Events over the last few months have certainly been overwhelming. There have been significant changes to our way of life. It’s understandable that many of us have experienced a roller coaster of emotions.
Unfortunately, we humans are prone to making value judgements about how we feel. Lots of us have been societally conditioned to accept some emotions and reject others. We live in a world where we’re often told that being ‘positive’ is the key to a good and happy life. But this is only half the story.
Whilst it might be helpful at times to put a more positive slant on situations, life is often more complex than that and we cannot choose to avoid some emotions and only experience others. Events are aften multi-layered and provoke a whole variety of internal responses. For instance, we might feel excited about returning to the office environment after weeks of working remotely. But at the same time, we can also feel anxious about the prospect of mixing with others again. Both emotions are equally valid. Learning to accept and manage the variety of our emotional experiences will make our life richer and more meaningful.
You must give yourself permission to feel whatever it is you’re feeling. Whilst it’s tempting and understandable to want to resist, suppress or deny the more uncomfortable emotions we experience, we must accept that they’re a normal part of being human. Although at times they can be unpleasant, our emotions help us navigate the world. When managed effectively, they provide valuable information with which we can make sense of things and take appropriate actions.
Part of being able to manage our emotions is being able to share them with someone you feel safe and comfortable with. Keeping emotions bottled up can prevent us from processing them and make them harder to bear or learn from. But so many of us find it difficult to talk about our feelings.
Just as we instinctively celebrate pleasant emotions with others, difficult emotional experiences are part of our shared common humanity. Developing environments in which we’re able to articulate and share less pleasant feelings is crucial. This is especially important in the workplace. In a work environment, remote or not, it can often be difficult to share how we’re feeling for fear of being seen differently, rejected by colleagues and managers and our credibility and competence being called into question in some way. Each one of us has a part to play in developing environments which encourage people to share their feelings as a vital part of maintaining emotional health.
There’s no right or wrong way to go about sharing how we feel. Family and friends can offer vital support. Or perhaps you find it easier to be open with a professional counsellor or coach. Maybe you have a work colleague or line manager who is approachable. Other sources of support might include a religious or spiritual community, teachers and academic supervisors. The important thing is that you feel safe and supported by the person you’re speaking with.
9 tips to help you open up about your feelings
1. Find a method of communication that feels comfortable
Some people prefer face-to-face communication and find it reassuring to have someone sitting alongside them. Others prefer to talk over the phone. Or perhaps you’re more comfortable writing your feelings down in a letter. This can provide a space to reflect on and shape what you want to express. Writing a letter to yourself or keeping a journal are great ways of exploring your feelings and can help you articulate them when you’re ready to share.
2. Find a suitable time and place
When you’re ready to talk, find somewhere comfortable, that’s relatively quiet and where you’re unlikely to be disturbed or interrupted. If you‘re planning to talk with a colleague, manager or friend, consider letting them know in advance that you want to have a personal and private conversation. This will mean they can prepare and allow sufficient space and time. You might also want to discuss upfront any concerns about confidentiality.
3. Practice what you want to say
Give some thought to what you want to say during your conversation and how much you want to share. However, try not to overthink or over plan. Allow some room for flexibility so that you can respond to how the conversation unfolds in the moment. If we plan too rigidly and our expectations aren’t met, it can be distressing. The trick is to strike a balance between having an idea of what you’d like to say and leaving room for the other person to respond. You’ll then be able to make wiser choices about how you feel the conversation is going for you. To help you prepare you could make some brief notes or write points down in a journal. There’s no pressure to share everything about your situation. You can simply outline the key points. Remember, you are in control of what you share.
Opening phrases like, ‘I’ve not been feeling myself lately’, or ‘I’ve been struggling to cope lately’ may provide a useful starting point. Most importantly use language and phrases that are comfortable and relevant to your experiences.
4. Be honest about how your feelings are affecting your life
It can help someone to understand what you’re experiencing if you describe how your feelings are impacting on your life and what actions they’re prompting you to take. For instance, you might say, ‘I’m experiencing a lot of anxiety at the moment, and this is making me withdraw’, or ‘I’m feeling quite overwhelmed with the amount of work I have on and this is really affecting my sleep’.
Making connections between how you feel and your behaviours will help people understand your situation. It may even be something they can relate to. It might also be helpful to express how you feel about the emotions you’re experiencing. For instance, you might feel anxious about your low mood or guilty about feeling happy. This gives the other person more information about the complexity of what you’re going through and will also help you to better understand what you’re experiencing.
5. Explain how you feel about expressing yourself
Acknowledging how difficult it is for you to talk about how you feel will give the other person a chance to respond in a way that is sensitive and helpful. You might open the conversation by saying, ‘I find it difficult to share what I feel, but I think it would be helpful…’. This might also give you some time and space to settle into the rhythm and tone of the conversation.
If at any time you begin to feel uncomfortable, communicate that to the other person and give them a chance to respond.
6. Suggest things that might help
It can be useful, for both you and the person you’re talking with, to give some practical examples of what would be helpful for you. This might simply be listening. Or it could be something more practical. For example if you’re talking to your manager, you could discuss potential changes to your job and responsibilities.
7. Start slowly and don’t put too much pressure on one conversation
You might find that it takes a series of conversations to fully explain how you’re feeling. That’s ok. The goal here is to express your genuine experiences, but to do so in a way that allows you (and whoever you’re talking to) to feel comfortable. Whilst it’s not your responsibility to manage other peoples’ responses and reactions to what you say, it might be helpful to allow time for them to process what you’ve told them and come back to the conversation later.
Similarly, if the other person’s response has left you feeling upset in some way or they don’t seem willing or able to respond in a way that’s helpful, then the wisest and kindest thing you could do is to seek out another person who has the space and capacity to help. It’s not your role to convince another person to help you and you don’t have to justify how you feel. Maintaining your boundaries around difficult and sensitive conversations will empower you to support yourself in a safe way.
8. Cultivate openness without dependence
When you first start talking about your emotions, it’s easy to feel dependent on the people you share with, especially if you only share your experiences with one person. Try to keep in mind that the goal of disclosing your emotions is for you to start managing your feelings so that you can support yourself. That is very different from depending solely on others to get through overwhelming experiences.
Although being with friends and family can sometimes help you feel less anxious, it’s important that this process empowers you to work through your emotions independently. Talking about your emotions should be an experience that strengthens the openness and trust you have in your relationships, without making others responsible for how you feel.
9. Be kind to yourself
Whenever you feel uncomfortable, unsure or guilty about sharing how you feel, ask yourself what you would say to a good friend or loved one who was going through similar distress. Apply the same kindness and wisdom to yourself.
Our emotions affect so many things that are meaningful to us, from our ability to learn, to how creative and innovative we can be and whether we can develop and sustain healthy and reciprocal relationships. With this in mind, it’s crucial that we find ways of exploring and expressing our emotions in a way that’s helpful.
Although it can feel vulnerable to open up and talk about our feelings, try to see it as investing in yourself. By sharing how you feel with someone supportive and trustworthy, you’ll begin to learn ways to support yourself through life’s ups and downs. Sharing how you feel with others will also give them permission to share how they’re feeling. In this way, we can each contribute to a society in which we can all be emotionally authentic.
Written by: Kirsty Lilley
Kirsty has delivered mindfulness and self-compassion courses to a wide variety of workplaces during her career and is also a trained psychotherapist and coach. She has worked at a strategic level within organisations developing wellbeing policies and been responsible for developing training courses on improving mental health and wellbeing, as well as courses designed to help line managers support people with mental health difficulties effectively and continually works towards the reduction of stigma within workplace settings. Kirsty is committed to an integrated and compassionate approach when helping others to fulfil their potential.
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