We are relational beings, and throughout our lives we are driven to connect – with our primary caregivers, our family and peers, nature, often a higher power, and in adulthood with partners and children. Relationships often bring joy, connection, and understanding. But I’ve noticed a primary relationship that often goes neglected. When we prioritize this relationship, it has the ability to improve all others. It is a source of wisdom, brings us energy, and enhances our lives.
Can you guess what relationship I’m talking about? The relationship we typically neglect most is with our emotions! I know, it was a little bit of a trick question. But have you ever wondered why we have emotions? Have you ever wanted to push down or stop feeling an emotion? Have you ever wondered why we feel sadness, guilt, or anger?
We are certainly feeling beings. Babies come into the world with BIG feelings! No one needs to teach us to feel. But we do need to learn how to cultivate a relationship with our emotions. Children’s emotions can be like puppies. They can protect us, warn us about dangers, help us to feel love and connection, pride and joy, but they can also be a frustrating, unruly, and inconvenient. And without training, they can tear our house apart or we end up locking them up in the back yard and never get to experience the possibility of what could have been.
I ask you to think about how emotions were handled in your family. Were emotions talked about? Did you see emotions being expressed in your world? Were you allowed to express emotions? Were all emotions valued, or were some unacceptable? What happened when you expressed emotions? How did people respond to your emotions? What did you learn to do when others showed emotions?
Like puppies, we often get frustrated with expressions of certain emotions. They can be inconvenient or uncomfortable, or cause a lot of extra work for adults. We can often be invalidating, or shaming or critical when emotions come out. Children (and adults) hear things like “You are fine”, “It is not that big of a deal”, “Go to your room”, “Stop it”, “Quit being a baby”, “Quit being a brat”, “Boys don’t cry”, “Be strong”, “Pick yourself up by your bootstraps”, “Get over it already”, or “I will give you something to cry about”.
So what if we looked at our emotions as sources of information that are meant to help us? What if we got to know them better, listened to what they were trying to tell us, and learned to relate WITH them, instead of trying to get them to go away? The thing about emotions is that when we try to push them away, they haven’t been able to do their job, so they might be numbed or avoided for a while, but they eventually keep coming back to try to serve their important purpose.
Here is an example:
Anger comes up when we experience something unfair or hurtful. If a teenager’s little sister keeps coming into her room and taking things that are important to her, or violating her privacy, she appropriately feels angry. Her boundaries have been violated without her consent. Her anger is calling her attention to this violation, and gives a burst of energy to stand up for herself. If she is given permission to feel angry, and gets guidance in asserting a boundary in a respectful way, and experiences support from her parents, then she learns “Anger helped me, my needs are important, and I can stand up for myself.”
That’s an important lesson! And once her anger has done its job and fair and firm action has been taken, her anger doesn’t need to stay around. It can settle, and will be ready to act on her behalf the next time something similar happens (like a loyal dog – on the lookout, but not needing to bark at every little noise in the yard). However, if she is told she “shouldn’t be angry” or she “should get over it” or asked to empathize with her sister and therefore does not get to assert a boundary, then she is in a bind.
There are a few likely responses to that situation. One possible outcome is that she may learn that her emotions are wrong (“I shouldn’t feel angry”) and can not be trusted. She then likely learns to stop listening to her emotions and tries to disconnect from them. When others harm or hurt her in the future, she will not get that burst of energy to protect herself, and may end up being taken advantage of by others. But anger does not really go away- when we stuff it in, it often turns into depression, or it comes out sideways, such as being passive-aggressive. She may retaliate against her sibling or parents later when that anger comes out sideways.
Another possible option is that this teenage girl does not shut down her anger, but instead it gets bigger, because it is trying to do its job to protect her. Instead of learning she can not trust her emotions, she may learn she can not trust others. She may express her emotions in big ways, (we can all likely picture a screaming, defiant teenager), and while it may help to protect her, it may also come at the cost of healthy connections and relationships. And over time, it may lead her to be judged or labeled in a negative way, such as a “troublemaker”, or a “bad kid”. That can take its toll on our self-esteem and sense of self.
Hopefully you are now wondering what to do instead? Here are a few steps to guide you in treating yourself differently, and learning to relate with your emotions, and others emotions, more effectively.
Pay attention to what you’re feeling. This may sound simple, but you would be surprised how often we pay attention to everything and everyone else before we listen to what we are feeling.
Rather than saying “Be strong, don’t be sad”, instead say “Yes, I’m sad. It is tough to lose someone or something important to me. It makes sense that I would feel sad, because the loss was real. It is okay to cry about this.”
For example: sadness tells us we have lost something or someone important to us. When we feel sadness, then we will not take people or things for granted in the future. We know it is important, and we appreciate it and care for it. Guilt is trying to tell us we have done something wrong. It is uncomfortable because it is meant to deter us from doing that behavior again. Fear usually wants us to know there may be danger – so pay attention and be careful. Pride tells us we have done something good. It feels good, and fills us with energy and motivation to use our talents and skills to do more good things!
Our emotions are helpful, but should not rule us. Just because we feel something, does not always mean it is true.
For example, if a child is scared of the dark that makes sense. Children have vivid imaginations, we can not see in the dark, we hear noises and make up what it might be, and sometimes that is scary. Of course a child would feel afraid (even though there is not an actual threat)!
But instead of saying “Do not be scared”, say “I understand why you are scared – because you can not see in the dark, and your imagination can think of lots of things, some of which might be scary. Your fear is telling us to check it out, and make sure you are safe – so lets look! Let’s turn on a night light. Let’s use your imagination to help you feel safe – instead of imagining a scary monster, let’s imagine a funny monster. What kind of clothes do you imagine this monster wearing? What kind of funny things does this monster say? What kinds of things can your funny monster do to make you laugh?”
Rather than shutting down emotions, we can thank our emotions for trying to help us and teach us. Appreciate them, value them, and let them be important sources of wisdom in our lives.
By: Amy Hesler MSC, LMFT
Subscribe to receive the latest stories, thought leadership, and growth strategies from PCS therapists.