The outcome of a meeting matters a lot, but people have different perspectives on how to handle the issues. One person raises his voice, another speaks even louder and soon at least one person is actually yelling.
In another church, (yes, these things happen in religious organizations), two key leaders miss a crucial meeting. They are very unhappy with the final vote, and avoid talking to the other leaders. Instead, they talk quietly to each other and to their friends. Soon word gets around that they are planning to resign.
The two scenes look very different, but below the surface they are quite similar. Both deal with anxiety in an organization and strong emotion.
Emotions are not bad. How we manage them is what matters.
Anxiety-producing situations often trigger intense emotion of various sorts, whether it is anger, embarrassment, fear, frustration, disappointment or betrayal.
For example, when a clergy person is diagnosed with a terminal illness, members of the congregation will experience strong emotions, disbelief, sadness, fear, anger, regret, possibly guilt.
Emotions are part of being human and dealing with the happenings of life. Don’t ignore them. Manage them.
I began to understand how important this is many years ago when I faced a very important oral credentialing interview. A week before, something happened that triggered a strong grief reaction for me. I decided to compartmentalize. I would set aside my grief and deal with it after the interview.
I learned the hard way that this is not possible, nor healthy. I could not be emotionally present to the committee, and felt underlying anxiety, because I had not allowed myself to even acknowledge my grief.
From that time forward, I have taken the journey of learning how to deal with grief and other emotions head on. I’ve learned that this doesn’t require emoting in front of people. It does involve finding safe spaces to acknowledge, express and work with my emotions. Then I can be present for others.
It is possible to manage emotions, even grief. Grief intensifies and subsides in waves. If you allow it to intensify, it will then subside, for more or less time depending on the situation, but in a predictable way that you can control and work with.
Here are ways to do this with all kinds of emotions.
- Talk to close friends or colleagues, but do this in a way that avoids triangling (meaning talking about someone else who is part of the family or organization instead of addressing problems directly with the person who provokes your anxiety). Share what you are feeling and let the other person help you think through what is going on inside you.
- Meet with a therapist or spiritual director and discuss your emotions. What are you feeling? What is the immediate issue that triggered these emotions? What might be below the surface? Are there past experiences that provoked similar emotions? What is similar and different about the past and present situations?
- Write about your feelings and experiences in a journal, answering the same kind of questions a therapist might ask you. (See above.) Be very honest with yourself. It helps to ensure that the journal will remain confidential, even if it means destroying the pages after you write them. Or try naming all of the layers of emotions. List the first emotion you are now feeling. What else is beneath that? And what else?
- Play or listen to music that expresses your feelings.
- Express your emotions through drawing, painting, sculpting or other artwork. It is not necessary to be good at any of these media. It is necessary to feel and express emotion as you create your art.
As human beings, emotions are a part of our experience. When we acknowledge and deal with our own emotions, we are better able to handle anxiety and to be present to others. When we as leaders get better at managing personal anxiety, we also get better at managing systemic anxiety.