by Daniel Kingsley
Running away from an emotion. is a sure way to carry it with you.
Nayyirah Waheed, Poet
Comedy is acting out optimism.
Do you ever feel compelled to do something that you know isn’t what’s really best for you?
Whether it’s checking your emails or Facebook for the 10th time, or watching an extra hour of Netflix when you really need to be sleeping?
Or perhaps driving too fast or too aggressively? Or speaking in a harsh way to someone when you know it’s not really their fault? Or spending hours worrying about something that you can’t do anything about? Maybe an upcoming talk or meeting?
…it feels like “you can’t help yourself”. You know it isn’t doing you any good, but you just find yourself doing it…
This is actually quite common. Almost all of us do things like this on a daily basis.
And when we do, we are doing what psychologists call “acting out”. We are allowing feelings beneath the surface (often feelings that we are not aware of) to drive our behaviour.
All of our compulsive, obsessive or addictive behaviour – and every time we over-react are all examples of acting out.
We are most commonly aware of acting out in our children. For instance, a child who becomes clingy because she feels unsettled by the arrival of a new sibling. A child who becomes aggressive at school because of problems at home. The feelings underneath are “leaking out”. But these principles apply no less to grown-ups, and it’s happening much more often than we think.
What I want to explore here is how acting out impacts public speakers and leaders, and how we can learn to do something different.
How does acting out work?
The mechanism is quite simple. There is a strong feeling or impulse beneath the surface that we don’t want to feel. Sometimes because it’s an unpleasant feeling, or sometimes because admitting to such a feeling or impulse doesn’t fit with our self-image. So our minds devise a strategy for “not feeling”.
The strategy for not feeling may be distracting ourselves with internet, food or sex, beating ourselves up in our heads or worrying about the future, attacking someone else, or zoning out into a daydream.
The painful feelings might relate to things that are happening now, that we feel uncomfortable about facing directly or may relate to buried stuff from the past. From our mind’s point of view it’s all the same. At some level it feels difficult or “dangerous” to feel these feelings so we do whatever we can to avoid them.
And yet these strategies for avoiding feeling the feelings (that are still there under the surface) are not cost free. We end up doing things we don’t want to be doing, or worse hurting ourselves or others. And then feeling bad.
So how is this relevant to public speakers and leaders?
If we are spending days or hours worrying about the future or beating ourselves up, it’s not really conducive to giving an amazing speech. If we are acting in ways that we don’t really want to be acting, this is not really supportive of powerful leadership.
As an example, a lot of my clients come to me because they spend too much time and energy worrying about events in the future. They tell me that the stress of the lead up to the event is usually worse than the event itself. I’m usually able to help them to overcome this scenario. Partly by sharing some of the understandings I’m sharing with you now.
From observing both myself and those I work with, I’ve recently come to this realisation.
Unless we are aware of these feelings and impulses that are beneath the surface that are driving us, and managing those feelings effectively, they will be running us, without our knowing it.
In short – If we’re not feeling in, we’re probably acting out.
So if that’s acting out, what’s feeling in?
Ok, so now you understand what I mean by acting out, the next question is: what do I do about it? And what do I mean by “feeling in”?
This is a complex topic, but I’ll do my best to give you an outline of what I think are the main principles of acting in.
- Notice when you are about to do (or have started to do) something that you know or suspect doesn’t really serve you. (e.g. checking your email again, or eating some sweets, when you were seeking to cut down).
Alternatively notice when doing a particular thing carries a feeling of compulsion about it. It’s as if you have to buy that book on Amazon and buy it right now.
- Stop and take a deep breath. Tell yourself that you don’t have to do that thing (at least for a minute). It may be a little challenging to stop if the feelings or impulses underneath are strong, but give it a go! (And if you don’t succeed this time, don’t beat yourself up about it, just resolve to keep at it).
- See if you can sense the feeling underneath the action or impulse and get curious as to what it may be. You may be able to name it – e.g. fear, vulnerability, insecurity, anger or desire – or you may not be able to put a label on it.
- Notice where in the body you can feel it. All feelings have a sensational component – a sensation that is located somewhere in the body that you can locate. (This can sometimes take a little practice, but give it a go). Continue to breathe!
- Give the sensation in your body a shape and size, perhaps a texture and colour. g. “The fear in my belly feels a bit fluttery and bumpy, it’s about the size of a fist and it’s red”. (It doesn’t really matter how you describe it, whatever description you give it is perfect – it’s more about engaging with this feeling or impulse directly and with curiosity).
- Notice somewhere else in your body that feels OK or comfortable. It doesn’t need to feel super-relaxed, though it might. In relating with strong sensations it’s often good to dilute them by feeling comfortable or neutral sensations at the same time.
- Now feel both at the same time. So you are feeling the strong feeling or impulse that was driving the acting out or compulsive behaviour and the comfortable or neutral sensation at the same time. You are feeling the sensations or impulses the way you might feel a piece of material, running your fingers through it or over it, but you’re doing this with your attention instead of your hands.
This is my understanding of feeling in. When we contain and engage with the underlying feeling instead of letting it drive the car – letting it make us do something that perhaps doesn’t serve us. Another word for this skill is “conducting” – the way that a copper wire conducts electricity.
The benefits of looking underneath
It’s often helpful to get curious about what that feeling or impulse is trying to tell you. These motivations are usually messengers about things that need our attention.
For example, I may notice that I’m driving too fast on the motorway. I take a deep breath and allow my driving speed to come back to normal. I notice that there is a feeling of anger underneath. I can feel the anger as a knot in the pit of my stomach – it feels about 2 inches wide, twisty and it’s orange in colour. My feet and legs feel good and comfortable so I feel them at the same time as feeling the knot of anger. After a little while of doing this I notice that I no longer feel compelled to be driving quickly. I get curious about what might be causing the feeling of anger and realise that I’ve said “yes” to a colleague about a proposal when the true answer was “no”. I resolve to contact him as soon as possible to tell him that I’ve changed my mind.
There are two big wins here – firstly, my compulsive behaviour is stopped in its tracks. Secondly, I realise what was behind it and what action I need to take in my life.
Danny Boyle the director of Trainspotting puts this very well:
If I am acting out in any particular way that is harmful to myself – without a shadow of doubt, there is a feeling suppressed under wanting that second candy bar. Often, it is that little voice I haven’t paid attention to. It’s generally not the adult voice. If I take a moment to address that and figure out what that is, the desire for the candy bar seems to dissipate.
Sometimes the feelings or impulses underneath do not relate to anything that’s happening in our lives right now, but relate to things that happened in the recent or distant past. Most of us are carrying “baggage” of feelings that we didn’t or couldn’t feel when we were younger and which we therefore had to bury. These old buried feelings often drive our behaviour, even though they are not “about” anything that’s still happening. With time, paying kind and curious attention to these old feelings and simply feeling them can allow them to gradually discharge.
Regardless of the place the feelings come from, the “feeling in” approach is the same. By feeling and conducting the feelings underneath our impulses and behaviours we gain more composure and control. This helps us break the cycle of reactivity and dysfunctional habit-based behaviour.
This method works just as well for worrying and self-criticism as it does for obsessive or compulsive behaviour. And it’s a vital tool in everyone who wishes to be a successful and confident speaker or leader.
So the next time you get a sense that what you’re up to isn’t serving you, that perhaps you might be acting out – stop.
Take a breath, drop underneath, feel in.
As always I love to hear your comments and experiences, so do leave them in the comments section below.
And if you’d like to see how we apply these principles to public speaking and leadership, do check out our Foundation Courses.