Last year, I was asked to speak at an event in St. Louis for about 75 women. The room was full of professionals who were there to step into higher levels of power in their lives and businesses. My wife Angie had spoken there a few months before, telling the story of her rise from childhood poverty, neglect, and addiction. She was received so warmly and powerfully that they asked me to speak as well.
I began by telling the audience of my struggles with codependency, alcoholism, and trying to create a 1950’s-style family hierarchy in the home I led, and in which my wife and children obeyed, listened and extended respect. I grew up in this model, and I thought it was the “right” way to raise a family. I also grew up in a religious household, went to Catholic school and was taught that the man’s job was to lead while others listened and followed. I tried to establish this kind of dominance over my family, but something happened along the way: I realized that they had personalities, desires, and wanted to make choices, too. I fought them hard, but it only led to more toxicity in our home – physical, mental, and emotional abuse.
I spoke of times where I felt that I wasn’t enough because my family didn’t reflect the model I had learned and that the abuse I inflicted on them was driven by a lack of self-esteem, self-worth, and appreciation for myself. I thought I needed to be a certain kind of husband and father to be relevant, and when I couldn’t get my family to conform, I considered myself a failure, and this led to even more abuse. I already felt like a failure and I didn’t want to feel even more like one, so I ramped up attacks – until my entire life fell apart from alcoholism, neglect, and abuse.
Showing up authentically
I cried about 15 times while I told our story. Angie was in the back of the room blowing kisses to me with tears in her eyes while I told our story, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience. At the end of my talk, I told the audience that now we have the marriage of our dreams because I empower Angie and her dreams, and she empowers me and mine. My children are healing from all of the conflict and abuse, and our house is steeped in love, growth, and mutual support as we allow each other to be their own person while forming a powerful unit. My kids have watched a house divided become a house that’s healed, and we see that we can choose better and grow from ashes anytime we want.
When I finished, I was bawling mess, and it was the very first standing ovation I ever received. The audience was on their feet, applauding for a few minutes, and I just stood there and reveled in the fact that I had shown up completely, powerfully, and authentically. Never had I demonstrated so much emotion, and I felt like more of a man that day than I ever had before. Angie told me how much she loved me, how proud of me she was, and how proud she was to be my wife.
Emotion used to be my enemy
I am a Marine veteran, and my time in the United States Marine Corps (USMC) only amplified the consistent message I had received throughout life: men don’t feel. Growing up in a home with emotionally unavailable men and joining the USMC I was taught that courage was the lack of emotion. I took this to heart and shut off all emotion. I either pretended to not feel fear or drank it away. I told my wife and two daughters to get over their emotions, and I continued to act like a bad-ass even though inside I felt weak and vulnerable. I tried so hard to act like the image of stoicism and strength that was demonstrated by the men in my life as a child, but I still felt emotion. I felt I was broken, and I just needed to make it stop. When my wife and kids became upset, I felt it. I didn’t want to feel anything, so I yelled at them to get them to shift out of emotion and into real strength and courage. If someone caused me to feel, I hurt them. It was the only protection mechanism I knew because I was supposed to be a tough guy. Emotion made me feel weak and I didn’t want to feel weak. I blamed them. The real problem was my relationship with emotion.
When I found myself as a 300-pound, suicidal alcoholic who had lost two executive positions, had no income, and was running an abusive home, I figured out that I didn’t have anything figured out. I knew I needed to wipe the slate clean and learn how to live all over again. I started a systematic routine to build physical health and began reading, journaling, and meditating to rebuild my mental health. But the most powerful element of my rebuild was learning how to feel again and embracing emotion – learning how to become emotionally available to myself and everyone else.
Embracing emotion helped me heal
It wasn’t easy – since I had spent 43 years trying to shut off my emotion – but I practiced feeling, identifying, naming, and diving into every feeling I felt. I learned to encourage emotion to build and leaned into it instead of running away from it. I learned that emotional courage – real courage – is the ability to feel and appreciate all emotion without shutting it off, and still being able to move forward with life and toward the objective at hand. My wife and daughters emote, and I learned to allow them space to feel their feelings without needing to fix them, stop them, or convince them otherwise. I just learned how to be with them in the emotion without owning their pain or fear. I learned that another human’s role is to just protect the other person from more harm while they are cycling through emotion. Emotion is not bad – it simply tells you what’s inside of you that needs to be healed.
Emotion gives us the greatest source of growth opportunity. Emotion is ‘energy in motion,’ and by feeling your emotion, you can heal trauma, abuse, and pain – energy – that’s trapped inside of you. There’s a saying that’s true in every sense – what you feel heals, and what you resist persists. The reason emotional cycles happen is because the emotional trauma inside of you remains – mostly because you’ve suppressed it or tried to make it go away. When you lean into the emotion, feel it, and understand what lies underneath it, you begin to heal the trauma that caused it. I was molested when I was a child and blocked it. Sexual situations – even with my wife – triggered guilt and shame in me. When I finally leaned into the guilt and shame, I unblocked the memory, and healing began. It wasn’t until I began to feel the emotion that I fully understood what caused it. Up until that point, I just tried to avoid feeling it.
Courage is running toward emotion
Once you’ve learned that emotion is your best friend, you will stop running from it and discover hidden gems that will allow you to live freer, happier, and more peacefully. In fact, when you finally realize the power in feeling and emotion, you begin running toward it. That’s when you will grow the fastest, increase in courage, demonstrate more personal power, and show up for your family’s emotional experiences. You will allow them to process their own emotional states, without trying to challenge or fix them. Emotion serves to grow you, always. Continue to move forward and advance in the presence of emotion – that is real courage, not the absence of emotion.
After my journey through emotional healing, I realized one thing that bonded me even closer to my wife and daughters. When you try to push away one emotion, you push them all away. I once pushed away guilt, shame, fear, grief, and many other emotions. I realize now that I was also pushing away love. I couldn’t give or receive love, because I was too busy trying not to feel. When we begin feeling emotions we don’t prefer, we’ll find that the higher-level emotions – love, joy, and peace – amplify in their power as well.
When you open yourself to one emotion, you open to all of them to a greater level. That is when you’ll realize that being a human being is about feeling, not about trying not to feel. That is when you will become fully emotionally available for yourself, your spouse, and your children. They need examples, and you are the most powerful example that they’ll lean on.