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Feel the FEAR and Open Your Heart Anyway

© 2016 Steve Whiteford

lion hug

My work with others using Emotional Intelligence and Mindfulness, and certainly my self-work over the years, has led to me focus strongly on the incremental, initial feelings we have throughout the day as the key to finding success through emotional intelligence. It’s arduous consideration for a western mind.

I can remember clearly that as a little boy in rural America, I was strongly feeling. I’m pretty sure my first inclination was to love and personify just about everything: flowers, trees, bugs, bunnies, farm animals, rocks, machines, you name it. I was startled by the many clear messages I got that feeling was inappropriate and most things were somehow there for our use, to be controlled or dominated. Over time, in spite of myself, I learned to stuff, ignore, control, or deny a full range of feelings. By age 20, I was probably a great product of my training. Ironically I chose to pursue acting as a career so that I could at least portray feeling, but true emotion was nearly inaccessible to me. I didn’t seem to be unique; many guys my age aspired to stoicism. Consequently, pursuit of emotional awareness and expression (intelligence) has become a life-long journey for me.

When I first cracked the EI books back in the late 90’s, I was fascinated. PhD’s, Neuroscientists, Business People and Buddhist Monks were validating the power of feeling. Although the books presented scientific studies, case studies, corporate studies, and trainable attributes that were guaranteed to increase interpersonal and social capabilities, few of them talked directly about feeling. Even though this thing was called “Emotional Intelligence,” feeling and emotion were still taboo.

My own work with EQi 2.0 (a very popular, verified Emotional Intelligence assessment) and personal study of psychology and Buddhism have allowed me to begin to reclaim the power of feeling.  Recently, a couple of really good books hit the market that delineate and emphasize the power of feeling. (Especially, Emotional Rescue, by Dzogchen Ponlop, and books by Dr. Daniel J. Siegel and Pema Chodrun.)

Some of the great work that is liberating the skill of feeling comes out of mindfulness practices. Mindfulness is currently trending in business based on clear workplace results and evidence, along with the scientific support of studies of neuroscience. Interestingly, because of the name “mindfulness” and the fact that the practice does require awareness of thoughts, unless one’s practice is deeply rooted in a healthy understanding of psychology, or ancient philosophies, chances are people are still inclined to disclude feeling as part of the practice.

Buddhist philosophy proposes that our greatest enemies to our innate human quality of emotional intelligence are ignorance, passion and aggression. These can be interpreted in many ways.

In relation to feeling, I suggest that ignorance may be our greatest enemy. When we ignore our feelings, we lose a tremendous natural collection of innate human competencies. Subtle feeling paid attention to becomes intuition. Intuition is the quality that provides us the skill to navigate life’s input successfully. Its deep wisdom is founded in the “sixth sense;” the five senses, plus – integrated into the sensory skills of the mind/body. Passion and aggression come to play in the “motion” of emotion. Passion can fuel the movement of our feeling, and if we are blind to it, drive us right off a cliff. It’s also an expression of clinging and non-acceptance of what is. Aggression is most often a form of defense, deeply rooted in fear, and that often results in some level of destruction.

What I’ve noticed is that now that we’re recognizing feeling, anger often takes the limelight; identified as the core feeling to notice and work with. This makes sense because general aggression is a particular problem that obstructs Emotional Intelligence. It is often the easiest feeling to spot and experience.brainamyg

Based on my personal experience, work and study, I suggest that FEAR is actually the primal feeling that motivates anger, aggression, passion, and other feelings and behaviors that span the emotional spectrum. This is substantiated by Neuroscience in noting that the Amygdala, an organ in the brain’s emotional regulation system, is strongly focused on detecting threat and motivating survival by evoking the feeling of FEAR. (Daniel Goleman cites this in his first book; Emotional Intelligence.) Fear alerts defense and yields survival. However compassion motivates cooperation and also results in survival.

So, to accelerate the quality of emotional intelligence first conquer ignorance. Here’s a way to stop ignoring feeling:

  1. Begin to notice feeling throughout the day. Go beyond your habitual awareness of stress or mental state by taking a breath and asking yourself what the actual feeling is.
  2. Accept your answer (my most prevalent answer might be “irritated!”) and take a second to feel it in your body. Breathe with it. Accept it physically and emotionally. It’s O.K! Have some self-compassion. Subtle feeling is a strong information system about our environment and situation. It’s inseparable from perception.
  3. Next consider if the feeling’s basis might be fear. This could be true for any emotion. Fear could underlie sadness, stress, frustration, anger, anxiety, etc. Usually, these more difficult emotions are the ones that inhibit our Emotional Intelligence and effectiveness….
  4. If fear resonates, consider what you are afraid of. If you identify what you’re afraid of, you can be kind to yourself about that fear. Accepting fear with kindness will allow you to relax a bit, see clearly, and take more appropriate action.

Once you have some awareness of what the fear may be, opening your heart is simply acknowledging the fear and allowing it to be OK. It can be choosing not to beat yourself up for having a feeling, and being kind to yourself – in the way you might be to someone else. Often when we touch the base feeling it gives way to a sweet sense of recognition and sadness. Sadness at realizing how the feeling may have driven our senseless behavior, and compassion for its effect on “others,” as well as more understanding of their perspective. The break of the heart clears the way for more direct, human understanding. With an open heart, you become present in the moment, free of guilt and regret (past) or fear (future). In the moment you are free to take effective action and express yourself clearly and openly.

Accepting any of our emotions with compassion, strengthens a healthy sense of being and enables open authenticity.

Practice by considering FEAR as the primal feeling underlying your more challenging feelings and habitual attitudes; the feeling/thought below the apparent surface feeling. The object of the fear may bubble up immediately, or you may need to experience the most accessible feeling (i.e. irritation) with mindfulness for a while before the fear becomes clear. Here are some examples:

I am afraid I….

– will be rejected

– am wrong

– will be found unworthy

– won’t know the answer

– won’t succeed

– will lose my job

– will be late

– will get sick

– will die

– will be embarrassed

– will lose control

– lack the skill

– will fail


Some quick examples:

When someone cuts me off in traffic, habitual irritation temps my peace of mind. What’s my fear? A costly interruption of my day – an accident. Noting the fear, I also note the skill of the driver. It was not safe driving, but neither did it have any effect other than igniting my irritation. I can relax and let it go. I can note that I occasionally do it to. I can experience gratitude and fascination with the driver’s skill, even a little humor. This frees my energy and my ability to be present as I drive on. When I get to work, I’m upbeat and open.

Betty chooses not to ask for the help she needs with a project, and stays late to do it herself. She feels a little sad; lonely and rejected. It’s a familiar feeling that perpetuates her lack of assertiveness. What’s her fear? She’s afraid she’ll burden her co-worker and that it will damage their relationship. She notices that her fear actually limits true relationship. This breaks her heart. She’d have more of what she wants if she asked for what she needs, and let her co-worker help her out. The thought ignites her imagination about how it could work for both of them.

Mike leads by intimidation. If you met him on the street you’d think he was a nice guy, but at work he ridicules and explodes to control communication and ensure success. He often hits his Operations objectives but a great cost to the atmosphere of the organization and the esteem of his associates. What’s his fear? Beyond losing control, and missing goals, Mike discovered it was fear of inadequacy and lack of knowledge that was the root of his behavior. Tapping the authenticity of that fear allows him to open to the expertise of others and achieve more solid results, while providing a healthier workplace environment.

By identifying the first cause or motivation of an inhibiting and/or habitual feeling, we more deeply acknowledge and live in our true experience. We also gain the power of being more present in the moment, while gaining self- knowledge and ultimately being more authentic; genuine. When we stand strongly in our own experience with openness to others, we respond more skillfully while consistently building our sense of centered, authentic achievement.



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