Introduction to Emotion: The wild and wonderful weather of our internal world.

I cannot not sail.
— E.B.White

Emotions.  The wild and wonderful weather of our internal world. Emotions pose that classic “you can’t live with ‘em and can’t live without ‘em” dilemma. Research has proven that we feel before we think—emotions are not only part of being human, they are a necessity for decision making and learning. And for everyone I work with: leaders, parents, clients, kids—the biggest confusion is the difference between feelings and actions. Feelings are feelings—they are an internal experience. We don’t always choose our feelings. They just show up, like unexpected houseguests that we may or may not be happy to see.

What we can choose is our response, our reaction, our behavior. And this distinction between feelings and actions seems to cause the most confusion in the world of emotions. There is this assumption, especially with the emotions that we label as negative (like anger, for example), that to have that feeling means that you will behave badly. But feelings aren’t actions—though they can lead to actions. I can feel angry, but I don’t have to act angry. I can feel angry and share that I feel angry without being abusive. I can feel angry and channel that emotion and energy into productive action. There are all sorts of possibilities for me to experience anger and communicate that feeling that don’t include breaking anything or hurting someone else.

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to recognize your emotions and the emotions of others and manage your emotions in such a way to be effective for yourself and supportive of the others. The first two quadrants of the Emotional Intelligence Model described by Daniel Goleman are self-awareness and self-management.

Self-awareness is the ability to know what you are thinking and feeling in real time, as it is happening. It means you not only know what you are feeling, but you can also put a name to it. It is a way of knowing what your state of being is, and what the impact of that emotional state is, on you and anyone around you. This sounds simple and it is. But it is absolutely not easy. It's actually really hard to slow down and pay attention to your emotions--especially if they are emotions that are uncomfortable for you. 

Here’s the biggest facilitator of self-awareness: a non-judgmental attitude. You are merely being aware of how you feel. You don’t get to choose what you feel, so you may as well just take it in and observe it. The ability to be aware and notice your feelings and your current state allows you to get real-time data about what you need to be at your best.

Even though I teach Emotional Intelligence as part of my work as a leadership consultant, my biggest learning about observing emotions non-judgmentally I continue to learn while watching my brother-in-law sail. Yesterday was a perfect example. We headed out in the afternoon—it was grey and windy, and we had a great sail out, and then when we turned around the wind began to shift a lot.

And as the wind shifts and you watch my brother-in-law adjust to the wind, you realize that self-awareness of emotions is really a lot like being aware of the wind for sailing. If you don’t know where the wind is coming from, you can’t really sail effectively. And you may not like where the wind is coming from because it might mean more work: tacking, or even sitting still for a while, but judging it doesn’t really help you, and denying it and trying to sail with the wind you would wished you had really wouldn’t work.

Self-awareness is just noticing what is there, non-judgmentally, and being able to have some language, minimally inner language for it, and even more helpfully, some external language for it. Self-management is the adjusting to the wind. Self-management is taking your self-awareness and making some choice about what to do with your thoughts and emotions.  You notice how you are feeling and you do what you need to do to just sit with that emotion and let it be, or do what you need to shift your state to be most effective at what you have to do. Self-management encompasses all of the stress management strategies, like relaxation and mindfulness, as well as self-talk and other cognitive coping strategies. Self-management is not just about containing or channeling difficult emotions, it is also about tapping into to positive emotions to help you shift your state. For example, focusing on gratitude or optimism in a stressful situation.

Self-awareness and self-management work together—much the way my brother-in-law managed the sails. Yesterday there was one spot on our trip where the wind continually changed direction. He adjusted the lines and then watched. It held for a second and then it shifted again. And he adjusted the lines and then watched. But it wasn’t just the sails he was adjusting. At one point as we sat with a sail flapping he looked around with a great relaxed smile and said, “It’s just a temporary lull” –which was an attitude or emotional adjustment for us. A reminder that the current state is temporary, and this may be one of the best mantras for emotional management that there could be: it’s just a temporary lull. It’s just a temporary anger. It’s just a temporary sadness. The winds will change and you can and will adjust.

Emotions and feelings aren’t actions. They are energy, they are information, they tell you what’s going on for you. You have the ability to adjust to them, to use them, or soothe them or channel them. You have the ability to adjust your internal lines and go where you want or need to go. I’m not saying that when the more difficult emotions show up, you won’t have a bad day. I’m saying with practice managing your emotions, you will get better at adjusting to them: at knowing what you need to do to keep an even keel through your bigger weather moments.

Depending on how strong the emotions are—you may end up on a different journey than you planned. Or you may end up just sitting with it for a bit. Just remember: it’s temporary. It’s a temporary wind. It’s a temporary gale. It’s a temporary rain shower. It’s a temporary lull. And all of it can make for a great sail.

© 2015 Gretchen L Schmelzer, PhD

Note: The neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio makes the distinction between emotions as the physiological experience and feelings as the thought/meaning aspect of the experience. However the words are typically used interchangeably in English and are used interchangeably in this piece.

For more on the links between feeling and thinking and decisions:

For more on Emotional Intelligence

And for encouraging examples of messy afternoon sails:

Letters of E. B. White
By E. B. White

The Veracity of Hope

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

Every day, every day, every day, every way,
Gonna let my little light shine.
Light that shines is the light of love,
Hides the darkness from above,
Shines on me and it shines on you,
Shows you what the power of love can do.
Shine my light both bright and clear,
Shine my light both far and near,
In every dark corner that I find,
Let my little light shine
— Harry Dixon Loes

People like to put the word ‘hope’ into an imaginary place. A place of dreams and wishes. A place that isn’t ‘real.’

But nothing, and I mean nothing, could be further from the truth.

If hope is anything—it is the absolute inner truth of a human being’s capacity. It is the absolute inner truth of what is possible when we come back into contact with ourselves, with what is important to us. I’m not sure there is any greater truth in the world than when you see hope re-emerge on the face of someone who had lost hope.

Over the last two years I had the privilege of working with a group of Alaska Native leaders—elders and younger people who live and work in their villages in the interior of Alaska. For their entire lives they have struggled against personal trauma, historical trauma, scarce resources and a system that works against their cultural values. Each of them in their own way have worked so hard to bring healing to their people and their villages. But healing is tiring. The problems are huge.

Trauma makes you tired. Repeated trauma makes you exhausted. When you see people who have lost hope, they look on the outside the same way it can feel on the inside when you lose hope—it looks and feels blank. Like there is just nothing there. No one there. When hope is lost, you can’t make a connection to someone else, and you have lost the connection to yourself.  I have seen this blank look many times in populations that have lived through war or historical trauma. They are polite as they listen, but they aren’t yet there. I have seen it on the faces of inner city school teachers and administrators on the front lines of helping for decades. They too look, as if, behind a wall.

This can look and feel like apathy. Where the inner voice is saying, “What’s the point?” “This is hopeless.” “Nothing matters.”

And I have felt that blank space in my own healing. A place that can make you feel lost, even from yourself. When you feel blank you are no longer in a fight or even a struggle—you don’t really know what you are thinking, your mind is, well, blank.

But blankness isn’t the opposite of hope. Blankness is the protection of it. It comes in like a thick fog and protects you from anyone seeing that something does matter to you. It protects you from them seeing it, and from you having to see it for yourself. If they can’t see it, they can’t take it away from you. If you can’t see it. You don’t have to feel the pain of disappointment.

It can be so hard to long for change, long for things to be different, to hope. It can hurt to stay with what is most important to you –and tolerate the disappointment of change happening so slowly, or not at all. Tolerate having to start over and over again.

So how does it change? How do people get hope back? How do you find it again?

By feeling and remembering that something does matter. That you matter. And this happens one small conversation at a time. It happens by being listened to and by listening. By hearing yourself talk about what matters to you. By connecting to your emotions again.

When we go blank we hide the ember of our hope. We protect it deep inside ourselves but it hasn’t completely gone out. And then with one small conversation at a time we fan the ember until it catches fire again.

It is that light that is unmistakable. It is the spring flowers after a long winter—bright and shining proof that life can be rekindled. Last week I saw that light shine from their eyes suddenly as they talked about what they want for their family, their village, their people. That light shined from their smiles as they laughed once again—and that light is contagious.

But I think that there is much we don’t yet understand about the blank places—the places we go to for protection and perhaps, respite. It may be that there are just some journeys of healing and change that need or require these blank places. These are such long journeys, back from healing from war, or apartheid, or historical trauma. These are long journeys healing from child abuse or gang violence or poverty. The blank places may be filled with resources we don’t understand or they may simply be a kind of anesthesia for the soul—when it’s too painful, this blankness kicks in and protects our deepest longing. Protects our light.

When I was in high school I taught horseback riding and when kids felt overwhelmed, out-of-control, or frightened, they would often drop the reins and grab on to the mane because that felt more solid—more safe than the tiny reins felt. But the problem, of course, was that then the horse did anything it wanted, which was, typically, to walk over to the gate and stand there. This is the blank space. You aren’t in control, you have let go and you are just going for a ride, or standing still, as the case may be. It took all their bravery and will-power to let go of the mane and pick of the reins again. To take control and risk feeling wobbly. This is exactly what hope looks like: it looks like someone picking up the reins of their heart again. This is what I mean about hope being true. Hope is really what allows for true action, it may be the truest truth we will ever know.

© 2015 Gretchen L Schmelzer, PhD

Helping women hold both joy and sorrow on Mother’s Day.

She who reconciles the ill-matched threads
Of her life, and weaves them gratefully
Into a single cloth –
It’s she who drives the loudmouths from the hall
And clears it for a different celebration.
— Rainer Maria Rilke

The Mother’s Day we have is not big enough to hold all of a woman’s heart on Mother’s Day. Women need a different celebration. The Mother’s Day we have is a holiday of marketing and hype. It doesn’t represent women’s experience. It represents profit. In The US alone it is a 21 billion dollar industry. You can’t open your email, go in to a CVS or grocery store, or the mall without being bombarded by messages about Mother’s Day. You literally can’t get away from it for weeks. It is most telling that the founder of Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis was so troubled by how the holiday became a marketing holiday rather than the sacred holiday she had intended, that she spent most of her life trying to remove the holiday from the calendar.

Women need a different celebration because the current celebration is one-sided. The current celebration is entirely too small to hold the experience that women have with the word mother, with the role of mother, with the relationship as a mother, and a relationship to a mother. I don’t want to take any of the joy out of the holiday for the women who feel joy. Joy belongs there. Celebration belongs there. Satisfaction and appreciation belong there. But our current cultural stranglehold on Mother’s Day keeps out the other very real parts of women’s lives. It forces women to put on only a happy face when they are often holding so much more. Yes, there is joy on Mother’s Day, but there is also much sorrow and loss—often invisible losses. And because of the mandate on happiness and flowers and all things wrapped in bows—women are asked to smile and hold their losses alone.  On a day when they are being ‘celebrated’ women are often left entirely isolated in their own experience—especially with regards to loss.

And the losses are many. Remember that women count all of their children on Mother’s Day—the born, the unborn, the living, the dead. It is a day of mourning for women who lost children to miscarriage or to death, as much as it is a celebration of the children they love and cherish. It can be a day of mourning for the women who gave their babies up for adoption and for some women who chose to have abortions—for the difficult decisions that they had to make. It can be a day of mourning or loss for the women who weren’t able to have children or who chose not to. A reminder of what was not and what will never be. There are also the children who are lost to addiction, to jail, to mental illness, to estrangement. Women count all of their babies—the ones who are here and not here, the ones they can hold, and the ones they can’t.

And on this day women are asked to hold the relationship to their own mothers in whatever form that holds. So many women who loved their mothers dearly and whose mothers have died are acutely aware of the woman they can no longer celebrate in the way they want, can no longer hold, and talk to on this day. Or maybe their mothers are sick, or have Alzheimers—still living, but no longer the person they were.  For these women, no matter how joyous the relationship with their own children, families, relationships—Mother’s Day can make them feel raw, and sore, with a deep, deep sense of sorrow or longing.  The absence of mother is felt as a gaping hole.

And sometimes this gaping hole isn’t from the loss of something wonderful, it is from the loss of what never was: for the women who were unmothered—hurt, abused, neglected by the very person who was supposed to fill their lives with safety and care. For the women who have spent many years learning to mother themselves. Mother’s Day, and the Hallmark cards that mark the occasion, is a reminder of the childhood that never was and never can be—of things they could never say about their mother because we live in a world that believes that all mothers are good. It is a reminder of what they didn’t get and all the hard work of healing that they had to do to become who they are now.

So let’s work to create a different celebration that would support a woman to hold her joy and her sorrows. Her joys as a mother and her losses as a mother. Her joys of her mother and her losses of a mother. Let’s work to support a woman to hold the love she has of her children with the sorrows of the children that couldn’t be. Let’s create a different celebration that doesn’t ask a woman to hold only one side of her story about mothers and motherhood on Mother’s Day. Let’s create a different celebration that allows her to hold all of her experience so that she may weave them gratefully into a single cloth. Let’s make the celebrations and conversations as big as the hearts of the women we are celebrating.

© 2016 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD



Let it be.

I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside of you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow.
— E. L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Healing is often on its own trajectory. We don’t really decide when certain parts of ourselves start to heal. We can’t really schedule our healing moments for convenient times. In the same way you can’t really schedule when your child will learn to walk, or talk or lose his first tooth, or break up with his first girlfriend.  Growth and development happens when the conditions are right, when things come together. And healing, especially healing from grief and trauma, is another form of growth and development. It is rehabilitative growth—it is growth that starts up again with parts that are often sore or unused or unpracticed.

Healing, mending, growth—they happen when the conditions are right. It can be a long slow process of letting things shift, of feeling like nothing is happening, of working hard to just not to use your old habits or old protections so that hurt parts of yourself can come in contact with each other or come out into the light. Much like you are waiting and hoping for your child’s developmental milestones, you are waiting and hoping for healing—but really nothing can prepare you for the messiness or the discomfort of healing. You have waited so long for it, and when it comes you think, “Can I go back?” “Should I quit?” “I thought it would feel better or easier.”

Much of what is written about healing—whether from trauma or grief is about what you can do. Self help books are filled with what you can do.  And there are times when you are doing. Most of what people imagine trauma therapy to be is a series of telling ‘war stories.’ And I think what gets in the way of people being able to tolerate treatment is that healing is much bigger than that. We are bigger than our worst story and we have to grow beyond them and with them and through them. Not only is healing bigger than that, it is slower than that. Some of healing is doing, but even more of healing is being. And we imagine being to be easier than doing. But often it is not. It is one thing to tell your war stories. It is entirely different to just sit in them,  to be in them.  And it is even bigger to have someone witness our being.

As E.L. Konigburg states above, “…you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside of you.” Theses are the days of healing no one writes a book about or makes a movie about. The times of healing when you have to let the work you are doing swell up inside you. Find all the edges and the empty places.

Yesterday on my walk I found myself humming, “Let it be.” It was a very grey day and I was visiting a friend in Rhode Island who had very kindly watched my dog while I was away. We both decided that we needed fresh air and headed to the beach for a long, lovely walk. And there’s nothing like a walk on the beach, on even a grey day to remind you that life has its own rhythms. Endless, loud, beautiful rhythms. The waves crash in and roll back out. The colors of the water and the sky and the sand captivated us.

It is so hard to have the same faith in the rhythms of your own healing. That there are times when it will roll in, and times it will roll out. And it is so hard to just stay with it when it shows up, and brings in all the mess with the tide. Oh the patience it takes. To find the treasures in the mess. The shells. The beautiful rocks. The sea glass. No, healing doesn’t show up when it is convenient. But when it does. Let it be. Hum it. Feel it. Grow. Heal.

© 2015 Gretchen L Schmelzer, PhD