What It Means to Grow “Emotional Muscle”

Emotional muscle is a phrase I coined from Michael Brown’s The Presence Process, and I find myself using it often because the analogy seems to really stick.

Most of us are familiar with the concept of growing muscle.  You gain more muscle when it’s challenged.  The more muscle you have, the greater your ability to lift weights, move faster or move longer.

Similarly, you gain emotional muscle by challenging your heart to feel greater, stronger emotions.  The greater the emotional muscle, the less the discomfort of feeling strong emotions.  The less the discomfort, the less the fear of experiences that incite those emotions.

Fear of experience is a bit like a colored pair of glasses.  Imagine that you’re afraid of monsters and walking alone in a dark forest at night.  You may see shades of some trees and imagine a monster.  This projecting occurs because you are afraid of fearful experiences.  If you train your emotional muscle for fear, you may feel the fear but you will not be overwhelmed by it — you can navigate your forest, feeling your fear but not bothered by it nor letting it project something where there isn’t anything.

So it can be said that the greater your all-around emotional muscle, the easier it is for you to navigate through life and create experiences that you desire.  If your pair of glasses have less tint, you see life at first as a series of neutral events that they are and then you can choose how you interpret it instead of letting your tinted glasses make you see in certain ways.

In Japan there is a saying “you should pay money to buy troubles.”  It means that we Japanese believe in the character-building power of uncomfortable experiences, even to the extent that we seek them out.  More than any other cultures I’ve seen, Japanese values hard work, diligence and even straining.  While I’m growing out the idea that strain leads to success, now I have a different interpretation of that phrase.  You should not run away from uncomfortable experiences.  You should embrace them.  I understand that Derek Sivers went on daring missions, such as venturing out in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language with no luggage or money.  He was seeking out challenging situations because he knew it would grow his emotional muscle.  I believe that he is now completely anti-drama and few things upset him.

All that being said, places where our emotional muscle is still underdeveloped, we can easily get overwhelmed.  Even benign events that don’t jitter others may upset you.  Where your emotional muscle is weak is also where you build up emotional backlog or emotional baggage, because you didn’t allow yourself to feel them when life events earlier triggered those earlier in your life.  But to deal with this our psyche has a built-in system to store these unfelt emotions in our subconscious and then deeper into our physical body, so that they can be triggered again later in life, at more manageable pace/size.

It’s easier said than done, of course.  Many of us make an entire life out of reducing, numbing and escaping from uncomfortable experiences.  I myself am a procrastinator, and the act of putting off is precisely escaping.  But as I became more intentional about growing my emotional muscle, I find myself not feeling as much impulse to procrastinate.  I’m experimenting with low-carb diet right now but previously I found an endeavor like that daunting.

The concept of emotional muscle is one of those fundamental concepts in life that once you learn it you never look at life the same way.  It’s been an eye-opening experience for me.  If it doesn’t click right away for you,  don’t worry — just take the time to let it sink into you.  It’s never too late to start developing your emotional muscle, and when you do, the quality of your life will improve, even if nothing external changes.  When you take off your tinted glasses you see life in a whole new way.