Feeling and Expressing Emotions
Are you struggling with thoughts like you are feeling something but are not sure what it is? Sometimes your emotions are so out of control that you blow up on minor incidents and at people who do not deserve it? May be sometimes you feel you want to cry for no good reason. Or may be you feel so detached that you have difficulty reacting to upsetting events. There are genuine reasons for you to be upset but you don’t show any emotion?
Although feeling and expressing emotions is integral part of our lives still there are numerous people who have difficulty doing so. To some of us our emotions remain a mystery and a source of confusion that we have difficulty expressing them constructively. For building healthy relationships we ought to learn give a healthy expression to our emotions.
Accepting and Valuing Your Emotions
Our emotions and feeling are a part of our being. To lead an effective and full life we depend upon different sources of information (our senses, thoughts and perceptions) to guide and motivate us to make sense of the larger world. Our emotions are one of these sources.
There is a strong relationship between our emotions and significant events in our life. Our feelings of happiness, sadness, loss, guilt etc are all related to past events in our life or anticipated events of the future. For example, you something minor happens that hurt your feelings and you started crying uncontrollably. This recent evoked past hurts that initiated that burst of tears. This crying session was an important source of information. Instead of ignoring or exaggerating our emotions it is more important that we feel what we are feeling, accept what we are feeling, think about those feelings and then learn from them. For this realization we ought to identify our feelings, interpret them and then express them. It is a good idea to ask three questions when ever you feel something that bothers you:
- What is this feeling?
- What is this feeling signaling about this particular situation?
- Why am I feeling this now?
Sometimes it is difficult to establish a relationship between events happening in our lives and our emotions. There are times when we are unable to name what we are feeling. Last week I heard a friend say “I am feeling strange, and I do not know why, what is happening to me?” In such a case it is important we take a moment to focus on ourselves and our feelings.
If it is difficult for you to name what you are feeling, it will help if you pay attention to your body. I’ll suggest another example; few years ago I was in an abusive situation. When ever I visited my mother-in-law she would constantly berate me. I was supposed to keep quite in her honor but also not show any emotions of hurt. When I returned back to my place I would experience my jaws tightening up and the nerves on my temples would start showing. At nights I would grind my teeth so much that I was spiting blood in the mornings. Most feelings are manifested through body and every body is different. Some people feel a knot in stomach when they experience fear others may feel a lump in throat if they are over whelmed. You have to rely on your body for knowing your feelings you can’t depend on another person’s experiences. It will help if you list all the possible feelings you know of (e.g., happiness, fear, sadness, insecurity, shame, rage etc.) and then in front of every feeling write any incident you remember when you experienced that emotion.
Our feelings are also related to our behavior. Even when we are not sure what we are feeling our behavior can send others a clear message what we are experiencing. Like people have told me the pitch of my voice rises when ever I am taking about things I am passionate about like environmental degradation, oppression of the weaker sections in the society, inequalities in the society, gender disparities to name a few. They take my passion to be my anger and I am often misunderstood. Another example is if you are talking to one of your friends you may not be aware of your own facial expressions or voice modulations but your friend’s changing facial expressions can give you a clue. This will tell you how you are feeling towards your friend, may be angry or frustrated with them. If you are successful in making connection between life events and your feelings then you’ll be able to understand and articulate your concerns with others.
The Role of Interpretations
We often think our feelings are just a response to events in our lives. Our feelings are more than a reaction towards events rather they are our interpretation of those events. Our interpretation or judgment of these events guides our emotional responses. Each event can generate numerous emotional responses but it is our particular interpretation of the event that determines our emotional response. I remember in the high school board exams all students worked very hard. The test was really tough, those who were good students were happy even when they expected not to ace the exam. I heard one of them say “it was a toughy all the hard work paid off.” I remember one ace student in particular who threw a fit crying consolably for she did not do good in the exam. Her words were “I messed up. Now how I will make to medical college.” And there were few like me who was in the mid range, utterly disappointed but tried to focus our attention on the next test. Every body had the same test but our interpretations of that test were different so were our responses.
We make interpretations of events rapidly and automatically that we are not even aware if it’s happening. If our emotional response to an event is disproportionately extreme to the event it is self it is because our mind is rapidly and automatically interpreting the event and we are not conscious of the process. I learned this early. As a middle school student when ever I did poorly on the school tests I would tell my parents and they would scold me ad nauseam and in turn I would spoil the next test due to fear of failure. They would scold me again when the test score came in so I learned early to conceal information and disclose it as needed depending on the event. The common self defeating interpretations of life events are:
- Dichotomous Thinking: Interpreting events in extremes either this or that nothing in between. For example, a friend’s mother-in-law would create a scene if her son was late to return from work. Every time he was late by thirty minutes she would panic that something happened to him instead of thinking he was stuck in traffic or he had a flat tire. She refused to consider it was normal delay and he’ll make home safe. This fear not only controlled her life but she in turn controlled every body’s life. The son had to call home all the time to report his where abouts and his wife had to fake she was equally concerned or MIL would come after her.
- Excessive Personalization: Person automatically concludes that another’s behavior is targeted towards them or they are responsible for another person’s behavior. Example, if parents are fighting a little child often interprets it is his/her fault. If my spouse was extraordinarily silent I would suspect I may have done something to upset him. So every thing became about me. I took extra responsibility for his behavior.
- Overgeneralization: Imagining a catastrophic impact of a simple event on multiple aspects of life. The friend’s MIL mentioned in the first bullet interpreted her son’s delayed return as “I’ll be left alone, no one will take care of me when I’ll grow old.” “The DIL will take all his insurance money and leave me high and dry.” Where as, none of this was true.
- Filtering: Fixated negative thinking, emphasizing on negative events and corresponding effects rather than paying attention to positive events in life. Some people like that MIL are fixated on all the negative in the world and they fail to appreciate the blessing they have thus they live unhappy lives and exude only unhappiness.
- Emotional Reasoning: Concluding, what one is feeling must be the truth like “I feel defeated so every thing is lost,” “I feel like an idiot, I made fool of my self so I must be an idiot” etc.
It is helpful to learn how to recognize any tendencies you may have to distort events through interpretations like those mentioned above following by learning to do positive and valid interpretations and then give an accurate emotional response.
We have choices about how to interpret any event like wise we have choices about how to express what we are experiencing. Most of us have learned we have only two options for expressing our emotions about any incident; defense or offence. For example, in response to the constant berating by MIL I chose to swallow my anger and simmer in isolation instead of confronting her. My cultural dictate proscribed me from talking back to her. I was choosing silence not out of choice but as the only option available to me. Now I know I could have asked her to talk about her grievances in clear words rather than insinuations. In actuality there are many ways to express our emotional response to any event. Our every behavior exhibits our conscious and subconscious feelings and determines their intensity. We make a choice to determine the intensity of any feeling.
I’ll use an example from my high school days. Rinky was my best friend. Her parents were moving to a different town during the autumn break. During the autumn break my mother had planned to visit her parents with me and my brother. I chose to stay back with my father and spend time with Rinky and give her a send off. I waved my hand till the door to the plane was shut. My options were 1) go to on a vacation and enjoy my time as I new Rinky will soon leave the town and I could do nothing about it so I need not bother myself. 2) Spend more time with Rinky or 3) Make new friends and limit my contact with Rinky to avoid feeling her loss. I chose to stay with her and get a closure on our time together. We are still friends we made it through thick and thin irrespective of the distance. The other two options could have given me a momentary relief from the pain of losing a best friend but they could do not provide a closure with her. The point is I had the options and I made the decision.
Following questions will help decide how to respond to your feelings:
- Is there a match between the intensity of my emotions and the situation at hand?
- Are there several feelings I am experiencing in this particular moment?
- What are my interpretations and judgments of this particular event?
- What are my options for expressing my feelings?
- What are the consequences of each option for me?
- What are the consequences of each option for others?
- What result am I hoping for?
- What do I want to do?
- What if I do nothing?
Even doing nothing is an option, taking a time out and going for walk or deep breathing is also a way of responding to your feelings. Just remember you have many options.
Understanding Our Feelings and Our Families
We were all born blank slates it was our birth families or the families we grew in shaped our initial world view and what emotions we exhibit and how we express them. If you are working on learning to give a healthy expression to your feelings try looking back at the root of those feelings in your early upbringing.
We are not taught family rules on emotions we pick up the cues from our care givers and start imitating them and gradually they become our habit and our reality. Here are few examples from my own life: My grandmother was nasty towards my mother, my hurt mother would remain silent or move around the house with tears in her eyes. If I asked for my mother’s attention or disobeyed her she would start crying or would give me a silent treatment. I learned early it was not appropriate to seek attention and it was my job to keep others happy and not make them upset. In a way I learned my needs were not important and it was my job to please others. Whereas, my father was a martinet he threw anger fits if we disobeyed him, tried talking back to him or if he needed attention. He would say “Don’t raise your voice at me,” and would ground us for weeks together, he was suggesting the rule was children have no right to express anger and parental anger was permissible. It has helped me trace the roots of my emotional responses in my family’s rules on expressing emotions.
Here are some suggestions on problematic family rules that are common to most families:
- Always consider other people’s feeling before you think about your feelings
- Do not harbor negative feelings against other people or you are a bad person
- Do not express anger, it is a destructive emotion
- Ignore your feeling you have to what you have to do
- Display of anger begets attention and obedience
- Don’t share your true feeling they can be used against you in future
- Trust your head more than you trust your heart it is emotional
- Be happy all the time even if you are not. Fake happiness and you’ll become habitual of being happy
As a child you may not have had an exposure to an array of emotions or the family rules proscribed you from even identifying them. But now you are an adult you can make your own rules about emotions or change and replace your family rules on emotions.
To learn new ways of experiencing and expressing emotions demand you unlearn the old patterns, it is not an easy process but it is not impossible either. An awareness towards our thoughts and emotions helps in this process. Be conscious of your feelings, accept them and value them and address the issue they are signaling to. Pay attention to your thought processes, how you interpret your life events and what you learned about emotions from your family and how it is impacting your adult life. Every time you warrant an emotional response take a deep breath and review your options. It will take a lot of practice and it is a continuous process.
For Additional Information Refer:
Burns, David (1982) Feeling Good. New York: Avon Books.
Eastman, Meg and Sydney C. Rozen (1994) Taming The Dragon in Your Child. U.S.A.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.