My client walks into the session, thudding her heavy backpack on the floor next to the therapy chair. She shifts uncomfortably, not really knowing where to start today. Like many students at the technology institute where I do much of my work, emotion words are like a foreign tongue. Most of her week is spent memorizing, strategizing, engineering and calculating. And now I’m asking her to tell me how she’s feeling.
I begin to ask her to recall the emotions that were felt in the body this week: the tears welling up during class that never spilled over. An anxious, bouncing knee concealed beneath the table. A weighted sigh, letting tension go, as conflict played out during a meeting. She’s not used to expressing the depth of her emotions because much of the time, she ignores, distracts, or invalidates her own gut. This might sound like the story of one student, but it could really be any student’s experience. Many of the young adults I work with are learning how to work through emotions and attend to others in a way that feels productive to them.
Personally, I’m pretty fluent in the language of emotion. When I’m laughing you can hear it down the hall. Sometimes even though clients aren’t able to do the crying, my own tears flow as I hear stories of pain or loneliness. I swear and furrow brow-“that sucks!” if a client expresses mild irritation. As a Counselor, I’m often striving to model healthy vulnerability and emotional intelligence. I’ve watched many of my clients work with their own vulnerability and feel more comfortable expressing emotions after experiencing validation and encouragement in therapy. Their goals are often to feel more confident expressing themselves in class, working on projects and on the job.
Interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence are often what can set a job candidate apart from others with similar technical abilities and shining-star resumes. Yet many students haven’t had much opportunity to witness leaders demonstrating these skills. Some views of leadership expressed by my clients:
- True leaders keep their emotions to themselves, so as not to be perceived as weak.
- Leaders ‘hold themselves together’ to model safety and security for others on the team.
- Openly expressing sadness or anger isn’t professional.
- Charisma and empathy are just strategies leaders use to manipulate people.
In an exercise to brainstorm about leadership, I sometimes ask my clients to name examples of politicians showing emotional intelligence. It can be challenging to find examples of emotionally intelligent leadership in practice. It’s not often we see headlines about a United States politician sharing sorrow, vulnerability or demonstrating empathy. To win the hearts and minds of the United States electorate, leaders might think they need to act tough, brazen or stoic. However, the moments when political leaders seemed to share their personal experience, express empathy, and look ‘human’ stood out as examples I might want to show to my clients as examples of leadership. During an interview by The Late Night Show’s host Steven Colbert on September 11, 2015, Vice President Joe Biden expressed grief about the death of his son. His honest and real communication demonstrated his values in a way that seemed inspiring and uniting. During other important moments this year, when leaders let tears show following episodes of violence and catastrophe around the world, it allowed people to cry with them, heal and begin to mobilize toward potential change.
Being genuine, sensitive and comfortable communicating a range of emotions may make all the difference for clients as they manage life transitions, maintain healthy relationships, and work to succeed in organizational teams. Many of these skills can be honed in counseling, and practiced even further in group therapy experiences. When clients learn to gauge their own emotions and be sensitive to the needs of others, they often feel empowered and more confident as leaders.
Amy Rosechandler, MS, LMHC is a counselor in Rochester, NY working with teens and adults at a local university counseling center and in her own private practice, Clarity Mental Health Counseling. Amy adores group counseling, youth development, and strengths based approaches to therapy. Read more about Amy at http://claritymentalhealth.org/about.php