Every day people are thrown off balance by anger, grief or fear. Without warning we may feel as if our emotions engulf us, sometimes to the point where we can’t recognise our usual selves anymore. Because of those overpowering feelings we feel bad about ourselves and about other people. What’s the remedy?
Living on good terms with your emotions. Amazingly, it can be learnt. If you really listen to your emotions, the first step is to acknowledge what you are feeling, “I feel very angry”. From the moment you allow yourself that right, to be angry, you come into contact with your real self and you can go further. “Why do I feel so angry? Let’s go back to square one.”
Every moment of our lives we’re influenced by the footprints of the past. Maybe you remember a feeling you had in your childhood, a wounding of your self-esteem or a humiliation. The essential thing is you have been able to recognise what caused your strong emotion.
This honest acknowledgement is the basis of self-knowledge. It affects your capacity for long-term relationships and your understanding of yourself and others. By becoming aware of your own emotions you gain confidence in yourself and in your ability to communicate.
Five basic emotions
Grief, fear, joy, disgust and anger are five of our most basic emotions. Out of them arise hundreds of feelings which colour our existence like shame, guilt, rage, tenderness and jealousy. The distinctive feature of emotions is that they work as an alarm signal and allow us to react quickly to situations we encounter.
Grief is a normal phenomenon. The tears you shed have a positive function, because they relieve tension.
Fear is the most powerful and primal emotion of all. Under the influence of this emotion your heart-rate increases and blood is sent to your muscles. This helps you make defensive movements, like running away or fighting. The original function of fear was to ensure your survival.
You feel full of energy, dynamic and open. Success, reunion with a loved one, happiness calls out to be shared. This is what people mean when they say emotions are what makes life worth living.
This is not so pleasant. Your upper lip curls and your nose puckers up. Originally it was a primitive attempt not to taste or smell something putrid.
Anger can be a healthy emotion if not expressed in a damaging way. Suddenly it increases your supply of adrenalin and brings red to your cheeks. Blood rushes to your muscles, giving you added energy for self defence.
True stories from people with emotional problems
When her brother died she had to silence her grief.
“We’ve never been able to speak of our grief.
“Four years ago my only brother was killed in a car accident. We’d been very close. Although I was stunned I had to organise the funeral and the legal details of his estate. My mother was completely wiped out. She’d just lost her husband, now death had taken her son as well.
“In the face of her overwhelming grief, it was as if I didn’t have the right to my own sorrow – so I didn’t say what I was feeling. We’ve never discussed the tragedy.
“Perhaps I should have shared my sadness with her, but there seemed no room for my distress. There still isn’t. Since the loss of my brother we’ve become almost strangers to each other.”
What the psychologist thinks
It’s true that not sharing emotions can create a gulf between people. Many couples who suffer the loss of a child separate a year or so later.
Kay needs to be given positive feedback for helping her mother at a time when they both needed to express their loss.
It sounds as if Kay is choosing not to speak to her mother now. Perhaps she fears that if she expresses her anger she may also lose her mother.
On the other hand, if you share an ordeal you create intimacy.
Maybe Kay could start by writing out how she was feeling when her brother died or by using old photos to access common memories with her mother. Then neither would feel so threatened.
For her, displaying emotions is vulgar.
“I didn’t have the right to be unhappy.
“I have a lot of trouble crying and, on the rare occasions it bursts out of me, I hide myself away. My husband says I’m not demonstrative enough; even my mother accuses me of being cold.
“And yet it’s partly my parents’ fault if I’m not very forthcoming. They were so perfect, they worked so hard and made so many sacrifices for us I felt I didn’t have the right to be unhappy. Also they were always telling us, my two brothers and myself, that it’s just ‘not done’ to display your emotions.
“I’ve already had three bouts of diverticulitis and my doctor tells me they’re linked to the fact that I almost never let my emotions show. But how am I supposed to express what I feel? For me, that’s always been strictly forbidden. I’d feel I was being vulgar, and I couldn’t bear that.”
What the psychologist thinks
The burden of your early training can be heavy. Melissa’s experience shows us how hard it is to free yourself from it. Her emotion comes out crooked, in anger. But for women in our culture it’s not considered okay to be angry; so she blocks it. This can manifest itself in physical blockage. Unconsciously, whether she likes it or not, emotions guide her every move.
She’s already had three bouts of diverticulitis. It’s time for her to forget her parents’ ideas about what’s ‘not done’ and assert herself by being her real self at last.
How to dare to show your emotions, in six steps
1. Know yourself
Learn to track back your emotions and recognize them: “I’m trembling, so I must be afraid.”
2. Express what your emotions really are
Ask yourself questions about them. Step back and analyse them: “What’s my anger hiding? A real annoyance or a fear I don’t want to admit, even to myself?”
3. Calm down
Go for a walk, ride a bicycle or do some yoga. Go for a swim and yell underwater. Breathe deeply.
4. Assert yourself
Acknowledge your own interests and goals without either bitterness or aggression. Don’t expect that these will always be the same as those of your partner.
5. Take responsibility
Become aware of your commitments, your available choices and your mood changes.
6. Accept yourself
Look at yourself in a positive way. Take stock of your strengths and weaknesses and be gentle with yourself. Encourage yourself. Remember, emotions underpin our every thought and action.
Owen Carmichael has worked as a musician, a director of radio and television programs and a TAFE lecturer. In the course of his career he wrote everything from scripts through study guides to corporate videos and now he writes articles for magazines.
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