This week I lived through a personal experience that exemplifies to me how the ontological interpretation of emotions is useful in understanding and navigating life. The event that put things in motion was that an organizational client I have been working with a lot this year found 2 errors in the invoices I submitted to them. Physically I went cold and felt myself shrinking. I had a knot in my stomach. I wanted to hide. In short, I felt horrible. I was worried that this incident could harm the relationship, their trust in me and future work. I tried to think of ways to rectify the situation or something I could do to reassure my client that the errors were “honest mistakes”. And I also had thoughts about how to explain or rationalize what had happened.
Nothing in what I just described is unusual and it is even predictable that these things happened. What was helpful was knowing that if I could name the emotions the feelings and thoughts were pointing to I could move through the situation more easily and get clear on the lessons it was offering me.
The first emotion I identified was shame. I know that shame is telling me that “I believe I’ve broken the rules of my community”. That made sense. I have a relationship with the organization and clients based on honesty, transparency, and fairness. If the errors were seen as intentional in some way it would certainly break those. I believe that the reason some emotions feel so bad is to get our attention. If it was more subtle I would be able to ignore it and not pay attention. As bad as it felt the shame also reassured me that I care a lot about the relationship and the clients I work with. I want to honor our agreements and take care of the relationship. This is good news. I wouldn’t have the possibility to know that in the same way if I hadn’t felt shame.
The second emotion I became aware of was anxiety. When I was worrying about the possible impact on the future relationship and work I was experiencing anxiety. I was aware there might be an impact but wasn’t sure exactly what it would be. Worrying for me is the predisposition of anxiety, the reaction. I believe that when I can identify a specific harm I am experiencing the emotion of fear.
A third emotion that showed up was feeling apologetic. I wanted to communicate to my clients that I understood what I had done might have caused them harm or inconvenience. There is good news here also. Feeling apologetic means that I am aware how my actions may impact others and also that it is not my intention. In my interpretation of apologizing I am not necessarily saying I did something wrong but in this case I added that to the note. What I did wrong was not being sufficiently rigorous to meet our agreed standards. The “error” for me is not so much in the invoice mistakes but rather in my process, competence and capacity. The invoice mistakes were the outcome but I’m clear I need to change something that comes before that in the process.
In writing the email it occurred to me to write that I was embarrassed which was emotion number 4. The embarrassment was telling me that I had done something I didn’t want other people to know about and that I would prefer to hide. Sharing that with them honored the transparency we have agreed to in our relationship.
And there were other emotions as well. Sadness, anger, resignation, disgust and later on acceptance and relief. The whole episode covered about 2 days and in the end the emotions that emerged were acceptance that what had happened had happened and things would work out as they do and commitment to change the way I have my process set up so that there would be no repeat. I also experienced gratitude that I have the relationships I do and the support of those people. One additional outcome has to do with self-acceptance. I realized that it is important to accept that my memory for detail and my ability to maintain rigor in some parts of my life are not strong as they once were. For that I can put in place a structure and process to support me and also engage in activities that increase my ability to be rigorous.
I find the temptation to rationalize the situation interesting. It seems to happen when my reason takes over and tries to find some way of thinking about the situation that would take the responsibility off of me. “The standards weren’t clear”, “I was tired” or “Yes, but look at all I did for you” are all examples of what happens in my thinking. To stay connected with the feeling of the emotions while exploring their meaning takes commitment and it is sometimes tempting to “take the easy road” rather than the road that maintains integrity.
So, a week of big learning about myself. Certainly not always fun but when I think that the alternative to the learning was simply to “feel bad” I deeply appreciate that my emotions were trying to tell me something important and to act as guides to improve my life and generate more alignment with my values. Not a bad outcome for a couple of uncomfortable days.
I'm Dan Newby, a coach, coach trainer and mentor, teacher and writer in the area of Ontological Coaching and Leadership. My passion is to help make these distinctions “common sense” in the world in the way literacy has become a given in so many places.