There are many obvious benefits to being physically fit. Movement and exercise are good for us, and an active lifestyle is commonly recognized as a healthy goal. Our bodies are the vehicles we use to move through the world, and it makes a lot of sense to have our vehicles in good shape. This does not mean that there won't be any challenging roadways in life, but a well-maintained vehicle will better equip us to handle the twists and turns along the way. However, as well as physical fitness, emotional fitness is just as important to our life satisfaction, if not more so.
As a therapist I have often equated good counselling to a good physical work out. Counselling should push you and test your limits, and help you understand your strengths and vulnerabilities. It may be uncomfortable and exhausting at times, but in the same way a good work out feels good physically, a good psychological workout can be deeply, emotionally satisfying. Much like having a personal trainer for your physical fitness, having a personal trainer for your emotional fitness can assist you in moving towards your goals more quickly.
Physical exercise and fitness pays off is many ways. We feel better, we have more energy and we move with more ease through the world. If we have a deeper understanding of our emotions and ourselves, then we can also move through the world with a greater ease and a much deeper satisfaction in our relationships. Increased emotional awareness results in a better ability to navigate the complex terrain of personal relationships and self-knowledge. So even if we do not have a counsellor, or as I like to frame it a personal trainer for emotional fitness, there are ways to increase our emotional fitness and health.
It is best if you can be honest about your level of emotional awareness even before you begin to try to develop your emotional fitness. Much like there are 'natural' athletes, there are some people who are just more emotionally aware. Do you think that you are naturally emotionally intelligent...or do you have to work at it? The world is diverse, and we all come into the world with strengths and deficits. Our environment pulls some things out of us and suppresses others. The rising field of epigenetics studies the phenomena of how our genetics and our environment work together to shape us. The world needs a variety of people and some people have a more natural and intuitive sense of their emotional space in the world while others struggle to understand themselves and others. It is the same with the physical self; some people just come into the world wired for athletic ability while others have to work hard to build physical fitness. This is not always fair, but it is reality.
So how do we increase our emotional fitness? Relationships are at the core of the human experience, and most of us want to be significant and fulfilled in our relationships. Some people are gifted with a strong ability to understand people and the social world around them. For these people, self-expression and emotional insight are skills that they continue to develop thought self-reflection and relationships. For others, the terrain is more foreign as they may have struggled with gaining an understanding of the social language of emotions and relationships. Whether you are a natural who wants to continue to exercise a strong emotional muscle, or you need to develop a vulnerability, there are some simple steps you can take that will increase your emotional fitness level.
1. Listen to your body. Yes, that's right...we go back to the body again. Our emotions are part of the body and our nervous system. Check in and ask yourself what is my body actually feeling right now? What are my senses telling me? Do I have areas of tightness, pain, warmth? Does this feel good in my body, or am I uncomfortable with this emotion? Try to stay with the emotion, and pay attention to what is going on in your body. Don't try to separate your body and your brain -- they work together.
2. Label the emotion. Once we can identify the feeling and label it we release hormones in our brain. If we identify our feeling as pleasurable we will release additional pleasure hormones once we label it. If it is something upsetting or difficult, try to label it as well. Once we label a difficult emotion we send a signal to our brain that decreases the stress hormones. Hold onto the feeling and try to identify it rather than acting it out. The reason we have difficulty holding our feelings is that we were often taught to deny or suppress our feelings as children. To become emotionally fit we need to learn how to hold onto our feelings, and then release them in a natural manner.
3. Be curious. Even if you do not have the answers, keep asking yourself the questions. Why am I feeling this way? What might that person be feeling now? What are my motivations? What might the motivation of the other person be? It is usually the motivation rather than the behaviour that is truly interesting. People are endlessly fascinating and entertaining if you allow your curiosity to lead you.
4. Manage your defensiveness. We all have defensive reactions to things, and nobody wants to get hurt. We tend to put up defenses when we feel vulnerable, but there is a big cost to defensiveness. The greatest cost of defensiveness is that we stop learning when we are defensive. In order to learn and grow it helps if you can be honest with yourself and listen to others, even when it hurts. Remember, emotional pain will not kill you but it will give you valuable information if you pay attention to it without defending yourself.
5. Practice, practice, practice. Just like sports, we get better as we practice. Whether we are a gifted athlete or not, the only way we become very good at something is through practice. We certainly need to accept and allow mistakes -- we are not expected to be perfect. It is arrogant to think we can be 'on the mark' each time we deal with an emotional situation. If you need to apologize to somebody for getting it wrong, including yourself, do it with as much openness as possible. The more we do this, the more gracious and emotionally fit we become.