I’ve had some lovely coaching sessions this week and both during these sessions and just in my general interactions with my friends and family, a theme has come up.
I think we already know that humans are really good at telling each other what to do. Perhaps more surprisingly, it seems we are also really good at telling each other how to feel. It seems to me that women in particular are really good at doing this to each other. I’m sure that most of the time this is well-intentioned. I’m also sure that most of the time it is unsolicited. I know that I do it sometimes even though I hate it when it’s done to me. I think that women probably do this because it make us feel better: it’s often uncomfortable to witness another person experiencing intense and unpleasant emotions, so in an attempt to make ourselves more comfortable we try to make the other person’s feelings go away, so that in turn our own uncomfortable feelings go away.
The problem with this is that it invalidates that other person’s feelings and, if anything, probably only makes their feelings more stubborn. After all, what we resist, persists. Rarely do feelings simply ‘go away’ because somebody suggested that we ‘just quit worrying about it’ or ‘stop being so ridiculous’. Who ever heard of a person feeling more tranquil after being told to ‘calm down’?
I don’t know about you but the last time I was upset about something and I expressed that to someone, all I wanted was to be heard. I can recall a specific time, in the last month actually, when I was angry and upset and I told my sister about it. She listened, she validated my feelings and gave me a hug. And you know what? My feelings dissipated almost instantly. I felt so much better just because I felt I’d been heard, even though the original problem hadn’t gone away.
And it’s even more than that: by telling someone to ‘calm down’ or ‘stop worrying’, we not only miss a valuable opportunity to really listen to them (and thereby strengthen the relationship), we also make that person wrong for having the feelings in the first place. Although unintentional, we shame the person for having their feelings. Perhaps we think that by letting the person indulge in their feelings then they won’t take any positive actions to improve the situation. In reality, the opposite is usually true: shame rarely motivates people to take positive action.
Now, just because a person has a feeling doesn’t mean they have to act on it. And yes, each of us has a certain amount of control over our feelings and certainly over our reactions to them. We can control our thoughts and our body, which in turn impacts our emotions. However, that’s not what I’m talking about here.
I’m talking about missing a moment to give someone an incredible gift: the gift of having our feelings respected and of being truly heard. There is so much in our society that already shames and invalidates women for being emotional beings. Let’s not perpetuate that. We do have a choice and we can lift each other up instead. A rising tide lifts all boats.
So often, by way of our negative self-talk and less-than-self-loving actions, we shame and invalidate ourselves for our emotional natures. And then we pass that on to the women around us when they turn to us for some validation.
So next time someone comes to you upset, just listen. Experiment with simply hearing them and validating their feelings. It is an incredible gift.
And next time you are upset yourself, don’t make yourself wrong for having feelings. There is no right or wrong, only what’s true for you. Show yourself a little compassion and remind yourself that you are ok and you are enough. Already and always.