by Meredith Keller & Debby Deroian
Some emotions have a very bad reputation! Sadness, fear, shame and jealousy are all considered negative and things we ‘shouldn’t’ feel. We get the message we shouldn’t feel these things from society, from mass media and from our families (both when growing up and presently). The reality is that no emotion is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because humans are endowed with the ability to feel ALL emotions. They can serve to process loss, to keep us safe, to guide us to do the right thing and to empower us to make hard changes. The trick with painful emotions is in HOW you express (or act on) them. In this article, we’ll focus on anger and sadness.
It was our parents or caregivers who originally taught us (intentionally or unintentionally) how to deal with ‘bad’ emotions. How often have you heard a parent say to a crying child “Don’t cry. It will be okay”? Or how about when a child expresses fear and we say, “Don’t worry; you have nothing to be afraid of”? As parents, we don’t do this with malintent, of course. We react this way because we don’t want to see our child in emotional pain. But, what many parents fail to realize is: by trying to prevent our children from experiencing any painful emotions, we are only hindering their ability to learn how to deal with them effectively. As they grow and become adults, they will feel a variety of feelings throughout their lives, no matter how much we try to protect them.
Consider a scenario where a child is crying and a caregiver handles it in a different way. “I understand why you feel sad about your friend being mean to you.” This statement sends out a completely different message: “It’s okay to feel what you feel and you’re not alone. I’m here with you”. Taking it one step further, the parent could help the child come up with a course of action such as “Let’s go together to talk to your friend and his/her parent about what happened.”
Regardless of how we learned to manage our emotions, as adults we are faced with feeling a wide range of them, and being able to manage them in healthy ways is key to strong relationships. So what are some ways as adults we can manage our emotions when they arise?
-Find constructive ways to deal with them, not destructive
Anger is a great example. Let’s say we are angry at our partner for forgetting our birthday. If we have never learned how to manage anger in a healthy way, we may approach our partner with harshness or berating. Or we don’t speak to them for days. This certainly doesn’t remove our anger; in fact, it tends to have the opposite effect of entrenching us in the anger or hurt. On the other hand, we could go to our partner and say calmly, “I want to let you know I am really angry that you forgot my birthday.” Think about how the outcome might be different. Speaking aloud your feelings or writing them down are constructive ways to deal with them.
-Learn how to self-soothe
If we had the caregivers who jumped in to try to make us feel better immediately we weren’t given the opportunity to learn to tolerate our painful emotions. While it is important, especially in relationships, for our partners to validate our emotions, we are all ultimately responsible for being able to manage our own emotions in a healthy way. Learning techniques, such as relaxation, breathing, connecting with a Higher Power, or any method that allows you to deescalate will be incredibly useful in relationships, and all aspects of our daily lives.
-Check in with yourself to see if you are expressing the emotion underneath anger
Often, we mask one emotion with another (because one might be more acceptable or ‘easier’ to feel than another). Let’s look at the above example of our partner forgetting our birthday. We may feel really hurt. But hurt or disappointment may be emotions we don’t think we should have a right to feel. We may tell ourselves “I’m being silly. It’s only a birthday and I’m sure he/she just had a busy day and forgot.” But since we don’t want to allow ourselves to feel the hurt, it may come out as anger instead because anger is a less vulnerable feeling than hurt. It would be okay to say, “I was hurt and disappointed that you forgot my birthday this year.”
Managing our emotion is a skill that, like many others, can be learned in adulthood and doing so will have a tremendous positive impact on your intimate relationship. If you’d like help in learning how to manage your emotions, please contact us at 908-246-3074, or GetSupport@CouplesTherapyCenterOfNJ.com to schedule an appointment. We are blessed to have the privilege of helping people like you lead more peaceful, centered lives. We look forward to hearing from you.