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Your [Girlfriend's, Sibling's, Son's...] Feelings Aren't the Problem. Part I

Whether you're a girlfriend, son, or someone wary of intense emotions, I'm really glad you're here. This topic is touchy, and may evoke feelings right off the bat. In a way, that's why I'm initiating the conversation, because where there are strong feelings, there's something important to explore.

It's admittedly tricky though, especially because I myself feel rather strongly about the claim that emotions in-and-of themselves are problematic! And strong emotions do, in fact, make clear communication more difficult. But it is far from impossible, and this is also part of what I hope to convey. So, despite the call to put my feelings aside as I endeavor to illuminate a new perspective, I'm not exactly going to (just FYI..).

I don't know about you, but separating feelings from logic has long been my training. Quoting her trusted mentor Maureen, my mom used to say, "Reason and emotion are like two different tapes; you can't play them both at the same time."

It was an insightful adage (though clearly dated!), indicating neurology without trying. Maureen was pointing to the challenge of thinking clearly while in an emotional state, of trying to access the neocortex while other parts of the brain are wildly firing. But I'd like to raise the bar––there's a theme here––to include more nuance, and integration. And I'll attempt this in part by doing my best to communicate something rather sensitive, safely and rationally.

A little backstory: I grew up in a era and culture where time-out was often used as a child-rearing technique. I think it was meant to give children time to reflect on their actions and emerge a little wiser. And I'm fairly certain it backfired; because rather than pondering why I was being detained, I interpreted the crime as my feelings.

I haven't asked exactly why my parents chose this method (although I know learning their perspective––along with that of psychologists and researchers of the time––would be beneficial), but since the end of my time-outs was usually determined by "when you calm down," I can only assume they were trying to allow space for emotions settle. Unfortunately, here's the takeaway that stuck with me for years instead:

My feelings are too big, too strong, too intense, too prolonged.

There's an implication there, "...for my parents." But as kids, we don't yet know that our parental figures do not represent everything and everyone, so we take our childish conclusions as ubiquitous truths.

Unless taught otherwise, other relationships and experiences generally reinforce our interpretations. Thus in my case, the persistent, internalized message remained, "My emotions are bad. Expressing them is worse. When I show what I'm feeling, people get uncomfortable at best and I'm quarantined at worst––which only makes my emotional upsets bigger, stronger, louder and more prolonged!" What an unfortunate Catch-22.

This belief, plus immature and unguided attempts to deal with it, led to a cycle of emotional extremes, from repression to intense expression. Periods of shutting down and withdrawing were followed by eventual outbursts of emotion, sometimes manifesting as anger, but more often tears, most likely because sadness tends to be more accepted in females. Were I male, I imagine the ratio would be reversed.

Overall, it was often a difficult, tiresome, disheartening ride. (I almost added, "ineffective;" but if that were true, the pattern would not have persisted. Our unconscious behaviors––even those that seem most dysfunctional––all serve a purpose, or did at at time; otherwise we simply wouldn't keep running the circuit).

Adding insult to injury, the dynamic was supported by the social position that highly emotional, sensitive people are erratic, irrational and... you can fill in the blank. While this can be true, such is the case with us all at times. Humans are emotional beings, which has at least as many strengths as it has weaknesses. The perspective that strong feelings are bad, wrong or dangerous risks missing an absolutely critical point: Strong emotions do not occur in a vacuum; and if they are present, I can guarantee you there is a cause that, if ignored, is ultimately much more detrimental than being with the discomfort of the feelings themselves.

From here, we could dive deeper into the importance of honoring and validating emotions; but the focus today is beyond that. While the shift from believing emotions are problematic to recognizing they're valid and significant is imperative, if we stop there, we risk fueling emotions without outlet or catharsis and wearing down all involved. Instead, we must be active in the process of shifting our state towards more clarity, security, tranquility and ease. E-motion implies movement, not stagnation.

In an effort to elucidate this point recently during a mildly heated debate with a loved one (who prefers to keep the temperature down, due to experiencing discomfort when things get too hot), I explained, "Emotions are like smoke signals. Where there's smoke, there's fire; and if we focus only on the smoke, we risk letting the fire get out of control."*

While smoke has it's own damaging effects, especially if there's too much of it and it's blowing directly in your face (following beauty, to be sure), it's obvious why we're better off addressing the cause. When we redirect our attention to bringing things back into balance, then fire will again sustain life, rather than perpetuate devastation.

If parents favoring time-outs had used other methods for managing emotional outbursts, their children would have less repression to address in adulthood, as well as more tools to manage emergent emotions with skill, expertise, even grace. But of course they did the best that they could, with the tools they had at the time. We need only look back one more generation to see where our parents' patterns emerged from, and so on.

This is not about blame. Instead, let's modernize our tool-kits, for ourselves and generations beyond: When someone we love expresses something with fervor, especially when signalling distress, it is because something is wrong. While it's possible, even likely their feelings are amplified by personal past (whether PTSD or trauma with a lower-case "t," like time-out), this does not take away from the present reality that something needs attention. When an area is strongly susceptible to wildfire, due to lack of water, maintenance, or suitable care, there is increased risk of fires burning hotter, longer, and causing more damage––unless taken seriously, and addressed! We won't always get to the source, but can contain the spread, gather resources, and perhaps identify the origins next time around.

We can also prioritize prevention, management, and replenishment. Today, I am offering seeds of acceptance, insight and respect for our emotional selves, partners and friends. My hope is we'll root ourselves deeply in responsibility, and recognize that clear-cutting, ignorance and neglect encourages fires to run wild, and risks irreversible damage.

Instead, by acknowledging that painful emotions are important signals indicative of need (imagine if where there was fire, there was no smoke to reveal it!), we can stop berating the messenger and move onto the message. We can tune into the source, address the root cause, and work together towards creating a kinder, safer environment for all.

*Dear reader, please know I am well aware of the triggering nature of the topic of "fire" right now, and will address it in depth in an upcoming post, Exploring Climate Change and Grief. We are in this together, now and always <3