves outside it, if we prefer.  
    • As we have more space for ourselves, we have more space for the other person. We begin to see that, if we're finding it tough, no doubt they are too. 

This everyday wisdom can help us find a new way forward. Instead of the strong feelings dominating the conversation, there is a new dimension present. We now have a way to take both of us into account within the difficulty; and so to find fresh ways to a solution which works for us both.


  1. This helps me, having "exploded" several times while caring for someone I love - am off on an introductory weekend of focus - great to be a novice in my 60's! Thank you - deep breathes, pauses, self empathy - here I go! Berni

  2. I'm so glad this small piece spoke to you Berni. Thanks for letting me know. And wow, Berni! What a wonderful thing to be starting Focusing. I'm sure it will be a rich and fulfilling journey – it certainly is for me. I wish you all the very best with it!

  3. Elizabeth, thankyou for this, it's really helpful for me! Instead of trying hard to say the whole emotionally charged issue clearly and immediately, you help make it simple and honest. To stop and feel whats right on top, and then open up that way, it equalizes things somehow. It feels in me as though this way opens my heart to softness and presence, and allows me to take one baby step at a time into being with all the overwhelming feelings and emotions. I'll be remembering this,,thanks!

  4. I'm so glad it's helped, Suzy! I love your way of putting it: "one baby step at a time". That sounds so safe, to me, for all the overwhelmed places... Wishing you (and them!) all the best,
    - Elizabeth