Know Thy Emotions

“I’m sorry.” (The athlete puts their head down, rubs the tears from their eyes, sniffles and makes every attempt as quickly as possible to regain composure.) “I didn’t want to cry today. Why am I crying?!” (the expressed emotion then appears to shifts into frustration or anger).

I can say with almost %100 certainty that every athlete (male and female) that I work with who starts to express sadness along with tears follows this exact emotional-behavioral chain. The exact… same… response. How is that? How is that there is an impulse to apologize for feeling sad or crying?

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I’ve been inspired to write this post for sometime but the recent Sports Illustrated article on Olympic Gold Medalist Helen Marioulis and her struggle with anxiety and fear really inspired me to finally get this out. Helen displayed so much courage, strength and vulnerablity. In her article she says,

“…There’s a stigma that only fearless people win. Yet here I stand in front of you. In front of our country. In front of the world − distinguished by my gold − and by the overwhelming feeling that all of my fears and all of my anxieties in that moment rolled down my body with every tiny bead of sweat, one by one.” 

Another article that inspired me was published by The New York Post. It highlights the head football coach at University of Houston, Tom Herman and his affectionate pre-game ritual of kissing his players on the cheek as they arrive for a game. He said,

“I’m a bit confused as to why it’s garnered so much attention and why it’s seemed so odd,” he said, “because I think most college coaches would tell a young man in recruiting — or his parents — ‘Hey, I’m going to love you’ or ‘treat you like my son.’” In fact, Herman expressed sadness that the ritual seems so uncommon. “I can tell you I was disappointed — they said it was the first time they’ve ever been kissed by a man,” Herman said, noting that several of his players grew up fatherless. “Which,” he added, “is a shame in our society.”

When did having emotions and being a human Being become so stigmatizing?! When I share the second article with the football players I work with they get very uncomfortable. It’s understandable. I’ve said it time and time again that your job, sport or profession does not make you immune to depression, anxiety or any other mental health issue. 1 in 4 adults struggle with a mental health issue, BUT this post is not about mental health awareness (no less important, just not the topic of today’s post) it’s about EMOTIONS! Okay, okay, now bear with me, do not get scared away, don’t click delete or pass by the post. We can get through this and learn something and hopefully be motivated to break down barriers.

What most people don’t know is that emotions are important indicators in life and sport. If you think of a dashboard on a car we have several indicators and lights letting us know how adequately the car is functioning. Think of emotions as one of those indicator areas. In the most biological sense emotions indicated /functioned to help us survive and procreate. But now that we are no longer cave-peoples our emotions have taken on a different function. For example, now our emotions can indicate fear of a future stressor or performance such as competing in world championships, or they can indicate our dedication and passion to a specific endeavor or issue.

However, what most people don’t know is that we, as humans, have Primary and Secondary emotions. Emotions are not as straightforward as you think, and having just one way to deal with the various emotions is not effective, in any situation. Just look at the emotion wheel below.

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So let’s take a look at Primary and Secondary Emotions…

Primary Emotions

Primary emotions are those that we feel first, as a first response/reaction to a situation. The most common primary emotions are fear, sadness, happiness, and anger (these can be secondary too). We are born with primary emotions and these are very much instinctive. Think of babies. Most parents know based on their baby’s expression or emotion what they may need – food, soothing, a nap or play time.

What gets tricky about primary emotions is that they often onset very fast and signal vulnerability/need. Many athletes who would characterize themselves as “tough” struggle with asking for help or for their needs to be met, but babies have no shame. So what happens when we don’t feel comfortable with our primary emotion? It gets “replaced” or conditioned by secondary emotions. Secondary emotions complicate the situation, making it difficult to understand what is really going on.

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Secondary Emotions

Secondary emotions are emotions to primary emotions. Secondary emotions are often socially contrived, such as guilt or shame. We are not born with guilt it is conditioned often from our tribes as to what behavior is or is not acceptable, but I digress. Secondary emotions tend to linger longer than primary emotions.

Going back to the opening situation, the athlete felt anger or frustration in response to sadness. Sadness is a very vulnerable emotion and therefore, sometimes we get conditioned to feel anger, irritability, annoyance or frustration. Another example, when someone expresses happiness for big dreams they have and then that person verbalizes to them with another person or group, and the first person gets shamed or laughed at for expressing such desires. If this pattern persists without amending the initial hurt the person may grow up feeling embarrassed or shamed for having happiness. These are very simple illustrations but secondary emotions make it very difficult for a person to become comfortable validating their primary emotions. Secondary emotions can keep people stuck in patterns of guilt, shame, embarrassment, criticism, and feelings of unworthiness.

unexpressed-emotions-will-never-dieMy work with athletes is often about developing awareness to their emotional-behavioral patterns of conditioning and then learning skills to validate and cope with primary emotions and secondary emotions. I think the barrier of social conditioning has really done us a disservice in this department because more and more people are scared of emotions because they don’t know how to cope with them. This has perpetuated a culture of HTFU or suck it up mentality. Think about it though, an athlete is rarely scared of going to practice or competition, because they have trained to handle the conditions they will be facing. They have prepared for the unexpected possibilities of their sport. Emotions are the SAME. It’s about learning to handle the unexpected feelings and prepare your best for managing or coping with those feelings. It’s EMOTION MANAGEMENT, what I believe to the #1 skill set of successful elite athletes.

Emotion management is not about denying, repressing, or suppressing what we feel. It’s about managing them. Developing a solid understanding that emotions come and go and are temporary, and as such, no one emotion or emotional pattern has the power to keep you from performing your best, BUT it takes practice, awareness, and feedback to regain your power. We must be willing to regain true power over ourselves as Lao Tzo says in the Tao Te Ching,

“Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.”

 

On a personal note, if you have ever seen in a workshop or training I will often act silly, dance or do something (anything) to get out of my comfort zone. It scares the crap out of me BUT I know that modeling vulnerability is the one way that helps others get comfortable with their emotions. As a result athletes interact with me more and trust develops because I am willing to showing them that I am human too.  There are also those who may sit back and judge me, it’s okay. I’ve worked with enough people to know that people usually judge because they are scared, and judgment creates distance and distance decreases vulnerability, so like I said, it’s okay, I get it. I really do. I will admit that I’ve been (and will be in the future as long and I am in the human condition) judgmental, rude, offensive, sad, critical, insecure, jealous, fearful, anxious AND loving, compassionate, empathetic, passionate, dedicate, kind, giving, carefree, funny, silly etc.

So wonderful-beautiful-amazing peeps, would you be willing to model vulnerability to those in your life? Would you be willing to stop apologizing for your emotions? Would you be willing to give yourself permission to authentically express the sad, hurt, joy, happiness? Would you be willing to speak your dreams and goals out to the world and relish in your genuine joy and anticipation? Would you be willing to be apart of the culture shift?

I’ll be the first to start. Most people know that  I LOVE MUSIC! Here is a video of my cool down this morning. I’m jamming, happy, but very vulnerable, not everyone gets to see this crazy side of me and here it is for the world to see.

Reference:
What Are Basic Emotions? Psychology Today.
Olympic wrestler Helen Maroulis: My darkest secret that’s greater than gold
Houston’s Coach Pecks Away at Football’s Macho Culture, a Kiss at a Time
Brene Brown: The Power of Vulnerability 
Brene Brown: Listening To Shame 

Related Blog Posts:
Mental Toughness More Than Just “HTFU”
Trust Your Inner Expert
Will it be easy? Nope. Worth it? Absolutely!

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Dr. Gloria Petruzzelli

Dr. Petruzzelli is clinical sport psychologist and certified mindfulness meditation teacher located in Sacramento, California. She works with elite athletes and sport teams across the country. She is competitive athlete herself and enjoys practicing yoga, spending time with her family and traveling.