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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 (although we may need to update the analogy from "tapes"!), bringing attention to neuroscience. 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 firing wildly. 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, safely and rationally, something rather sensitive.

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 my feelings as the crime.

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 length of my time-outs duration was usually determined by how long it took for me to calm down, I can only assume they were attempting to teach me self-regulation, by allowing time and space for emotions to 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 misdirected 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 fill in the blank. While is sometimes true (most things are), it scapegoats the sensitive, acting as though others aren't equally capable of passionate, unfiltered actions. Humans are emotional beings, which has at least as much strengths as it does weakness. The perspective that strong feelings are purely bad, dangerous or wrong risks misses an absolutely critical point: Strong emotions do not occur in a vacuum; and if they are present, I can guarantee you there is a reason. If ignored, these underlying roots have potential to cause much more harm than experiencing the discomfort of difficult feelings themselves.

From here we could dive into the importance of honoring and validating emotions; but the focus today is beyond that. While a shift from seeing emotions as problematic to recognizing they're worthy and valid is crucial, if we stop there, we risk fueling emotions without outlet or catharsis and wearing down everyone 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. And when we're intentional, includes maturation and growth.

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 his 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 or 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 used other methods for managing emotional outbursts, their children might have fewer repressed feelings to address in adulthood, as well as more tools to manage emergent emotions with skill, expertise, even grace. Yet all we can do is our best, with the tools we have at the time, handed down over generations, along with whatever opportunities for growth remain unaddressed.

This is not about blame. Instead, it's an invitation to update our tool-kits, for ourselves and future generations: When someone we love expresses something with fervor, especially when signaling 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 methods to prevent, manage, and replenish any damage. Today, I am flinging widely 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, as we acknowledge that painful emotions are important signals indicative of need (imagine if where there was fire, there was no smoke to reveal it!), we stop berating the messengers and move onto the message. We look toward 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


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