In the cultures I grew up in, emotions were considered less important than rational thought. For me to be labelled ‘emotional’ was not a compliment, ‘being right’ was a mark of success and ‘big boys don’t cry’ matured into ‘men don’t cry’. The expression of strong emotions such as anger, sadness or joy was discouraged and my default position in adulthood was to supress such feelings.
I don’t think I am an outlier in this as many people I meet (especially men) have a hard time owning, understanding and expressing their emotions. It is, of course, not universally true that men have a hard time expressing their emotions in a relationship, but it is common enough to be worth some attention. Anything less than full communication with my partner means we are missing out a part of the whole and an essential experience of being human.
In terms of communication in relationships and helping my children learn emotional health, I consider it important for me to understand my emotions and learn how to express them in a way that builds connection. In evolutionary terms we developed the capacity for feeling long before the rational part of our brains emerged. As such it contains ancient wisdom communicated to us nonverbally from within our beings. It is also an essential part of this experience we call life. To experience joy we also need to be able to experience sadness and grief.
One way that I find especially helpful in understanding the role of emotions is to think of them as signs or impulses that something is happening with my needs. Each emotion has a purpose and a focus of energy designed to bring more aliveness to me. The more I can understand these internal signals, the better I am to listen and respond appropriately.
Some emotions are protection mechanisms to stop harmful actions of others (e.g. anger, fear) or ourselves (e.g. guilt, disgust) while others are about acknowledging loss (e.g. sadness, disappointment) or celebrating (e.g. joy).
At the extremes, emotions can be supressed or acted out.
Take anger. If I was taught that anger is dangerous then, as a child, I may have learned to stop anger rising, to suck it in, deny the causes and internalise the associated energy. If I was, on the other hand, taught that anger is a way to get what I want, I may have learned to shout, scream and insult – maybe even to physically lash out until I get my way.
Neither of these ways are healthy or contribute to a loving relationship:
- Supressing emotion means I am not communicating important information and I‘m internalising the associated energy – damaging both my relationship and myself.
- Acting out means I am communicating in a way that damages the other person and the relationship.
Learning To Speak Up
If my tendency is to supress then I first want to learn to speak up and express my feelings. This will involve understanding how each feeling shows up. What does anger feel like? And rage? And irritation? Fear? Concern? Probably some feelings are more familiar than others.
Second is then to find words to be able to name them. ‘I feel xyz’. This is better than keeping the feeling to myself. This will likely involve learning a new vocabulary and being able to distinguish finer shades for my emotions. Am I concerned? Nervous? Apprehensive? Worried?
Third I want to say what is the need behind the feeling so it doesn’t sound like I’m blaming my partner. After all, nobody is making me feel any particular way. ‘I feel worried because I need predictability’ or ‘I’m feeling angry because my boundaries are important to me’.
As a bonus I may want to throw in some gestures, facial expressions or other ways to show (rather than simply name) what I’m feeling. Only enough to give some emphasis to what I am saying and not to overpower the message. I consider this as additional and not something necessary. If I’m usually supressing my feelings this may actually be a step too far and feel inauthentic. If so, stick with the verbal expression.
Learning to Tone it Down
When my tendency is to act out by showing how I’m feeling with big gestures and face expressions (for example, exploding, slamming the door, pouting or sulking) then the first step is to find ways to calm down the feeling. Breathe. Break away for a moment. Count to ten. Whatever it takes to bring myself back to a centred, grounded place.
Second and third steps are to find words to name the feelings and then say what is the need behind the feeling.
When I can express my feelings in this ‘middle way’ between suppression and explosion then I am likely to find I am better able to communicate with my partner and to show my kids a healthy, connecting way.
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