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When Being Positive is Downright Negative

Diana Chapman
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April 30, 2015
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I did it again. Last Sunday evening, my son came in the room to tell his dad and me that his first choice college—the last one he was waiting to hear from—didn’t accept him.

I noticed that there was some emotion on his face, but chose to ignore it. Instead, I enthusiastically said, “But the good news is that you still got into UCLA which is such a great accomplishment.”

My husband wisely interrupted me and asked that I not skip over my son’s feelings. We both paused in silence for a moment. Then my husband asked our son how he was feeling about the news.

“I’m angry,” he said, “I really wanted to go there.”

We remained quiet and allowed him to simply move the feeling all the way though.

Then he acknowledged that he was also sad. Again, we simply sat with him quietly as he felt that next wave of emotion through to completion.

I was able to see how much I wanted to control his disappointment, not to mention my own.  Like many leaders and parents I sometimes fall into the trap of believing that those I lead or love should not suffer. This belief can create all sorts of unnecessary drama and a loss of connection.

My son needed to grieve.  I needed to grieve.  I felt sad as I saw him wanting a different result.

So many of us—myself clearly included—hold visions about the direction in which our lives and organizations should go.  And just as important as it is to celebrate when our visions do come to be, we need to grieve when they don’t in order to fully let them go. It’s not until we are willing to fully feel our sadness and release the vision of what might have been, that we can then be present with, and even embrace, the way it actually is.

Once my son fully felt his anger and sadness, joy arose.  He experienced a whole-hearted excitement as he thought about attending his second choice school.  He was genuinely willing to move forward without resentment or melancholy.

One of the big payoffs for feeling your feelings all the way through is that you get to enjoy the full flow of your breathing.  In order to withhold emotions, you have to hold your breath a little.

Try holding your breath ever so slightly for the next 30 seconds.

Tiring isn’t it?  Now imagine holding on to strong feelings for days, weeks or months. This is when a lot of people will race to the nearest café to get that next hit of caffeine to cover up the exhaustion they feel.

We know that holding your breath limits the full oxidization of your body, which can literally make you sick. Feeling all of your feelings, which may be emotionally painful, can create better physical health.

So the next time you are with someone who has received disappointing news, do your best not to try to relieve their emotional pain—or your own—with positive comments.  Instead, honor their need to feel whatever is true for them in that moment, and have the courage to be with your own feelings that arise as you sit with them.And if you forget, you can always give my husband a call.

About the Author
Diana Chapman

Diana has been a trusted advisor to over 700 organizational leaders and many of their teams. Clients from Genentech to Yahoo! value her clarity, compassion, ferocity and playfulness. A well-respected facilitator for the Young Presidents Organization, Diana works with forums and chapters worldwide. She invites leaders to the edge while igniting the courage to leap into the unknown, the space where a bigger game of life awaits.