Walking into a room of teenage girls to speak about emotions is a bit like playing with fire: with skill, it can be powerful; without, it can be disastrous. Either way, you never have as much control as you think.

Each year, when I’m invited by a girls’ school to talk about “emotion regulation,” I tell them it’s basically a fancy way of saying how to “manage your feelings.” I start out by asking: “Do you ever come home and someone asks you how you’re feeling?” There is aWords release us from our internal prisons collective nod, a few knowing smiles and the inevitable eye roll. “Well, anyone answer by saying you’re ‘fine’?” More head nods. Having established this universal reply, I continue: “What do you mean when you say that? What does ‘fine’ really mean? Is it an emotion?”

Answers start to flow: “It means back off, I don’t want to talk about it.” “It means, I’m good.” “What I’m saying is that I’m really upset.” “When I say I’m fine, I actually don’t know what I’m feeling.”

Once we land on “fine” as a non-emotion, the real work starts: becoming detectives and finding the clues to what we are really feeling inside. For some, thoughts will be the tip-off; for others, it’s physical sensations or actions. The goal is to find language to describe what is actually going on—what we call “emotional literacy.” This work is the first step in making sense of our inner world because without words to describe our feelings, we can’t do much to manage them. Think of a not-yet-verbal toddler: the guessing games involved (and the bubbling frustration) until a need is somehow articulated. Or Helen Keller, who described no memory of any emotion other than rage until she learned to communicate with people. Words release us from our internal prisons. So, I tell the girls, that’s the problem with just saying we are “fine.” Hiding beneath that shorthand is an emotional world that begs our attention.

We use the model of an iceberg to illustrate this phenomenon. The tip is what we see, but there is so much more to the picture. Who and what the world perceives us to be can often be at odds with how we feel. You know . . . the moment the seemingly confident friend lets you in on their actual insecurity, the dreams we hesitate to share, the places we don’t dare venture. We all live an iceberg reality. As long as we stay on the surface, living in an “I’m fine” existence, we miss out on a world of depth and possibility.

The first step is to simply be curious. What’s going on inside? What are we reacting to? Taking our emotional pulse like this is important because it allows us to choose what we want to do. Without this awareness, we live in a world of reactivity, slaves to our feelings. This task might seem simple, but it is seldom easy.

Real freedom comes when we face our inner world. It’s only then that we can choose what we want to do with ourWhat are we reacting to? feelings, how we want to act and who we want to become. This can be scary. Who really wants to sink into fear or get cozy with sadness? It’s much easier to keep busy and stay above the surface. But this comes at a cost. If we don’t face the dark, we can’t know the light.

We see this in the story of the Jewish people leaving Egypt. Moses has been charged with leading us out of exile, and it’s not meant to be a straightforward task. First, he’ll need to face Pharaoh. Literally. This means confronting the ultimate oppressor—looking evil in the eye. In preparation, Moses and his brother Aaron gather the Elders of the Children of Israel. They share the upcoming play by play—all the wonders that G‑d has put in Moses’s hand and his task to perform them before Pharaoh, a sign that Hashem has indeed remembered His people. The Elders of Israel are in, they are reassured: G‑d sees their suffering.

So it is somewhat mysterious that the Elders of Israel are absent from the next verse. The Torah tells us that only “Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh” (Shemot 5:1). Rashi explains the Elders’ absence, describing how they “slipped away one by one . . . before arriving at the palace of Pharaoh because they were afraid to go to Pharaoh.” It is their fear that holds them back, and it is this fear that will deprive them of the ultimate joy. For when it comes time to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, Moses approaches alone. The Elders of Israel cannot join him; they are sent back because they abandoned Moses. This might appear as a punishment at first glance, but I think it’s just a natural consequence. By avoiding what they feared, they were choosing to live safely at the tip of their “iceberg reality.” But if you don’t want to meet Pharaoh, then you can’t meet G‑d.

We can’t protect ourselves selectively. We can’t choose to live above the surface when it comes to fear and pain, and then expect a world of joy and connection to be possible. The Elders learned this the hard way, but we don’t have to. We will remain slaves to our inner world unless we are willing to confront the hard emotions. If we don’t feel our vulnerability, fear and discomfort, we are likewise unable to experience love, hope and happiness.

Pharaoh, as the leader of Egypt, stood for all that is oppressive and narrow. We may no longer build pyramids, but we all answer to an inner Pharaoh. The voice of narrowness lives deep within each of us. It calls to us in moments of doubt; it chides “you can’t” or “don’t go there.” It lives way below the surface and makes us think we are tooCheck in and take note of what you’re really feeling weak to face it. But there is another way. If Moses and Aaron came to lead us out of Egypt once, they can do it again. As Passover approaches, we can likewise free ourselves. But it will require gathering the courage to face our Pharaoh.

Before I wrap up with the class of high school girls, I tell them that they can still answer “fine” when asked how they’re feeling, as long as they also stop and take note of what they really mean. Anger. Frustration. Hope. Fear. Joy. Love. The list is long. It’s a lifetime of discovering who we are inside, and it starts with noticing. Because that is the birthplace of true freedom—choosing how we want to react, who we want to be.

So maybe, the next time someone asks you how you are, you’ll pause, check in and take note of what you’re really feeling . . . and then answer from the heart.