Over the past 15 years of working in the mental health field, I’ve seen people approach emotions in a variety of ways. I’ve worked with people who dismiss emotions and others who are utterly engulfed by them. In the spirit of simplicity, I’ve seen the following three types of emotional categories:
- Those who feel their emotions
- Those who avoid or stuff their emotions
- Those who believe they ARE their emotions
Feeling your emotions is healthy. God created us with emotions and we are made in His image, so it’s likely even He has some feelings about things. Emotions aren’t good or bad, they are simply messengers. They let us know the pulse or temperature of how we are reacting internally to our external environment. It sounds counter-intuitive, but people who actually feel their emotions are wisely taking into account their feelings about a situation as another important piece of data in the course of their day— a clue that will help them discern what to do next. It’s noteworthy to separate emotions from behaviors. Not all behaviors are acceptable or appropriate for all settings and part of emotional regulation is learning when and where to express our emotions in healthy ways.
Some people grew up in a culture where not all emotions were welcome. Perhaps their families avoided anger (or exploded with it). Maybe sadness wasn’t honored and they were repeatedly told “don’t cry”. Sometimes these individuals end up stuffing emotions or avoiding them. This can lead to a number of unhealthy factors because whenever you avoid emotions they come out sideways in unhealthy behaviors. This is the essence of addictions. In fact, oftentimes when people get sober they are surprised at the intensity of their emotions. They may start to feel their emotions for the first time because they were numbing or stuffing them for so long with substances or busyness or achievement.
In order to start understanding the lens through which you view emotions, it’s wise to take a look at how your family of origin approached emotions. Here are some questions you can ask yourself about the following emotions: Sadness, anger, fear, embarassment/shame, affection, love, emotions in general, positive feelings.
Was I allowed/encouraged to express this?
What happened when I expressed this emotion?
How comfortable was my family with their own expression of this/these emotion(s)?
Is this an emotion I want to learn how to express more fully?
What is holding me back from experiencing this emotion?
Oftentimes when individuals or couples ask themselves these questions surrounding emotions, they find that one key emotion rises to the surface that effects the expression of all the other ones: FEAR. It’s common to fear emotions because we fear anything that feels out of our control.
Fear can put us our nervous system into fight, flight, freeze or appease mode. This isn’t just an internal experience, when our nervous systems respond in this way, we respond behaviorally (in our actions) in similar ways. Ever know someone who turns every conflict into a brawl (fight)? Or runs away (literally or figuratively) whenever there’s a disagreement (flight)? Some people just check out when a partner brings a complaint (freeze) and others try to fix the situation or people please (appease) just to try and end the conflict. This can lead to dishonesty in relationships as we avoid expressing our true values due to fear of broken connection. If appeasing is the default response, it may also lead to resentment because our partner gets to know a version of us that doesn’t have needs. This, of course, is not sustainable.
Exploring our childhood emotional climate can be difficult, but it can also be empowering. Knowing you have the opportunity to set your emotional climate as an adult offers a redemptive opportunity to practice healthy emotional awareness and expression. If you find that you and your partner are getting stuck in patterns of emotional avoidance or emotional flooding, take caution to not rush the process of change or expect immediate 180 degree shifts. Patterns of fight, flight, freeze or appease may take time to change. Behavioral patterns are patterns because they took time to develop. This means they’ll take time to change. Growth in these areas takes both time and patience with our partner and ourselves.
Growth in this area may look like one partner who tends to run from conflict making a conscious choice to return to the conversation once their nervous system has calmed down. It may look like the appeaser practicing a new boundary every week or taking ownership of a new self-care practice. I cannot stress enough that behavior change is a process. It takes time and we can celebrate wins by measuring progress, not perfection.
This week, take an opportunity to examine your approach to emotions. Check to see if you align with your partner or in which areas you differ. Marriage researchers John and Julie Gottman have found that marriages tend to fall apart in two main seasons: the first 7 years because of difficulty in transitioning to married life and around 12 years due to loss of emotional intimacy and connection. Staying connected now can build a deeper foundation for a lasting relationship.
“When we walk on relational eggshells, we are never our best person. Without feeling emotionally safe within our most significant relationships, we will never be our best self, and our relationship will never be its best. It’s like when we walk on eggshells, we are attempting to avoid the triggers that often send the emotions into a tailspin.” – Brene Brown