But it’s not about swearing, although that can often be a part of the unhealthy way we choose to express – the “F” word (and in this context) is “Feelings.”
We cannot interact with anyone or anything without triggering our feelings. You would imagine that with us having such a close relationship with them that we would be masters at expressing them but we are not.
We love to hate our feelings. We like to be thought of as a reasonable, caring and feeling human being but we all want to generate this perception, ironically, based on presenting we have none of the more controversial feelings – far be it for us to experience anger, resentment, jealousy or any of the other negatively perceived feelings. We generally reserve our feelings for special, emotionally-charged moments like weddings, funerals and disagreements and they’re often helped along by a drink or two as well.
If you take a moment and write down all the words you use to describe how you may be feeling during a given day you’d be surprised. When I carry out this exercise in workshops several things become apparent. Firstly, how little we talk about our feelings. Secondly the limited vocabulary we use. Thirdly the way we avoid actually describing how we feel, instead opting for exaggeration occasionally and minimising how we feel most often.
Put another way this is how we avoid actually expressing how we feel. The core words we have for describing how we are consist in general of “good, ok, great” and “fine.” These are the words of formality, politeness and cover up. They allow for the politeness of greeting someone. They support the formality of enquiring after their wellbeing without actually wanting to know how they are. They support the workplace cover up and pretence of discussing feelings and they do have a place and a reason for being.
Choosing your words
When we step off that safe zone of pretending to talk about feelings but not actually expressing ourselves we still have a fairly limited vocabulary. When I talk to groups about the words they use the most common words I am given are “excited, positive, not good, brilliant.” When brainstorming these with groups it often becomes evident that there is an emphasis of words that accentuate the positive and when seeking to describe less than positive feelings we go for the minimising option with words such as “frustrated, annoyed” or “anxious.”
In other words (no pun intended) we do not express exactly how we feel and when we get near to it we do not think our feelings are as valid as others and thus we minimise how we feel. This is, of course, until we have stored our negative feelings up long enough for the pressure to be unbearable and then we explode with some exaggerated descriptions of feelings such “furious” and “p****d off”
This demonstrates another workplace truism that negative feelings are not appreciated and only the positive is tolerated.
The repressed Englishman
At this point, let me be clear that I not advocating a sudden change in the workplace where we all have group hugs, feelings circles and moments of intense sharing. The reason these formalities we have in the workplace have developed is precisely because we do not like talking about feelings. They make us feel uncomfortable and we don’t come to work to feel uncomfortable. In addition, used in the right way, they maintain civility, an element of formality and improve efficiency. This is why we have developed an elaborate and intricate language for describing how we feel without giving away exactly how we feel. Clever.
The problem is the times when we really need to express how we feel. Those times when for whatever reason our boundaries are crashed by others. Then the problem we have is that by not expressing how we really feel we end up feeling uncomfortable thus achieving exactly the opposite of what we sought to achieve. When we feel uncomfortable we can’t concentrate. When we can’t concentrate then we are not as effective as we might be.
Furthermore, if we don’t express then we may repress. Repressing our feelings, burying them down and not acknowledging their power or their validity, is a dangerous game. The English, stereotypically are not great at expressing feelings and repression is one of our life skills. The problem with repressing feelings is that they do to go away. They stay and they fester and then they develop a power of their own and force their way out to be expressed at inappropriate moments or with inappropriate force.
Let’s look at the words we could use to describe our feelings. These are the feelings that it is generally agreed are our core feelings. These are the ones we are hard wired with. Children are very good at expressing them until us adults have exerted our influence on them. They are happy, sad, hurt, shame, fear, and anger. The quick witted will have spotted that there are five negative feelings and only one positive one. That’s because when I am happy I don’t need another word to describe it. Equally, I need to be able to describe the difference between, for example, my hurt and my fear. Unfortunately at our best most of us oscillate between anger and happiness using anger to cover up the fact that we may be scared, hurt, sad or ashamed.
Vulnerability: Weak or brave?
You may have noticed that most of these core feelings are expressing vulnerability. In this competitive environment we all exist in, expressing vulnerability is not considered to be a safe or sensible thing to do. In fact there is some kind of myth that not expressing your vulnerable feelings makes you a stronger and braver person. I disagree fundamentally with this viewpoint. Those of us that are able to express vulnerability are actually the brave ones. Only the truly brave can make themselves vulnerable.
Most conflict, externalised and internalised, is a misunderstanding. Most people who hurt you or scare you in the workplace did not get up that morning and make a conscious decision to crash your boundaries. Most people, if they knew the impact they had on us would want to change their behaviour. It’s our responsibility to know our boundaries and enforce them. All too often we expect people to naturally know what our boundaries are.
Expressing feelings in a healthy manner is an essential part of maintaining our boundaries.
Being able to express how we really feel, when it really matters, is essential for healthy relationships at work and essential for our own emotional health and wellbeing. Take control of how you feel and find a way to appropriately share them, you will feel better for it.