The superpower of feeling your emotions
As startup founders, we're almost always in out heads: thinking about what's happening and what needs to be done. Learning to feel our emotions can be a secret superpower.
In my last essay on co-founder conflicts, I said:
Learn to feel your feelings. This is an indispensable life skill, which, in my opinion, is more important in startups than understanding the intricacies of something like SaaS pricing. If you can notice when an unpleasant feeling comes up and let it be, feeling it fully, without acting it out, you have a superpower.
We instinctively assume we know how to feel our emotions because we all have them. Everyone knows what it’s like to be happy, to be angry, to be sad, to be excited, to be anxious. What is there to learn? How can this be relevant to being a founder and CEO of a venture-backed startup aiming to change the world?
Learning to feel your feelings means noticing them from a place of non-reactivity, allowing them to arise and dissipate without reacting to them.
Not having this skill means that when an unpleasant feeling arises, we react to it mindlessly instead of responding consciously.
The trouble with reacting instead of responding is that our automatic reactions are nearly always not as good as our conscious responses. Often, they’re outright dangerous.
How is this relevant in startups?
Imagine a CEO running a senior team meeting when the CTO challenges her idea. A part of her is transported back to school when she was nine. She remembers how excited she was to share her idea with her classmates, but they laughed at her. She felt stupid and ashamed back then.
Today, she’s a CEO. Suddenly, a flash of shame comes up as her CTO begins to speak. Before she knows it, she interrupts her CTO, embarrassing him in front of others. The rest of the senior team watches silently. They just learned not to challenge the CEO’s ideas.
I don’t have to explain what could the consequences of that be in a startup.
A CEO behaving in this way wouldn’t be consciously aware of the dynamic. She wouldn’t notice the shame coming up. She wouldn’t know it was coming from her childhood. She wouldn’t consciously decide that interrupting the CTO would be the best course of action. She wouldn’t be aware of how it’d come across to others.
The entire sequence of events would unfold in seconds without any conscious awareness of it.
The next day, she might be complaining to a friend over a drink: “What’s wrong with my exec team? They always agree with what I say even though I keep explaining how important it is to challenge each other. I think hired wrong people…”
What would a mindful response be?
Imagine a CEO who did some work to learn to feel her feelings. A CTO challenges her idea in a meeting. In an instant, the CEO notices a mental image from her childhood.
At the same time, the CEO notices a knot in the stomach, just like the one she felt when she was nine years old, and allows it to be there, letting the discomfort be, knowing it’s not dangerous.
Then the CEO notices a thought, “My CTO is wrong! He just doesn’t get it”. She lets the thought arise and pass without interrupting him.
She lets the CTO finish his point. She notices how his words make her feel insecure and notices that in the meeting, she’s not being threatened or shamed. She realises that a feeling of shame and the impulse to interrupt have nothing to do with what the CTO is saying.
And then the CEO makes a conscious choice out of all possible options. One could be to ask for clarification. Another could be to suggest to discuss it on another occasion. Yet another could be to thank the CTO for his contribution and invite others to share their opinions. Whatever the CEO decides, she’s now making a conscious choice instead of reacting mindlessly.
The outcome is a senior team where everyone feels safe to share their ideas without fear of being shut down by the CEO.
How do you learn to feel your feelings?
How do you learn to respond mindfully instead of reacting mindlessly? By deliberately practising somatic embodiments. Ok, let’s unpack that.
Somatic embodiment, put simply, is about feeling your feelings instead of thinking about them. For example, if there’s a knot in your stomach, what does it feel like? Is it big or small? Is it still or moving? Does it have a texture? How is it changing as you’re watching it?
Deliberately practising means having a set of practices that you do on a regular basis that put you in touch with your feelings, helping you feel your body. It can be some forms of meditation, yoga, somatic therapy or somatic coaching. It’s probably more important that you commit to this work long-term than your specific approach.
When we were children, we all experienced strong and unpleasant emotions at times. To help us deal with it, our psyche developed various mechanisms to make sure we don’t feel them again. In the example of the CEO above, her defence might be to interrupt the person the second there’s a threat of feeling shame.
What parts of our psyche don’t know is that today, as adults, we can feel our unpleasant feelings. They may be unpleasant, but they aren’t dangerous. A sense of shame and a knot in the stomach never killed anyone.
Letting these unpleasant sensations be as they are is what allows us to change our behaviour, learning to respond consciously instead of reacting mindlessly.
This makes all the difference to how you show up as a leader, what decisions you take and how others experience working with you.
What makes it a superpower?
The best part of it is that by learning to feel our feelings, we don’t need to make a conscious effort to counteract them.
Imagine the CEO in the example above who realises that dismissing her team’s ideas in front of them is bad leadership, but she does it by making a big effort not to say anything when others are speaking.
She might achieve her goal of not interrupting her CTO by distracting herself with another thought or just waiting until he finishes without really listening to him. She would likely be tense inside, hating the entire experience because the unpleasant and threatening feelings would still be too scary to feel. Without any doubt, other executives in the room would notice her discomfort and pick up on it, even if only unconsciously.
A superpower of learning to feel the feelings and letting them be means that in such a moment, this CEO wouldn’t be making an effort to stop herself. She would just be aware of what’s happening inside her mind and body without feeling that she’s got to do something about it.
That’s a superpower.
Learning to feel your feelings is but one aspect of living an examined life. I’m often reminded of the words of Parker Palmer:
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I’d add, if you choose to live an unexamined life, please do not take a job that involves other people! You’re likely to cause real damage if you do.
Parker Palmer, author, educator and activist
Fortunately, feeling our feelings is just a skill that can and should be learned by every leader and, I’d argue, by every adult. This is one of the skills that separates great leaders from average ones.