Cultivating intimacy with something means becoming sufficiently close to it to know it very, very well. When we don’t get close enough — like scientists keeping themselves emotionally stranded from their subject of study — we miss essential aspects of it. And if we get too close, to the point of fusing with it — like new lovers letting their boundaries collapse in a romantic swoon — we will no longer be able to keep it in focus.
In intimacy, we are deeply relating to an “other” — which could be a person, object, or state — getting close to it in a manner that transcends mere proximity. When it comes to cultivating intimacy with something, connection with it and separation from it are not opposites, but rather fluidly intertwined dance partners.
When we become intimate with a particular emotion, its arising is no longer treated as a bad thing by us, regardless of how uncomfortable it may be. We welcome it, so to speak, into our living room, giving it enough space to breathe and flow and evolve without necessarily adopting its viewpoint or presenting context. Part of our chosen intimacy with it involves clearly seeing not only its energetic characteristics and somatic signs, but also its take on a given situation.
And in seeing this take — this evaluative framing — we also recognize how our personal history has shaped it. We are not seduced by this emotion’s energy, feeling, viewpoint, or action tendencies; we keep it close to us, listening very attentively to it, giving it the benefit of our intuition.
Just as we can raise our IQ, so too can we raise our EQ (emotional intelligence). And how? Through developing intimacy with our emotions — both in their arising and in their expressive options — and through involving ourselves in practices which address the weaker or less developed areas of our emotional life.
Becoming intimate with our emotions requires no lowering of IQ, no intellectual slumming, no shunning of rationality, no devaluing of cognition. As our EQ goes up — especially through our increasing capacity for emotional intimacy — our IQ may also go up. And why? Because we’re broadening and deepening our scope, bringing more of us to whatever we are facing or dealing with. Put another way, we’re operating from a fuller sense of self (after all, emotion includes not only feeling and social factors, but also cognition).
Emotion and rationality can of course function separately, but they function optimally when they work together.
Four Steps to Developing Emotional Intimacy
The first step in developing emotional intimacy is to identify what you are feeling.
No details are needed — just the recognition of the emotion. If you are feeling fear, simply notice and acknowledge its presence, without getting absorbed in any accompanying dramatics. If you are feeling more than one emotion at the same time, acknowledge this.
If you are not sure what you are feeling, ask yourself as directly as possible: Am I feeling sad? Am I feeling shame? Am I feeling peaceful? Am I feeling disgust? Am I feeling happy? Am I feeling guilt? Am I feeling unhappy? Am I feeling angry? Am I feeling jealous? Am I feeling afraid? Am I feeling uncomfortable? And so on — ask sincerely, and it’s likely that you’ll receive some kind of near-instant response to each question, usually in the form of a relatively visceral yes, no, or maybe.
Look for such a response not in your thoughts but in your body and intuitive knowingness. To locate a bodily response, notice where in your body you most clearly feel an increase or change in sensation when you ask any of the above questions; then bring more attention to this place in your body, noticing what kind of answer — as to what you’re feeling — emerges. This may be verbal, nonverbal, or a combination of both.
If after asking these questions and opening yourself to receiving a response, you still cannot identify your emotional state, examine the general tone of what you are feeling: Is it pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? Is it a distant “hum” or is it more in the foreground? How steady is it? Don’t overlook your possible numbness. Numbness is an absence of feeling — the feeling of no-feeling — beneath which there is usually an abundance of emotion. If identifying what you are feeling is still elusive, pay closer attention to your bodily sensations (how your neck, belly, forehead, chest, hands feel), noting their texture, intensity, depth, movements.
What is needed is to place your attention — not your thinking mind but your bare attention or nonconceptual awareness — on whatever it is that you are feeling.
Implicit in this first step toward becoming more intimate with our emotions is the need to be more emotionally literate. In order to recognize and name the arising emotion, we need to be better educated about the collective characteristics of each of our emotions, along with our personal history with each of them. Such education is a largely experiential undertaking, so it’s helpful here to approach our emotions not only intellectually, but also with embodied curiosity and the spirit of discovery, as if uncovering a continent of ourselves that has long been shrouded in fog and warnings to keep our distance.
This is a far-from predictable adventure; we may be surprised, for example, by how little we have known about the major role that a particular emotion has played in our development and relational choices.
The second step is to directly state what you are feeling.
Once you have identified what you are feeling, it’s time to state this as simply and straightforwardly as you can. This means no fluff, no smokescreens, no dramatics, no obfuscation — just the bare facts. I say the bare “facts” as opposed to more vague, debatable statements such as “I feel unheard” or “I feel like you’re not here for me” or “I feel that I’m wasting my time here” — which aren’t actually expressing an emotional feeling. At such times what we actually are sharing is our perception — or opinion — of what is going on, rather than the simple fact of what we are feeling.
So the practice here is to simply state the data. Saying “I feel that you’re not hearing me” is a perception, but saying, “I feel angry” is data. The former is debatable; the latter is not. And at this point you can refrain from stating what you are angry or fearful or sad or happy about. It’s enough to just state the feeling itself.
Practice directly stating what you are feeling in your key relationships as much as possible. After you’ve said what you are feeling, don’t immediately follow it with the details. If you’ve just said that you are feeling angry, let the bare fact of that sink in, giving yourself — and your listener! — time to settle into and resonate with the reality of what you’ve just shared. Doing this — not too quickly getting into the story-line of what you’re feeling — lowers the odds that you’ll lose yourself in any emotional dramatics (as does not letting your listener draw you into a debate), thereby making more room for you and your listener to simply be present with whatever you are feeling.
The third step is to make sure the other is really hearing what you are saying.
The other may be able to repeat back to you what you said, and still not truly hear it — they have not yet registered it at a feeling level. When they do, you will know it, sensing an emotional clicking-into-place between you and them, a palpable heightening of mutual empathy. Unfortunately, more than a few of us tend to give the cultivation of empathy and emotional resonance a backseat in our interchanges, including with our partner.
Without a significant degree of empathetic attunement, our dialogue with another can easily degenerate into enervating argument, prolonged withdrawal, or heart-crushing distancing, in which what we are actually feeling becomes secondary to our interpretations of (and debates about) what is going on.
So if you are on the receiving end, let in the other’s sharing of their emotional whereabouts until you can clearly feel it — whether or not you like what’s being said! And if you are on the giving end? Keep it simple, resisting the temptation to cut loose with what you are angry or fearful or ashamed about. Do not lose touch with what you are feeling. Keep your mind out of it as much as possible, letting your empathy for your listener deepen as much as you can, without in any way diluting what you are sharing with him or her.
And if you are alone, breathe in — and keep opening to — what you know you are feeling. Stay with its rawness. Its storyline, however relevant, does not have to be given energy and attention at this point. Don’t argue with yourself. Don’t get into a debate with your inner critic about what you should be feeling. Stay consciously embodied, remaining aware of how you are breathing.
Many of us want a quick feel-better resolution when we are feeling upset — notice your urge to make this happen, and keep your focus on your bare feeling, bringing into your heart whatever desperation for resolution may be there, as if you are holding in your arms a distraught child. That is, access as much compassion as you can for yourself when what you are feeling is far from comfortable for you.
The fourth step is to get into the details without losing touch.
The point of articulating the details is to flesh out the context of what you are feeling, to make sense of it with regard to both your current circumstances and your conditioning. Once what you are feeling is out in the open and acknowledged for what it is, then it’s quite natural to give it more context.
This can be done both alone and in the company of others. If you are by yourself, resist getting into the details until you are in deep enough contact with what you’re feeling to not be seduced by whatever dramatics accompanied the arising of your emotional state.
In the context of relationship, especially intimate relationship, it’s essential here is to make feeling for — or emotionally resonating with — the other more important than whether they agree or disagree with the content of what you are saying. Make your connection with the other primary, and the working out of relevant details secondary.
Doing so is much more effective, and efficient, than attempting to work out the details when you are insufficiently connected with each other. Not taking care of whatever emotional disconnection is present greatly increases the odds of slipping into mutual reactivity — which only reinforces the disconnection. If you’re losing touch with the other as you get into the details, admit this as soon as possible and STOP.
Then go back to steps one and two, and remain with them until you feel more connection happening with the other. No rush. The time this takes is well worth it! Simply sharing what’s going on for you emotionally — in the simplest possible language — can shift things more quickly than getting wrapped up in the details.
If you find that you still are getting emotionally overwrought — somewhere between being “hot under the collar” and “about to blow your lid” — don’t let this reduce what you are saying to courtroom dramatics. Back away from the content, doing nothing to fuel its contentiousness. Say that you can feel yourself getting reactive or overloaded, without justifying this. Notice if there’s any underlying feeling occurring; you may for example, be feeling a sadness that you are not sharing, going instead for the anger atop it.
These four steps — identifying, stating, sharing, and providing the relevant details of — what you are feeling are well worth making your own, along with your investigation of your emotions and emotional history. Be intuitive with these steps; sometimes it’ll be enough to simply do the first one only, and other times it’ll be fitting to do the first two or three, or all four. This is your own Emotional Literacy 101 training program; treat yourself with compassion throughout, neither rushing nor putting off your engagement in it.
Beginning to Develop Intimacy with Difficult Emotions
Think of the emotion that you usually are least comfortable with (if there’s more than one, pick the one that stands out most strongly right now). Close your eyes and bring to mind a situation in which this emotion strongly emerged. Breathe a little deeper, letting yourself assume the bodily position you were in at the time. Remember how your face feels when this emotion is present, and let your facial expression reflect this as much as possible. Now, instead of keeping your distance from this emotion, pay closer attention to it, bringing it more into focus, simultaneously feeling and observing it.
The next step is to start taking your attention (perhaps “wearing” it like a miner’s headlamp) into the particulars of this emotion — however slightly or slowly — even though your aversion to it likely will be pulling at you to move in the opposite direction. Bring as much precision as possible to your exploration of this emotion — taking note of its texture, density, temperature, color, intensity, movements, and interactions with other emotions. As much as you can, match your discomfort with your curiosity.
If you stay with this practice long enough, you will become intimate with this emotion to the point where its arising is no longer such a concern for you, but rather just one more opportunity to deepen both your self-knowledge and your capacity for relational intimacy. And it will be obvious to you then that our darker or “negative” emotions are not the problem; our aversion to them is.
Being Emotionally Vulnerable
Sometimes an emotion is secondary to another emotion.
A very common example is when sadness is about to surface, and anger compellingly arises, obscuring the sadness. If this is our condition, and another asks us what we are feeling, we’ll probably say that we’re angry. Given that we look and sound angry, maybe very angry, this seems like an obvious answer. It’s true, but only partially true. We’re also sad, and in fact are primarily sad. But perhaps we’re ashamed to show our sadness, feeling safer operating from behind our anger. If we know that we’re sad, not just angry, and we’re embarrassed to share this, we might begin by saying that we’re having a hard time admitting what’s going on emotionally (and we might even be angry that it’s so damned hard!). And we might add that in challenging circumstances, we find it much easier to be angry than to directly show our sadness.
Being vulnerable — transparent, open, and unguarded — is immensely helpful when emotions begin to overlap or obscure each other, because it keeps an emotionally honest resonance going between us and the other, along with an amplified receptivity that invites more in-depth disclosure and sharing. Vulnerability can be scary for us, given that dropping our guard might feel dangerous to us (and perhaps once was), but without vulnerability, we just maroon ourselves from our emotional riches and depths—and when that happens we block ourselves from authentic connection with others.
Vulnerability does not have to be a collapsing or caving-in or something otherwise disempowering — it can be a source of strength, especially as we learn to soften without losing touch with our spine and core presence. There is an inherent dignity in such vulnerability, even when we are in degrading circumstances.
Being emotionally vulnerable means that we are in touch with — and transparent about — what we are feeling, sharing both its surface and its depths. And we are also honest about what we are doing with our emotions, blowing the whistle on ourselves when we, say, are being defensive or aggressive, or are pursuing distraction from what we’re feeling. So we are thus willing to share the difficult stuff with those whom we trust, knowing that the more openly we share the emotional states (and their roots) that we are fearful of revealing, the deeper and more fulfilling our relational connections can be.
Empathy and Emotional Intimacy
Empathy — the capacity to feel or emotionally resonate with what others are feeling — is essential to emotional intimacy. Without it we remain isolated from others, cut off from any sort of intimacy with them. Our capacity for empathic arousal appears to be innate, but can easily be suppressed or derailed through certain conditions, such as abusive or traumatic early life circumstances. And at the same time, whatever is obstructing our empathy can, at least in most cases, be rendered permeable enough to allow us to reconnect with our empathic abilities.
So if we score low in empathy, we need to do more than just say that’s the way we are — it’s important to realize that we are not doomed to occupy the lower rungs of empathetic capacity! Once we stop acting as if we are more empathetic than is actually the case — and also stop shaming ourselves for our lack of empathy — we are on our way to elevating our empathy score.
We might begin by taking a look at our history with empathy — an empathetic look! What situations stirred our empathy? When did we feel no empathy when it seemed that we should? When, if ever, did our empathy overwhelm us? (Having compassion for our shortcomings — including our lack of empathy for clearly suffering others — is not license to leave them unaddressed, but a kind of sanctuary in which we can more deeply consider them.) Combining a study of empathy with some empathy-generating practices — like visualizing ourselves in an unliked other’s shoes or doing meditative practices centered by wishing others well — will deepen our capacity for empathy.
An elevation in IQ may not mean an increase in MQ (moral intelligence) — for we can be cognitive giants and moral midgets — but an elevation in EQ (emotional intelligence) can mean an increase in MQ. And why? Because the more in touch we are with our emotions, the more in touch we likely will be with the emotions of others — which greatly ups the likelihood that we’ll have a relatively high level of empathy for them. And the more empathy we have for others — along with a capacity for well-functioning emotionally based communication with them — the greater the odds are that we will not dehumanize them or treat them badly, taking a moral approach to them that goes beyond narrow self-interest and ethnocentric stances, eventually embracing an “us” that includes all of us.
And let us not leave cognition out of this! Empathy concerns emotional communion, but not only that: To even consider standing in someone else’s shoes (the capacity for empathy is present within twenty-four hours after birth, but it is not a chosen empathy) requires some thinking, as does recognizing that we are in fact doing so.
If such recognition escapes our attention or simply does not emerge into consciousness, empathy may become problematic, especially when we over-absorb another’s emotional state, taking in that person’s feelings so deeply that we lose touch with ourselves. Once we’re swamped or overwhelmed by another’s emotions, we have a hard time telling where they begin and we end — our boundaries are washed away, dissolved, gone. When this occurs, we are of no more use to the other than if we were to remain cut off from their emotional condition.
Without empathy, there is no intimacy. But intimacy requires more than empathy. We need to be able to get close enough to the other to know them very well and to openly feel their state, and at the very same time keep just enough distance from them to maintain the focus needed to separate their state from ours.
Without empathy, there is no compassion, but more than empathy is necessary in the genesis of real compassion — including the capacity to set and maintain an empathic shield when it is called for, as when we are starting to feel excessively absorbed in another’s emotional condition. Such a shield can be the thinnest and most permeable of psychological membranes, and it can be much thicker and denser — whatever works to keep us and the other from fusing (or getting lost in each other).
In the same sense that (as Robert Frost once wrote) good fences make good neighbors, good boundaries make good connections, preventing empathetic overload. There are times to open our empathic gates wide, and there are times to close them. We need to have both capacities on tap. Good boundaries make this possible. Releasing, abandoning, or dissolving our boundaries so as to include the other is not the same as expanding our boundaries to include the other!
Through mutually sharing and exploring our emotions with another — which includes not only a transparent expression of them, but also a transparent exposure of the operational context for this — we generate a powerfully alive, emotionally rich “we-space” for further relational exploration and deepening.
We exist through relationship, and the more intimate we are with our emotions, the deeper and more fulfilling our relationships — and therefore we — will be. So when you find yourself turning away or withdrawing from an emotion, take a deep breath and turn toward it, furthering your acquaintance with it, knowing it is a relationship worth cultivating.
Deepen, and continue to deepen, the relationship you have with each of your emotions; treat each one as a guest, regardless of how unbecoming or embarrassing their manners may be. Set firm but fair boundaries regarding their expression, regardless of whatever fuss they (with your permission!) might make. Study them closely, knowing that to really know them is, in part, to also know the “I” (or sense of self) behind them.
And let us not leave the investigation of feeling and emotion to the researchers — let’s be both curious explorer and the very thing/process being explored. Developing more emotional intimacy is a far from a tedious task, being a remarkably challenging and rewarding adventure, beckoning to us every day as our emotions, inevitably, arise.