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Feelings, the other F word

cornfield with vehicle tracks

Written by Kimberly Thomson

A long time ago, I was riding in my uncle’s truck somewhere in the cornfields of Iowa, passing by the billowy plumes of smoke from the coal plants scattered alongside the highway, listening to him tell me a story about coal miners. Uncle Dan always had interesting stories, so I pricked up my young ears and listened to the tale of how canary birds were brought down into mines to help the miners sense when their oxygen was running out. The canary birds, with their delicate lungs, would stop singing if the air became thin and alert the miners to come up to the surface.

I thought about this story again many years later when the term “emotional intelligence” popped up in my psychology books. Emotional intelligence is a term created by psychology researchers to define one’s ability to recognize, understand, and manage our own emotions. The idea is that the more emotional intelligence a person has, the better their ability to succeed and thrive. The psychology world caught on quickly to this newfound realm of intelligence and created books, assessments, and entire classes dedicated to strengthening the skill of emotional intelligence. You can even check out this free quiz from the Institute for Health and Human Potential and quickly impress your friends and family with your intelligence, but I want to present an alternative path to success.

Remember the canary, who used its tiny lungs to warn the miners of danger. No one trained the canary in this skill and I know it did not need to pass a special test to be a certified coal specialist. The canary simply felt and responded, as naturally as breathing air. So why must we qualify our own natural instinct to feel with a test? By that logic, we would all need to take a test on heart beating, lung breathing, belly digestion, and hair growing to know we are doing it right. We do not walk around telling ourselves to push blood from one side of the body to the other, yet it happens, because it is what our bodies are designed to do. Feelings are no different. They are a natural instinct we are given at birth, yet over time many lose the healthy response to feel, regulate, and respond because of trauma. We experience trauma as a society and as individuals which tells or bodies to stop that feeling nonsense because it’s just too much. This may be big traumas like death, car crashes, or violence, or little traumas like bullying, heartbreaks, and 80 hour work weeks. Either way, our little canaries stop singing and we lose the ability to understand, manage, and experience our feelings.

If this has happened to you, hold your hand to your chest and consider what you would do if you couldn’t feel your heart beat or if it suddenly went bonkers pounding. Sit there and ignore it, or seek medical help? If you can’t feel, or if you can’t manage your feelings, tell someone. Ask for help. It is not for lack of emotional intelligence this has happened, it is for lack of care and you are not alone. Canary experts are out there, and we can help you find the air you need.