On Emotions: Part 1


Emotions have a natural flow that we can liken to waves. They build, crest, and then merge back into the ocean. They are events with a starting point and an end point.

When my son falls, I watch his physical and emotional reaction to know how to respond. Sometimes, he doesn’t react at all: he gets right back up and continues to play. Other times, he’s clearly more hurt, and he starts to cry, sometimes even hard. In those situations, I pick him up and hug him and I wait for my cue to see how much comfort he needs. Most of the time, the crying subsides within seconds, and he resumes his play. The physical sensation of pain, and the accompanying emotion fade as quickly as they emerged.

It’s the same for other emotions. My son used to be sad upon my leaving for work, but then minutes later he would be happily playing, or even laughing with his grandparents, I am told.

In other instances, emotions loom larger and hang around. Sometimes emotions are overwhelming tsunamis that cast a large shadow on the entirety of our inner landscape. They may seem to linger a bit longer than expected, and definitely longer than we’d like them to.

Recently my son had a bout of separation anxiety that seemed to affect him for longer periods, led to increased clinginess, and interfered with sleep. With some extra TLC, and help attaching his feelings to some concrete images (mommy leaving on the train), he has been somewhat less overcome with anxiety, and at the very least, his sleep patterns have returned to normal. Helping him tolerate complicated feelings is a work in progress.

Many children learn unhealthy ways of managing their emotions early on and become adults who continue to have difficulty with emotions.

Why? How is the experience of emotions tainted for so many?

The answer is simple: we have learned to interfere with this natural process. Our parents or society might have helped us learn some of these interfering methods, and we have internalized them. There are two basic ways of interfering with an emotion: 1) to make the emotion BIGGER or 2) to make the emotion SMALLER. Both stem from a general discomfort with emotions, our own and others’.

Some people develop a pattern of making an emotion much BIGGER than it needs to be. This leads to the dramatizing of emotions: huge displays of feeling that seem out of proportion with the event. There is often also a dramatic story attached to the whole experience. Some people learn to do this early on because they believe that their emotions will only be heard and validated if they are very loud and intensified. In fact, they may have grown up in an environment where the only time they were heard by their parents was when they yelled, or made a big deal of their emotion.

Other times emotions are very BIG because they are emotions to the current event as well as to some past event. The emotions of the past event were never fully experienced, and so they are re-triggered in the new event to give the person an opportunity to finally experience and release them.

In other cases, people make the emotion SMALLER (suppress it, or deny it altogether). Usually, people do this because they have a notion that negative emotions are bad. They prefer not to feel anything negative, and so they try to keep things positive. They may have gotten an impression that the people around them could not handle their negative feelings. They may have gotten the sense that they will receive more love from others, if they hide their bad feelings and only display happiness. If a child get this message, she will will first try to amplify her negative feelings in order to be heard. If that doesn’t work, the child will then take her “real” feelings (the upset feelings) elsewhere- if she is lucky she will have someone who will listen and validate. If that does not happen, because she has a sense that negative feelings are repellant, she will establish a habit of denying her feelings to a point where her own feelings become unknown even to her. The feelings however do not disappear into the ether. Instead, feelings are no longer expressed as feelings about specific events, but rather as behaviors, life circumstances, moods that linger, or symptoms. Some examples might be: substance abuse, obsession with food or exercise, procrastination, depressed mood, panic attacks, difficulty in relationships, headaches, other somatic complaints, etc.

What’s your pattern of interfering with your own or others’ emotions? To answer this question let’s go back to the very specific example from the beginning of a child falling:

A child falls from a couch onto a carpeted floor and begins to cry. Are you QUICK to reassure her: “you’re okay!” (making the emotion smaller)? Or, are you QUICK to express your devastation as though the fall were catastrophic (making the emotion bigger)? Or, do you WAIT to observe the tone and extent of the emotion expressed and then respond accordingly, with empathy (“oh that must hurt”) and reassurance (“you’re okay”) to match the child’s expressed need?

Well, answering this questions might give you a clue as to your own proclivities.  But, it is important to note that adult emotions, ones that occur in relationships, are infinitely more complex than the emotions associated with a fall.  In any case, it’s a way to start to think about your own reactions to strong emotion.

Therapy is a safe haven for those needing to relearn how to live with emotions. First, therapy can shed light on your particular way of managing emotions, helping you identify your tendency to amplify, or suppress or altogether deny emotions. Then, therapy also helps people attach concrete images, and words to feelings that were previously out of conscious awareness (and therefore expressing themselves as symptoms or unfavorable life circumstance). Observing the emotion, and then attaching words to the emotion in the company of an empathic listener are the cornerstones of a therapy treatment.  Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, created by Marsha Linehan, is a specific treatment that teaches these emotional regulation skills, and the nuts and bolts of the above outlined perspective on how emotions work.  Most therapy treatments, however, address the role of emotions in one’s life.

The end goal of effective emotional regulation is NOT the elimination of all negative feelings, but rather the fostering of a sense that one can experience a difficult emotion without being overtaken by it. So, at the end of the day, this means that you are confidently surfing those waves rather than drowning in them.

What is your understanding of how emotions work? How do you manage your emotions?

Published by DrAnat

Hello, my name is Dr. Anat, and I'd like to invite you to blog to read some of my musings on "Therapy Matters" that occur to me between sessions. Join me to learn more about the process of therapy, parenthood, and reflections on the inner workings of the human psyche.

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