As a psychotherapist, I am constantly struck by how little the average person knows about emotions– both why we have them in the first place and what we are to do about them when they cause us pain and suffering. Dealing with emotions-our own and those of our kids and partners-can be one of the more painful, frustrating, and ultimately fulfilling parts of being in a family.
After the groundbreaking classic bestseller, Emotional Intelligence, by clinical psychologist Daniel Goleman came out in 1995, the world came to the shocking realization that just being smart (having a high IQ) did not necessarily lead to success in work or in relationships. In fact, being intellectually gifted is very different from being emotionally mature. Don’t you constantly see glaring examples of smart people doing stupid things? I certainly do.
Our emotions, if denied and repressed (buried deep) OR if given free rein (boiling over) can lead us down some dark and dusty paths. On the other hand, if we learn to be more aware of what we are feeling and learn how to express our emotions in constructive ways, these very same emotions can help us build deeper intimacy and empathy. Feelings are an essential part of our humanity, and once understood, we can begin to work with them so they don’t get the best of us.
Why Are Emotions So Important Anyway?
The emotional mind is like a radar system that tries to protect us from harm and aims us in the right direction. When we sense danger, our emotions allow us to react before we have time to think. When we sense something we need (food, comfort) our feelings tell us which way to go forward. This is why they are a necessary part (not all) of making good decisions.
As infants, our emotions helped communicate our needs to our caregivers, and as adults they still help us to know what we like and don’t like. They are essential in order for us to be able to empathize and have compassion for ourself and others.
One of the most important factors in forming a happy, loving family is having the ability to express feelings openly and constructively, striking a balance between holding too much in and letting too much out. Problems arise in families who land on either end of this emotional spectrum. The trick is how to find the balance between the two extremes. For most of us, this is a lifelong process.
Here is a way to begin…First, ask yourself which one of these two tendencies are you most likely to exhibit? Are you able to express your emotions? When was the last time you allowed yourself to cry? How do you express your frustration or your anger? Are you the type who wears your heart on your sleeve or do you keep everything bottled up inside? Or perhaps, there are certain feelings that you allow yourself to feel and to express and others that you hide not only from your family but from yourself.
If you aren’t sure how to answer these questions, ask a friend or loved one what they notice about you. Ask for honest but gentle feedback. The first step is to bring more awareness to this arena. Once you have some awareness, then you can begin to take the steps necessary either to learn to be more expressive or to learn to hold back the expression of your emotions when they are out of control and unmanageable. Here’s why the two extremes are problematic…
At one extreme are the families in which no one ever gets to cry, express anger or share their anxieties. Feelings are stuffed down, tightly managed or ridiculed–buried deep. The child loses touch with what she feels or wants, and depression or psychosomatic symptoms can be the result.
Perhaps one of the best metaphors for not letting feelings out is to think about the kitchen garbage. If you let a bunch of chicken bones and assorted trash sit around too long, the whole kitchen starts to stink. The same can be true for feelings. If they fester too long, they can become even stronger and more negative or bitter.
At the opposite extreme are families where there is a loss of control of emotions or too much weight placed on their meaning or importance. Negative feelings in such families are typically expressed in a destructive fashion rather than resolved by good listening or channeled constructively.
Family members yell at one another, burst into tears on a regular basis, are highly reactive with one another, and often hurt one another in the name of “sharing”–all types of boiling over. They have bought into the myth that the more feelings you share, the closer your relationships will be. Not so.
How to Make Friends with Your Feelings
Begin with the practice of simply becoming aware of your emotions day to day, moment to moment. Neither expressing nor suppressing but simply watching and naming your emotions as they arise is the first step in learning you can withstand them. It can take a lifetime to perfect, but even a little bit of this practice usually brings about a greater sense of control.
When we learn to maintain a relaxed yet energized state of open awareness, (without forgetting to breathe), we can remain engaged in the present moment, poised for whatever may come next. Future blogs will discuss working more deeply with big feelings such as anger, grief, and fear. Start by noticing and naming your feelings as they come and go.
If you are involved with children…Second only to good communication skills, parents and teachers need tools to help kids learn how to deal with their feelings. At www.KidsEPs.com, there are songs and activities on feelings and fears for kids aged 3-10. Footnote for adults: If you never learned much about how to deal with emotions more constructively, you might just want to sing along.