Do You Know What You Are Feeling?

Over the 23 years since we met, my wife Eleanor and I have spent considerable time, money, and energy on our development. Individually and together, we’ve taken workshops, studied meditation, practiced yoga, written in journals, talked about our dreams, participated in training programs, and gone to therapy.

A few weeks ago, we were taking a walk along a rural road, questioning why we do it. Is all this inner work simply navel gazing? Or does it impact our lives in a real way?

Just as we were exploring the question, we turned a bend and heard a loud party at a house on the side of the road. As we approached the house we could see the deck was filled with about a dozen college-aged men joking around and drinking.

My body tensed and my emotions intensified. I felt a mix of fear, insecurity, competitiveness, and jealousy. I saw them as the kinds of guys Eleanor would be attracted to — big, alpha, confident — and I felt inferior. Which made me feel aggressive towards them. It took me about a minute to realize what I was feeling and why.

I turned to Eleanor and told her what I was feeling. She laughed; she also felt aggressive and had an immediate, instinctual, emotional response, but the opposite of mine. She saw them as obnoxious, uncaring, sexist, and unattractive. She felt superior to them. And resentful that they would probably end up having power in our world.

Two seemingly simple but actually incredibly difficult and crucially important things happened in those few seconds: we recognized what we were feeling, and we talked about it.

Simply being able to feel is a feat in itself. We often spend considerable unconscious effort ignoring what we feel because it can be painful. Who wants to be afraid or jealous or insecure? So we stifle the feelings, argue ourselves out of them, or distract ourselves with busy work or small talk.

But just because we don’t recognize a feeling doesn’t mean it goes away. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Not feeling something guarantees that it won’t go away.

Unacknowledged feelings simmer under the surface, waiting to lunge at unsuspecting, undeserving bystanders. Your manager doesn’t answer an email, which leaves you feeling vulnerable — though you don’t acknowledge it — and then you end up yelling at an employee for something unrelated. Why? Because your anger is coiled in your body, primed, tense, aching to get out. And it’s a lot safer to yell at an employee than bring up an uncomfortable complaint with a manager.

This is a particularly pernicious problem in our hyper-efficient, productivity-focused workplaces, where it often feels risky to feel any emotion at all. We’re expected to get over things, focus on the work, and not get distracted.

But repression is not an effective strategy. It’s where passive aggressiveness is born. It’s the foundation of most dysfunctional organizational politics. And it undermines the collaboration so integral to any company.

A woman I work with interrupted a presentation I was giving and asked me to proceed differently with the sixty people in the room. I made a snap decision not to get into a fight on stage and proceeded the way she asked. The presentation went fine.

But she didn’t need to interrupt me; the presentation would have gone fine either way. I was angry. I felt stepped on. And I believed she prioritized her own agenda over our mutual one.

I wanted to get back at her. I wanted to embarrass her the way I felt embarrassed. I wanted to talk to lots of other people about her and what she did, gaining their sympathy and support. I wanted to feel better.

But I didn’t do anything right away. And, as I sat with the feeling, I realized that while I felt a jumble of emotions, mostly I felt hurt and untrusted.

Mustering up my courage, I emailed her, acknowledging the challenge of making in-the-moment decisions but letting her know I felt hurt and mistrusted. She sent me a wonderful email back, acknowledging her mistake and thanking me for my willingness to let her know when she missed the mark.

And, just like that, all my anger uncoiled and slithered away.

Maybe I got lucky. She could have emailed back that I was incompetent, monopolizing the stage, and communicating poorly. But, honestly? That would have been fine too – because I would have learned something from it, even if it didn’t feel easy in the moment.

Most important to me, our relationship was strengthened by the encounter.

But if I had just railed about her behind her back? Built a coalition of support for me and outrage about her? It would have felt good in the moment, but, ultimately, it would have hurt me, her, and the organization.

It sounds easy to know what you’re feeling and express it. But it takes great courage. I was tempted to write an email to her about my anger, which would have been safer and kept me in a feeling of power. Hurt feels more vulnerable than anger. But being able to communicate my true, vulnerable feelings made all the difference in how we related to each other.

How do you get to those feelings? Take a little time and space to ask yourself what you are really feeling. Keep asking until you sense something that feels a little dangerous, a little risky. That sensation is probably why you’re hesitant to feel it and a good sign that you’re now ready to communicate.

It’s counterintuitive: Wait to communicate until you feel vulnerable communicating. But it’s a good rule of thumb.

Had I not talked to Eleanor about what I was feeling when we saw that deck filled with drinking college guys, I would have gotten clingy to her, looking for some reassurance that she loved me. And, if I had not received it — and why should I since she would have no idea what was going on in my head? — I would have become distant, resentful, and insecure.

But instead, we just laughed and focused on other, more interesting conversation. Apparently, all that navel gazing really does impact our lives in a real way.


  1. Dear Peter,
    Do not post your family details as illustrations while emphasizing a point. You might invoke feelings of jealously and malice in those who are not as trusting and good as you are.
    May God be with you!

  2. Rebekah says:

    Hi Peter,
    I need advice. I have been employed at a major corporation for 2 years now. It is a for profit organization where all decisions are made with only the dollar in mind. The management strategy is very punitive and authoritarian, using fear, intimidation, and manipulation to coerce the employees to do whatever they want. There is no support, loyalty, or job security. Everyone is lonely and afraid at work and no one can be trusted. Management hires, cultivates and rewards younger people who are easily molded into being what they want. The quality of one’s work is not very important, but if you will gossip and tell tales on fellow employees you are promoted. If you won’t stoop to this, you get locked into a dead end position and are denied the ability to transfer out. Turnover is constant because of this toxic stressful environment, and kind, honest, insightful people usually leave as soon as they realize what the situation is and can find another job. I have been actively looking for another job for over a year now and do not want to go from where I am to another company just like it. I enjoy my profession and get self gratification from excellent work. I want to work where I am appreciated and valued, and mentored in an intelligent, progressive environment, with innovative and imaginative colleagues and management. I want to contribute something, and be challenged to do my best, not just show up every day to wade in a quagmire of psychopaths. Please advise.

    1. Peter Bregman says:

      I’m sorry you are in that situation. It truly sounds terrible. I don’t have enough information to really give you any advice except that leaving sounds like a good option if you can find the opportunity. I’m sorry I can’t give you more insight but without really being involved it would be irresponsible to guide you to have any kind of conversation with management. I would say that, if you aren’t already doing it, meditation can be very helpful as it can help you separate yourself personally from the kind of damaging environment you’re in. It sounds like the way you are being treated is not personal though I’m sure it feels like it is. Sometimes, a deep breath can help remind you that it’s not you, it’s them – and you are doing what you can to find another opportunity.

    2. Zellie says:

      Hi, Rebekah,

      Your comments were some of the best I have ever seen relating and expressing the toxic work environment you are in….many of us have been in your shoes on and off through the years. I have experienced them myself. Sometimes, the saying, ‘people rise to their level of incompetence’ is so true…they can be promoted there and then never leave and inflict their ignorance on others. IF you cannot go to your immediate supervisor, nor find a confidential ear in HR and inquire into transferring to another department, then you have to find coping skills while you work hard to find another job and leave. In the meantime, I can say that….many sick people cannot tolerate harmonious work conditions and they create a constant fabric of dysfunction…this either cultivates it, or finally implodes upon itself…Once I had to wait 1 1/2 years for the implosion, but the sick person made a strategic mistake by getting mad at her manager and going over her manager’s head…since her manager was cut from the same cloth, she was infuriated, and the underling quit AND the manager was reprimanded….2 birds with one stone as far as I was concerned…after that healthy house cleaning, the rest of the department settled down….so sometimes patience will win out, but you’ll need some mighty fine coping skills in the meantime (meditation, exercise, friends, EARS, etc.). Good luck to you; there is an employer out there who would LOVE to have your work ethic, healthy/positive attitude, and desire to contribute.

    3. Vincent says:

      Hi Zellie,

      My situation at work has been a bit like Rebekah’s lately. I didn’t know what to do and this morning I turned to 18 MINUTES which I purchased some time ago, hoping for some inspiration. However, nothing seemed to hit home. Then something made me google “peterbregman” and I found myself here. I’m glad I did. First of all, meeting somebody who is going through a similar situation and knowing you’re not alone always produces a sense of relief somehow. Besides, I find your advice makes plenty of sense.

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