Paulette Tomasson, RN, RCC, MA
Our society is obsessed with physical fitness. We crave information and feedback about the latest diets and exercise regimes. We work hard to sculpt our bodies in what are often futile attempts to mirror those seen on movie screens and magazine covers.
Our society is obsessed with physical fitness. We crave information and feedback about the latest diets and exercise regimes. We work hard to sculpt our bodies in what are often futile attempts to mirror those seen on movie screens and magazine covers. But how much attention do we pay to our emotional fitness?
As children we exercised our physical muscles to improve balance, strength and agility. We ran freely and enjoyed a wide range of physical experiences. But some of us were not given the freedom to exercise our emotional muscles to explore and express a full range of emotional experiences.
It's easy to spot people who were encouraged to flex their emotional muscles. They're aware of their feelings and express them appropriately and without embarrassment. They have what is known as high "emotional intelligence." Others learned, either through adults' words or actions, which emotions and outward expressions of those emotions were acceptable and which were not. Based on the notion that "children are to be seen and not heard," talking and giggling might have been considered disruptive and, therefore, were discouraged. Anger and the resulting aggression were considered inappropriate and not allowed. It's easy to understand why people raised in these restrictive environments learned to bury their emotions. It's also easy to appreciate why they might find it hard to build and maintain relationships, which require emotional openness, honesty and vulnerability.
Some of our physical muscles are underdeveloped, while others are overdeveloped. The same can be said about emotional muscles. These distortions or imbalances cause physical and/or emotional fatigue, pain and inflexibility. When I first started assessing my emotional fitness, I realized my emotional muscles had developed unevenly. My sadness muscle was overdeveloped, while my assertiveness muscle was underdeveloped. When things did not go my way I could cry, but had difficulty expressing my disappointment or anger. I realized that I had work to do that I had to embark upon an emotional fitness program. Today I know that to be emotionally fit I must be aware of my feelings and find healthy ways to express them all of them daily.
Are you emotionally fit? If not, are you willing to exercise your emotional muscles the way you do your physical muscles? Interestingly, the processes are similar. First you'll feel better, like after you've made the decision to buy a gym pass. Then you'll feel worse, like the resulting sore muscles. Then you'll start to feel good as the stiffness subsides and you realize you're getting stronger. Just like physical fitness, emotional fitness takes time, effort and ongoing commitment. Think about what happens if you frequently disrupt your fitness routine: You eventually lose energy and muscle tone. Similarly, you will not enjoy the full benefits of emotional fitness if your emotional muscles aren't flexed regularly.
And like a well-thought-out physical fitness program, an effective strategy for emotional fitness requires a sequence of steps the first being to identify where you're at and where you want to go. Ask yourself the following questions. "What emotions do I experience throughout the day? Does one emotion override the rest? Is the quality of my life compromised by an unexpressed emotion? Why am I unwilling to express that emotion? How can I put that emotion to good use? How can I build emotional fitness to optimize my personal and professional lives?"
Reflect on these questions and you will have taken the first step toward emotional fitness. The next steps might be to talk with family and friends and/or access information in books or online. Maybe a counsellor could help you exercise your most under- or overdeveloped emotional muscles.
Based on the difference it's made in my life, I encourage you to embrace the concept of emotional fitness. It will help you feel truly alive!