Feelings of Distress

Anger and fear are primal survival emotions, with roots deep in our evolutionary past. Guilt and shame are also key emotions supporting survival for humans as social animals. However there are other, more subtle feelings that indicate to us that all is not well, and these feelings can be difficult to pin down and define. Although we all have a clear sense of what someone means when they tell us they are upset or hurt, we may well find it hard to be more specific about what this means, and if we do get down to details we may find that our definition disagrees with theirs.

The names we use for many of these feelings make direct connections between our psychological and physiological experience, so that we describe ourselves as being bruised, hurt, wounded, etc. without anyone being confused that the place of the injury is somewhere in the flesh. Alternatively we use metaphors for disorganisation or disturbance, such as shaken up, mixed up, rattled, etc. suggesting a destabilisation or loss of equilibrium.

The descriptions below do not seek to be definitive, and you may find that you would give a different name to the experiences that are described. This is not important; the way you choose to describe your emotions will depend mostly on your beliefs about yourself. What is important is that you are able to recognise and identify your individual feeling patterns, and that you are able to respond to them in a way that keeps you free to make creative choices.

Hurt and Upset

These two words can be catchall phrases to describe an experience of emotional difficulty, and as such can mean everything or nothing! They can also be dismissed as irrelevant all-too-easily by a busy leader, or denied as being unworthy or signs of weakness. This is a mistake. Such feelings are a sign that something you value is under threat or has been lost or damaged, or that your resources are diminished. Such information is valuable and to deny or ignore it is foolhardy. This is because they provide powerful indicators of what is important to you, and if you deny them then you will be unable to learn from them.

The desire to negate such feelings may be rooted in a desire to avoid seeming weak or vulnerable to yourself or to others. However we all have vulnerabilities, and accepting your vulnerabilities so that you can make allowances for them is the best way of adapting to reality. To deny feelings of hurt and upset is a declaration that you do not care sufficiently about yourself, and if you do not care about yourself it is unlikely that you will be able to genuinely care about anyone or anything else.

To accept one’s vulnerabilities also means to be open, and it takes great emotional maturity to be able to do this without quickly moving back into defensiveness. This kind of maturity requires you to have a profound knowledge of yourself, knowing your strengths and weaknesses without believing that either mark you out as particularly special, and having a deep trust in your own resourcefulness.

Clearly there will be circumstances when it is appropriate to protect yourself, as certain individuals or circumstances will call for you to exercise appropriate self-defence. However such protection needs to be a conscious choice in response to particular circumstances, as protection takes up energy. The habitual denial of your weaknesses and vulnerabilities to yourself and others will be a waste of energy, meaning that it is not available to you for other more constructive purposes.

The denial of vulnerability is a manifestation of self-delusion, an attempt to see oneself as perfect. This process is much more subtle than it sounds when written down in black and white. Coming to know oneself fully is a lifetime’s work, and you need to be constantly seeking to learn more about yourself. One particularly useful way to do this is by noticing the little hurts and upsets that one experiences on a day-to-day basis. The things that ‘press our buttons’ or irritate us about our colleagues and competitors are, almost without exception, aspects of our own personality or behaviour that we deny or fail to recognise. This presents a fantastic opportunity to learn more about yourself, and so to integrate the denied and projected aspects of your personality. There is a certain irony in the fact that one of the qualities most commonly projected in this way in the workplace is vulnerability, as evidenced by the feeding frenzy that can be stimulated when an individual is overwhelmed by stress or manifests incompetence in some way.

Of course not all hurt is the result of projection. One other significant cause is the experience of not getting what you expected, especially in terms of care and support from those closest to you. Once again it is easy to see this feeling as being too trivial to take seriously, but once again it is the source of useful information, in this case about the kinds of support, acknowledgement and appreciation that you need. While it is essential to be able to look to yourself to validate your work and achievements, we all need some external validation as well. While it may not always be possible to get such validation, to deny the need for it will result in emotional ossification, and so you will need to ensure that you have appropriate support systems by way of mentors or confidants to meet such needs, at least to some degree. Acknowledging such feelings may also present the opportunity to learn more about their roots. It may be that there are issues of self-worth underlying them that can be addressed directly and so reduce the need for external supports.

An associated feeling is that of feeling slighted. This arises when you are not shown the expected level of respect, esteem or appreciation by others to whom you are not particularly close. This will inevitably be the case from time-to-time, as few others are able to fully witness the real achievements of a leader, and so you must bear the hurt and move on. In can be the case that as a leader you may be in receipt of a great deal of positive projection, with some people seeing only the best of themselves in you. You will inevitably fall off this pedestal in time, and so it is best not to allow yourself to be seduced by excessive appreciation, and definitely to avoid becoming dependent upon it. Leaders often receive unreasonable amounts of appreciation for their good qualities, and unreasonable amounts of criticism for their failings. Allowing yourself to develop a sense of entitlement to support or appreciation will inevitably result in you experiencing much hurt and disappointment.

Feeling upset can also arise as a secondary response to the more primal emotions. In this context it may well denote that an emotional experience has left us with fewer resources to address the issues of our lives and work. An example might be that you have been angry with a colleague about something they have done, and this upsets your equilibrium so that you are more easily raised to anger by issues that would not normally bother you. It is common to describe this kind of upset as irritability, which in its technical sense means having a high sensitivity to stimulus. This also demonstrates the way that feelings of upset can act as a gateway or catalyst to the primary emotions in addition to manifesting as a consequence of them, reminding us of the feedback loops that operate in our emotional systems.

The destabilising emotion may be guilt, which can result in defensiveness, or fear leading to a nervous or edgy feeling. Each of these suggests that an issue is not fully resolved or assimilated. This may be because there has been a strong experience that has had a substantial effect on the psyche, or conversely that the original stimulus was insufficient for it to have made an impression on us at a conscious level. If you find either of these experiences happened to you on a regular basis then some further investigation is likely to be necessary. To feel upset is to receive a warning that one’s emotional thresholds are lowered, and it is wise to heed such a warning.