Posted by: silverliningsblog | February 15, 2011

Speak Your Truth: The Healthy Expression of Emotions

700Everyone has emotions. We feel happy when our kids come home with a drawing, saying “I made it just for you.” We get angry when some jerk cuts us off in traffic (I admit I may have gestured rudely a time or two). We are sad when we lose a friend, parent or beloved pet. We feel elated when we get a promotion or find new love.

While most of us enjoy our “positive” emotions—love, joy, peace, excitement, awe—few of us welcome our “negative” emotions. After all, who wants to be hurt, angry, frustrated or disappointed?

And even fewer among us know how to express our negative emotions in a healthy way. Our fight-or-flight response kicks in, and we over-react and come out swinging. Or we repress, bury or otherwise run away from our deepest feelings. Both responses are a desperate attempt to MAKE IT STOP. We don’t want to feel what we are feeling. We want to feel better. Now. Better yet, yesterday.

But this urge to feel better now leads to a host of problems. Think of how many ways people try to avoid their emotions:

  • using drugs, alcohol and gambling
  • mindlessly watching TV, surfing the Internet, or texting
  • working too much
  • eating too much food
  • jumping from one partner to the next in search of the next “feel good” fix

Most of us, if we are being completely honest, have some kind of addiction. And the main thing these addictions have in common is that they provide a way to avoid reality, to help us numb the emotions we find overwhelming.

I, too, find it hard to accept and express my deepest, most painful feelings. My addiction of choice? Food—especially if it has chocolate on it. Food is my comfort, but it is unfortunately a temporary and very poor substitute for the love and acceptance I am really looking for. It tastes good going down, but then I am left with the bitter aftertaste of self-disappointment.

Few of us had all our emotional needs met as children, and I was certainly no exception. While I loved many aspects of my childhood, I often felt lonely and misunderstood. My parents worked hard to make sure our physical and educational needs were met. But emotional needs? Well, that was just not something people in those days knew much about. They just did the best they could with what they knew how to do.

I was an artistic, emotional and sensitive child. I felt everything acutely. I could tell the mood as soon as I entered a room, and I often felt personally responsible when someone was upset. Between feeling misunderstood and life’s inevitable frustrations, my feelings were often too overwhelming for my little body to handle.

So I had what people call “temper tantrums.” As did most parents of her generation, my mother responded to my outbursts of emotion by either ignoring or spanking me. Unfortunately, I had no one to verbalize for me what I was feeling (“Oh, so you’re angry that no one is paying attention to you”) or to teach me how to manage my feelings better (“When you feel angry, it’s not OK to scream, but it is OK to take deep breaths until you can calm down and tell people what is upsetting you”).

Being ignored, spanked and teased for my emotional outbursts taught me it was not OK to express my feelings. It’s a natural human survival instinct to stick close to your “tribe,” so I eventually adapted my behaviour to gain my family’s approval. I buried any feelings of anger or sadness and learned to be ultra-independent, trying to meet my needs myself.

What I now know, though, is that it is not healthy to bury “negative” feelings. Whether we do it for approval, to avoid conflict, or because we fear our ability to handle our own intensity, repressing emotions does not actually make them go away—it just sends them deep into our body and psyche to where they eventually cause physical and mental illness.

In When the Body Says No, Dr. Gabor Maté shows though in-depth scientific research how people suffering from many diseases—like cancer, multiple sclerosis and ALS—share two common characteristics: their emotional needs were not met as children, and they repress their emotions (especially anger) in adulthood.

So what is the healthy response to “negative” emotions? Thanks to blog posts from UrbanMonk.net on Managing Anger and Personal Boundaries, I learned that healthy emotional response looks like this:

1. Acknowledge your feelings

Notice how you are feeling and name the emotion. Don’t dismiss or repress how you feel by trying to laugh it off, distract yourself with alcohol/drugs/food/sex/work/TV/Internet, or deny your “right” to feel what you feel. Let yourself feel it fully, without doing anything about it. Remove yourself from the situation if you need to, to allow yourself time to process your feelings. Become aware of how the emotion feels physically and where it is in your body. Realize that you are simply experiencing an emotion—it can’t overwhelm you unless you let it.

2. Ask why you feel this way

OK, so you’ve identified how you feel. Now observe what is really going on, and ask why you feel what you feel. Are you over-reacting, or is someone doing something that hurts you? Is your anger a result of this situation, or of something from your past? What memories does it bring up?

3. Accept the situation for what it is

It is important to accept and acknowledge what is happening, even if you don’t like it. Acceptance doesn’t mean you allow the situation to continue—it simply means you accept your current reality and don’t try to resist it, because that only magnifies the problem. For example, thinking “Why me?” or “I don’t want this to be happening” doesn’t really help anything, because it is, already, happening. Acknowledging what is happening and then choosing an appropriate response is much more effective in changing your reality than wishing it isn’t so. What is, simply is. What you do about “what is” is something else entirely.

4. Calmly choose a response

Once you recognize how you feel, and can calmly look at the situation you are in, you can choose how you will respond. This choice should never be made in the heat of the emotion (which is reacting, not responding). Wait until you feel calm, which usually comes after you acknowledge your emotions and the situation (instead of resisting them). Then choose what you will do (or not do) to identify your needs without disrespecting others. In some cases, you may choose to do nothing—allowing yourself to fully experience the emotion may be enough to address it.

5. Take action

Having chosen your response calmly, act on it. State how you feel (but own the feeling by using “I” statements and avoid blaming the other person, who may be unaware of your feelings). Ask for what you need (and allow the other to respond or not as they choose). If needed, outline your boundaries and say what you will do/won’t do if the situation continues. Then be prepared to enforce the consequence if someone ignores your needs or the personal boundary you have just established.

This process sounds so simple but takes practice. Years of being afraid to say how you really feel are hard to undo overnight. But you will get better at it every day. And it will benefit everyone around you, including your children, as they learn through you how to manage their emotions.

I hope this post helps you express the truth of your own emotions to the world in a calm and healthy way.


Responses

  1. Hey Karen, this is a fantastic read. And thank you for sharing your childhood experiences – don’t discount them because they are not as challenging as some of the others out there 😀

    • Thanks Albert! I love your blog – it has helped me a great deal.

  2. Great post Karen, as always. Maybe I should have read this earlier in the week before I shouted at my kids! One of the things I find most difficult about being a parent is that even when I tell the kids my boundaries they ignore them! That is when I start to lose it, when I’ve said ‘don’t’ 10 times and they are still doing it, there are times when my energy is low and I can’t be creative in my response.

    I love the strategies you lay out, they are really good and worth thinking about : )

    • Thanks Em! Believe me, I have that problem too. Choosing a better response to our kids is an ongoing effort. And yes, as you so wisely point out, kids don’t always understand our rules of engagement. Actually, I am planning my next blog post to be about this, so stay tuned!

  3. Wow Karen! So well written and so similar to my own learnings. Thanks for sharing such inner thoughts.

  4. […] love if you are hanging on to pain, or judging the actions of others. Do what you need to do to process your feelings. Then let them go. Realize that most times, people don’t mean to hurt us. They are simply human […]

  5. […] your feelings and ask for what you need. (See Speak your truth: The healthy expression of emotions for more help with […]

  6. […] your feelings and ask for what you need. (See Speak your truth: The healthy expression of emotions for more help with […]

  7. […] changing others. It’s about taking responsibility for your response. When you are assertive, you own and express your feelings instead of projecting them onto others or blaming people for how you feel. You clear the air with […]

  8. […] Speak your truth: the healthy expression of emotions […]

  9. I appreciate your post greatly. It was strange hearing a mirrored example of my childhood expressed. I’m struggling with my journey towards being an emotionally healthy adult. Any suggestions on how to go about this?

    • Hi Wes! Sorry for the delay in responding – I missed seeing your comment somehow.

      The journey to emotional adulthood can be challenging, and often takes longer than we think it “should”. But the reality is, few of us received perfect parenting, so many of us were taught to tune out our true feelings and/or to not express them. Becoming an emotionally mature adult means learning to hear our intuition and feelings again, and then figuring out how to express them in a way that others can hear and respond to them positively. It also means learning to give ourselves what we did not receive from our parents/others (learning to listen to and acknowledge yourself always comes before getting that from others). I’m not sure what the specifics are of your story, but I found the “good mother messages” in “The Emotionally Absent Mother” to be very helpful (you say them to yourself in the mirror), and the book “Boundaries” by Anne Katherine is also excellent for learning how to establish healthy boundaries as an adult. I also believe counselling or coaching in some form helps speed up the process. Hope this helps!


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