In a continuance of our series on emotional management, we talk about the importance of being able to feel and express our feelings in a healthy way. Emotions can be intense. If we haven’t learned how to regulate our emotions, they can spill out in ways that are unhealthy. Learning this skill can increase our ability to have empathy with others and improve the quality of our relationships. Regulating emotions even has a positive impact on our physical health.
TRANSCRIPT: Emotional Regulation
Hi everyone, welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host, Jackie Pack. Today’s episode is on emotional regulation, and if I’m being honest, it’s been a little bit difficult for me to put this episode together and get something that I could release. Part of that is because there’s so much that I could say on emotional regulation, and yet I’ve got to be able to fit it into a podcast episode, so that’s been one difficulty. I think the second difficulty, as I’ve been switching to telehealth sessions during the COVID-19 virus, I’ve talked with so many clients over the last couple of weeks, particularly the last 2, 2 ½ weeks, and people are starting to feel like this is getting to them, and I often tell clients the emotions that we have about this are not usually emotions that we’re comfortable with. There’s uncertainty, there’s a sense of powerlessness, there’s a sense of feeling trapped or isolated, and most of those emotions are things that will stir up and kind of dig up our trauma emotions and things that we felt during these events in our previous life that were traumatic for us, so even though this COVID-19 virus may not be traumatic for you, you may be healthy, you may be able to move to an online format to do your business or your work, and so you’re still getting a paycheck, it’s still going to bring these emotions up because the truth is we don’t really know, and we don’t have a lot of good information, and so that’s also been something that I’ve talked with clients about, and I will say from my perspective, the clients who have moved to telehealth sessions, which is the majority of the clients that we work with at our clinic, I don’t know that it hasn’t been as effective. People may still enjoy or prefer in-person sessions, but I haven’t found that telehealth sessions get in the way of them doing what they need to do, so as I’ve been putting together this episode on emotional regulation, I’ve had a lot of thoughts as I’ve been talking to clients over the last 2 ½ weeks that I’ve kind of made a list of what I want to put into this particular podcast episode, but that would be a super long episode, so I’ve had to trim and I’ve had to edit and I’ve had to cut down, and here’s what I have on this episode on emotional regulation.
So the truth is we all feel emotions, both negative or positive, on a daily basis. As children, most of us typically learn how to manage, express, and cope with these emotions in a healthy way. For some people, though, emotional regulation is much more difficult. Sometimes due to painful childhood experiences, whether that’s abuse or trauma and sometimes because of not having been shown or taught how, our parents didn’t learn how to emotionally regulate in healthy ways, so they can’t teach us how to emotionally regulate in healthy ways. Emotional regulation is considered an important area of study in the world of psychology; however, so far there is no one agreed-upon definition of the term “emotional regulation”. Many researchers define emotional regulation as the ability to enhance or reduce your emotions as needed and as appropriate. Other researchers use a much broader definition of emotion regulation, viewing it as a set of skills that help you keep your emotional system healthy and functioning. Since emotions are not absolute and they’re not permanent, we can learn to adjust what emotions we have, how intense it is, when we have it, and our reaction or response to it, but it wouldn’t be healthy to just not have emotions. Now usually when we are referring to emotional regulation, we’re also talking about the ability to respond to the ongoing demands of experience with a range of emotions in a manner that is socially tolerable and sufficiently flexible to permit spontaneous reactions as well as the ability to delay those spontaneous reactions as needed. Emotional dysregulation is a term used in the mental health community that refers to emotional responses that are poorly modulated and do not lie within the accepted range of emotive response. Emotion regulation is a term generally used to describe a person’s ability to effectively manage and respond to an emotional experience. People unconsciously use emotion regulation strategies to cope with difficult situations many times throughout each day, and part of learning how to regulate our emotions in healthy ways is bringing it into the conscious and being aware and intentional about how we are regulating our emotions. So maybe an easier way of talking about emotional regulation is that old saying “think before you act.”
Now we talked about this process in the episode on the inner observer, which I did a couple of months ago I think. Emotional regulation also reflects the ability to cheer yourself up after disappointments and to act in a way consistent with your deepest-held values. Now an important first step in developing the skills of emotional regulation is to be able to identify emotions, to name them. In Pia Mellody’s work, she has said that there are eight basic emotions. So she started to break down what the emotions look like, so she says there are eight basic emotions, and then under each of those eight basic emotions are a range of emotions that may happen. So her eight basic emotions are anger, fear, pain, joy, passion, love, shame, and guilt. Sometimes I tell clients if you want to start with just kind of a Dr. Seuss basic emotions, you’ve got sad, mad, bad, and glad, and Pia also talks about in her chart on eight basic emotions, so for example under anger, you might have resentment, you might have irritation, you might have frustration. She also talks about though the gifts of these emotions because oftentimes we neglect to see, especially if these emotions make us uncomfortable or they’re not socially acceptable, we neglect to see what the gifts are in each of these emotions. So she talks about with anger, the gift of anger also brings with it an ability to be assertive, to have strength and energy, and where we feel this emotion is kind of all over the body. It feels kind of this powerful energy.
The second emotion under Pia’s eight basic emotions is fear. Now the sub-categories would include feeling apprehensive, overwhelmed, or threatened. The gift of fear is preservation, wisdom, and protection, and typically where we feel fear is in our stomach and upper chest area, and it can feel kind of suffocating or heavy.
The third emotion she had was pain. Under pain is hurt, pity, sad, lonely, and their gifts are healing, growth, awareness, and typically we feel this in the lower chest and our heart, and it feels like hurt.
Joy, the fourth emotion, the subcategories are happy, elated, hopeful, and their gifts are a feeling of abundance, happiness, and it takes us into gratitude, and typically we feel joy as this lightness all throughout our body.
The next emotion is passion. The subcategories are enthusiasm, desire, zest. Their gifts are appetite, energy, excitement, and again we feel this all over our body, and it feels like we are energized, recharged, and we can be spontaneous.
And then we have love. The subcategories under this are affection, tenderness, compassion, warmth. Their gifts are a feeling of connection, a feeling of life and of living, and it takes us into a sort of spiritual realm of connecting spirits to spirits. This is another one that we typically feel all over the body, and particularly in the heart, and it kind of feels like a swelling or a warmth.
The seventh emotion is shame. Under this is embarrassed, humiliated, maybe a sense of humbleness, and the gift is humility, containment, and a sense of humanity. We have to connect with our sense of humanity and being part of the human race in order to correct shame. Shame typically we feel in our face, in our neck, or our upper chest, and it can feel warm, it can feel hot, and we tend to turn a little bit red when we’re feeling shame.
And then the eighth emotion she identified is guilt. Guilt brings us into a sense of regretfulness or we feel contrite or remorseful. The gift of guilt is we reconnect with our values. We start to make amends and make corrections, and we again learn about how to contain ourselves. Guilt is typically felt in the gut, and it’s kind of this gnawing sensation.
So as we talk about the eight basic emotions, you can see that these eight basic emotions can lead to different levels of that emotion, or they kind of fall along the continuum, and they also bring a lot of color to a person and to life. Now our ability to self-regulate as an adult has roots in our childhood. In fact, these roots often go back to infancy. So how do problems with self-regulation develop? It can start early, as an infant being neglected, a child who does not feel safe and secure or who is unsure whether his or her needs will be met may have trouble soothing and self-regulating. We know that babies have very little self-control. They naturally act on thoughts and feelings without the ability to stop themselves. They literally are dependent upon the people in their life to help them learn how to self-regulate. So with sensitive guidance from parents and caregivers, they can begin to learn to manage their feelings and actions. I usually explain that because babies lack the ability to self-regulate their emotions, like I said, they are dependent on their caregivers to do this for them, and so they will literally plug into our nervous system in order to manage what they are experiencing. If your kids were young, have you ever… maybe the baby was crying or the toddler was upset, and you were stressed yourself, and you were not having a good day, and you know that you need to tend to the kid who was upset, and yet you’re kind of stressed and upset yourself anyway, so you pick up the baby or you pick up the infant and you kind of bring them into you, so they’re like touching you, and they tend to escalate with you, so they get more dysregulated once you’ve picked them up. Maybe it’s the eye contact. They’re looking into our eyes and they’re registering some type of stress. It may be the skin-to-skin contact that they’re picking up on, and often when we pick up a child and bring them into us, our heartbeats start to sync up in a way that transfers the stress that we are feeling onto the baby or onto the toddler, creating even more stress in their nervous system.
A new study published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences shows that babies can synchronize their brainwaves with adult brainwaves when the two of them are making eye contact. If it’s true that the eyes are the window into the soul and the baby is making eye contact with their caregiver and sees the stress and the anxiety or the depression and the flat effect or fear, what does that then communicate back to that infant, and what does it say to that infant or that toddler about the world they live in and their need to be cared for, protected, and guided? The nervous system of that infant would read that as danger. We know that the brain doesn’t necessarily differentiate between physical danger or emotional danger. I often say too for a young toddler or for a young infant, they’re not necessarily having thoughts the way we do as the brain becomes more developed, so these things are going kind of into that developing nervous system, and for a young child who is literally dependent to be cared for, to be protected, to be guided, if that is not happening, that is a life-or-death situation. If somebody is not paying attention to the child and keeping them safe and out of harm’s way, that can be life and death. If somebody is not caring for that child and nurturing that child with food and with love and attention, again that can be a life-or-death situation, and again, if a human being infant or young toddler if not protected, then that child is more likely to come into significant danger, so even though our brain doesn’t differentiate between physical and emotional danger as we grow up, for a young infant or a young toddler who is literally dependent on the tribe around them, if that tribe is not tuning in to that child, that is a life-or-death situation.
In her book “Motherless Daughters”, Hope Edelman offers help for women who experience early maternal death. She writes, “At some very deep level, nobody wants to believe that motherless children exist.” She continues to explain how in our psyches, mother represents comfort and security, no matter what our age. Edelman explains this phenomena by saying, “The motherless child symbolizes a darker, less-fortunate self. Her plight is everyone’s nightmare. To accept the magnitude of her loss or the duration of her mourning would mean to acknowledge the same potential for oneself.” Kelly McDaniel, author of “Ready to Heal”, coined the term “mother hunger” in 2008 in her book. She writes, “As a population, our cultural expectations of mother are high. Our need for a mother’s understanding and affection is great. Novels, fairytales, television, and movies fill our minds with images of mother that can be either fantastical or nightmarish. Frequently women don’t want to examine the relationship with their mother. However, for women addicted to sex, love, and relationships, examining the maternal bond is not elective. Since our first relationship is with our mother, her love or neglect, abuse, immaturity sets the relational template for life. Scientists have determined that the early relationship between the mother and child neurologically imprints on the infant’s nervous system, becoming a template for future emotional relationships.” Kelly McDaniel also says, “Female sex and love addicts identify with the same symptoms that women who experience pre-maternal death have. When mom is still alive, however, it can be almost impossible to explore maternal abandonment and abuse. The bond is too important. Even if you don’t like your mother or she suffocated you, the grief of not having maternal comfort and protection is so profound for a daughter that it is often delayed or avoided, transferred or projected, or arrested and denied.” Kelly has a new book coming out sometime this year, and in her new book, Kelly guides women toward a deeper understanding of mother hunger. Now mother hunger is a term that helps a women name the unspeakable pain that emerges from early childhood betrayal at the hands of her mother. Based on each mother/daughter story, different degrees of mother hunger emerge and play out in the lifelong struggle to find healthy connections with others. The legacy of shame from early maternal loss, abuse, or abandonment leaves a daughter always wondering, “What’s wrong with me?” Now I have to say I also explore the maternal help on the mental health of male clients, and often we find similar story lines. By measuring parts of the brain, researchers such as Alan Shore at UCLA’s department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences are learning that the brains of children lovingly nurtured in infancy look markedly different from the brains of children who have been starved for affection. In other words, emotional depravation during the first two years of life will literally alter the emotional difficulties later in life. This popular publication goes on to assert how a relationship with an abusive mother presents challenges that a difficult father does not. While an abusive father is devastating, an abusive mother shakes the foundation for a sense of self. Science is proving what therapists and psychotherapists have been treating for decades: maternal attachment affects mental health.
This makes me think of that saying, if mom isn’t happy, nobody’s happy. Now I agree and I disagree with that statement, or I agree, I don’t necessarily maybe disagree, but I agree with that statement, and I can see some flaws in that statement. The other thought that it makes me think of, years ago, I was driving and I saw a bumper sticker on a car and it said, “If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.” And I started laughing, thinking about my mother, and I kind of started laughing, and I thought it was humorous, and I thought oh my gosh, that’s so funny, and then I remembered real quick, oh wait, I’m a mother. That’s not so funny. Wait a minute, I don’t really like that quote after all. So I think with both of these sayings, we have to recognize that first, we do not give nearly enough resources to mothers in order to help them be happy, and while we might give lip service to supporting mothers and the role and the responsibility that they take in having children, in practice we don’t give them as much as we would if we meant what we said. Second, moms don’t have to be happy all the time. That connection between infant and mother, especially that biological connection between infant and mother is profound, and it starts from conception because it’s her body that they’re growing into. Kelly McDaniel talks about how our first love is always our mother, and if something was impacting the emotional and mental health of that mother, that loving relationship all of a sudden becomes quite complex. I think it’s a good step we are moving towards fathers wanting to be more hands-on in the parental process. I think that’s critically important in supporting the mother in what she needs to do, and we start to give a child options. You can be connected to mom, but there’s also a plan B, and there’s also dad, who’s right there as well being just as involved in the parenting process. So I often tell male clients that to me, the word “mothering” is a verb. It’s something we’re doing in a specific way, and it’s not gender-exclusive.
Dan Siegel says “Attunement is the reactiveness we have to another person. It is the process by which we form relationships. When we attune with others, we allow our own internal state to shift to come to resonate with the inner world of another. Effective attunement occurs when a caregiver lets an infant know that the caregiver understands the emotion being experienced by the child. Once attachment is securely established, the role of the primary caregiver focuses on helping the infant learn to identify and become more comfortable with its own various feelings. The primitive emotions felt by infants are often raw and powerful. They can frighten and overwhelm a baby. Caregivers mirror or reflect back the feelings that infants project and label them with words. This enables the child to make connections between its internal and its external world, and when the infant learns that the caregivers can understand the infant’s emotions, the infant’s fears and anxieties will be alleviated and the caregiver can teach the infant techniques for managing emotions. This process continues throughout adolescence.”
Another definition of attunement that I like is by Erksine. Erksine says “Attunement is a kinesthetic and emotional sensing of others, knowing their rhythm, affect and experience by metaphorically being in their skin and going beyond empathy to create a two-person experience of unbroken feeling connectedness by providing a reciprocal affect and a resonating response.”
So as that child progresses into adolescence, they may struggle with self-regulation. What needed to happen in childhood didn’t happen, and so they take that with them into their teenage relationships and they take that with them into their adult relationships. Now this struggle with self-regulation may happen because the ability was not developed during childhood or because a lack of strategies for managing difficult feelings weren’t taught. I have a lot of clients that I’ve talked with over the years who will say they had this feeling of being on their own as young adults. I often say the teen years are just a different kind of hard than the younger years when you’re parenting. When my kids were young, there was a lot of overseeing that I had to do with them. I had to make sure they were safe. I was watching for spills, either that they took or that they made. I had to make sure that I was watching out for their safety as they wanted to go explore the world. Now on the other hand, you can have a parent who is so scared of her child getting hurt that she tends to stifle their exploration and they start to learn that this world is very unfriendly. So again, there’s this balancing between watching over an infant and a child and letting them explore and start to go out into their world, which in those years, their world is pretty small. When my kids were young, they were constantly around me and they were constantly on me. I had one daughter that loved to sit up on the back of a chair or a couch or wherever we were sitting, and then she’d lay kind of over our head so that on top of our head was her head, and she was watching everything that we did. Those were busy days, and they were full of movement, but then the teen years come, and things change. They may need as much physical touch as they did when they were little, but they aren’t constantly touching you. Also I have a lot of clients who report that during the teen years, touch dramatically decreased and they just weren’t getting it from their parents the way that they did when they were little if they got it when they were little. Teens may go away for hours at a time when they’re in school or work or if they’re playing an after-school sport or something like that, and during that time, we are doing very little supervision of them while they’re away. We can’t constantly be overlooking teenagers because they won’t tolerate it first of all, and it’s not healthy for their development secondly. So when our kids are young, they need kind of that watchful eye over them while still allowing them to explore and to develop themselves. What teens need from us, though, I think is a little bit harder. What they’re needing is this really getting into practicing emotional regulation skills at a different level because their emotions are becoming more complex and their relationships are widening outside of the family unit. For many parents, the attunement that teens need is what they didn’t get, and what they’re still uncomfortable doing. Teens do require emotional attunement in a more complex way than when they were young, and we’re both helping them regulate and still plug into our nervous system while also allowing them to practice self-regulating on their own in order to build individual resilience. We’re finding the line between maintaining this attachment bond and allowing them to push away from us in order to develop their individualization.
Research tells us that children often do not show symptoms of grief, neglect, or trauma until later in life. For this reason, grown women may not attribute psychological or behavioral difficulty to mother hunger. I think I could talk about this subject for a long time, and I think Kelly McDaniel’s work is so important in understanding and identifying and healing. Now I did have Kelly, maybe many of you were listening and you remember that name, she was on an earlier episode on the Thanks for Sharing podcast episode 61, where she talks about mother hunger and specifically as it was portrayed in the movie “I, Tonya” about the talented figure skater Tonya Harding, her life and her unfortunate legacy.
Now children are equipped to respond emotionally before they are even capable of responding intellectually. The range of emotions such as fear, disgust, hate, envy, longing, hope, trust, empathy, compassion, and love are responses from the brain triggered by the amygdala, which acts as the brain’s security alarm system. Thanks to the amygdala, people have the ability to react without thinking in an emergency situation or when we feel threatened. However, we don’t want that to be our primary source of response. So if you were never given the attention and emotional support you needed during a key developmental time in your youth and instead were preoccupied with the dysfunctional behavior of a parent, it may certainly be hard or perhaps impossible to know how to get your needs met as an adult. Furthermore, if you lacked positive foundational relationships, it may be difficult to develop healthy, trusting interpersonal relationships later on, and yet that is key to providing a corrective experience so that we can start to gain what we needed all along.
Now let’s talk for a minute about what happens when you don’t express your emotions. So there’s a lot of things that happen to us physically if we stuff our emotions or if we blunt the feeling that the emotions bring in our body. The chronic stress that comes from unresolved emotions can trigger your sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response. According to research from Harvard Medical School, the stress that comes from unacknowledged emotions can lead to slow digestion, gas, bloating, vomiting, and ulcers. Head and neck pain are one of the most common symptoms of bottled-up emotions, largely because the stress of holding back causes muscles in the jaw to tighten, although there’s some debate among experts about how knots or myofascial trigger points are formed or if they even exist, they are thought to be formed in part by overuse of muscles perhaps from clenching your jaw. The corrugator muscles in the forehead and brow tighten in response to emotional stress, producing a frown and a tight corrugator muscle is often a good indicator of stress throughout the entire body. Psychologist Daniel Goldman told the New York Times, ‘When these muscles tighten, you may experience reduced blood flow to the brain, the perfect recipe for a splitting headache.”
When more complicated feelings of sadness and shame are buried, they can explode in the form of one of the most primitive and destructive emotions of all, anger or rage, which we talked about on the previous episode. This may put you at an increased risk of heart disease. Rage causes a rush of stress hormones that increase energy, but this burst of energy causes blood vessels to tighten as blood pressure increases, which can wear on artery walls over time, according to WebMD. In one study, the risk of heart attack was 8.5 times higher up to 2 hours after an extreme episode of anger, and 9.5 times higher 2 hours after extreme anxiety, so people prone to anger are nearly 3 times more likely to have heart attacks than those with lower anger. The problem with anger is that it’s a powerful emotion that tends to take over when other emotions are held in. We talked about this in the previous episode of anger being a secondary emotion kind of masking or suppressing the primary emotions. When it gets to that extreme expression of anger, people often mistakenly release it in an aggressive way that makes them angrier and puts their heart into greater jeopardy.
So now that we’ve talked about how we learn, or more often we don’t learn, to manage our emotions and some of the attachment wounds or traumatic events that may be driving unhealthy emotion management, and we’ve talked about the physical impact on our body from stuffing emotions and not feeling and expressing emotions. Let’s talk about some ways for managing emotions in a healthy way. Now first before we actually get into maybe some of the tips and the tricks on how to manage our emotions, I want to talk about two things. So first let’s talk about mirror neurons and why they are important. So mirror neurons allow us to learn through imitation. They enable us to reflect body language, facial expressions, and emotions. Mirror neurons play an essential part in our social life, and they are key for the child development as well as relationships and education and emotional intelligence. So did you ever get that sensation when you’re watching someone do something like maybe serve a tennis ball or get pricked by a needle, and you can feel exactly what they must be feeling if they were in their shoes? Especially if you’ve had that experience, if you’ve played tennis or if you’ve had to have your finger pricked for some type of blood test. Scientists have long wondered why we get that feeling when it’s not happening to us, and more than 2 decades ago, a team of Italian researchers thought that they stumbled on an answer. So while observing monkeys’ brains, they noticed that certain cells activated both when a monkey performed an action and when that monkey watched another monkey perform the same action. So this is where mirror neurons were discovered. Since that time, mirror neurons have been hailed as a cornerstone of human empathy, language, and other vital processes, but there’s also been something of a mirror neuron backlash with some scientists suggesting that the importance of mirror neurons has been exaggerated. I’m going to murder this name even though I’ve listened to how you pronounce it, so V.S. Ramachandran has been one of the mirror neuron most ardent scientific champions. Ramachandran, he is known to his friends and colleagues as Rama and while I am neither his friend or his colleague, I’m going also to refer to him going forward as Rama because I can’t pronounce his name. So Rama is a distinguished professor of neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, and he conducted early research on mirror neurons. He has since called them the basis of civilization in a TED talk and he touted their significance in his recent book, “The Tell-Tale Brain”. He said I don’t think mirror neurons are being exaggerated. I think they’re being played down actually.
So now that we’ve hit on mirror neurons, you might be thinking to yourself, great, so it’s not just my emotions I need to learn to get comfortable feeling, but I need to also get comfortable feeling other people’s emotions as well. Now that may seem a bit daunting, but I think really it’s a beautiful thing when you think about it. Most of what we experience is unique to us. They’ve done research where in families where the siblings pretty much all experience the same dynamic that was happening in their family, how they interpreted it or what meaning they made from it could vary vastly, so it’s our mirror neurons that allow connection to happen between us and other people. It’s our mirror neurons that allow us to see and feel another person and also to be seen and to be felt. Several years ago, my daughter was a freshman in high school. She was going to be starting her freshman year of high school, and she had been a competitive soccer player for years up until that point, and she was pretty talented, and she was pretty dedicated as a soccer player. She put a lot of her time even outside of practice working on skills. She also doesn’t necessarily have this fear the way that some people do. She kind of just goes for it, and so she was heading into her freshman year and in their freshman year, they can try out for the high school soccer team, even if their 9th grade year isn’t part of the actual high school, if they’re in a junior high, they can still try out for the JV or even the varsity high school soccer team, and so she had been preparing to try out for the high school soccer team. Her coaches were pretty confident in her. They had talked to me, and on her team she was the only one that went to the high school she went to, and a lot of them went to like three other high schools, but she was the only one on her team who went to hers, and so her coaches had talked to her and they had talked to us as parents before high school tryouts were happening, and I think maybe they overprepared us. They had said most high schools don’t pick up a lot of freshman players, but we think your daughter probably has the best shot of anybody on the team of making her high school soccer team, so if you don’t make the high school soccer team and you’re that age, your freshman year or above, they do what is called a provisional soccer team, so the kids who don’t make high school soccer team, they form teams out of them even if they’re not technically on the same team and they’ll just play so they’re able to keep their skills and conditioning where it needs to be when high school season is over and they pick back up playing with their team, and so her coaches like I said had said maybe we might have two or three from our team that make their high school soccer team, but we probably won’t have a lot, but for sure she’s going to make her high school soccer team. So she went through the tryouts, she felt like it went well, they had one round of cuts and she made it through the first round of cuts and continued to go to tryouts, and they were going to have… they were posting at the school who actually made the final cut, and it was a day that I was going to be working, and I was going to be working a little bit later, so they were going to post the team at like 5 or 6pm, something like that, and I had… I think it was at 6pm, and I had a client at 6pm so I wouldn’t get off for another hour, so her and my other daughter who had also tried out for the high school team and their dad drove over to the school to see the final cut draft, and they called me… my husband called me just briefly before I headed into this next session and just said she didn’t make the team, and I was kind of like, oh, wow, okay. And he said, “She’s pretty heartbroken.” And I said, “Okay, well let me do my last session and then I’ll be home.” So I did my last session, and that session ended, and I was just feeling in my gut this pain. It maybe not was my pain, but this pain I had knowing how she would feel. I knew that she would be heartbroken. I knew that she would be devastated, and there was a part of me that didn’t want to go home. I was like uh, I have a couple of things to do. The session ended, but I could do A, B, C, and D, and then I could go home, and I know enough about myself to call myself out and to catch myself and to recognize that I was wanting to avoid going home and having to feel what she was feeling. Growing up in my house taught me that it’s best to lean out when emotions are intense or to move away from them, and I’ve had to learn or re-learn that actually in those moments it’s key to lean in, to step into the emotions and sit there and not try to fix it or try to fade it or just try to bypass it. So instead of doing these to-do lists that I had, I packed up, went home right after my last session, went in the door, and said to my husband, “Where is she?” And he’s like, “Since we’ve been home, she went up to her room and she really hasn’t come out.” So I headed up to her room, knocked on the door, opened the door. She was laying on her bed, and when I saw her, I could tell she had been crying, and this is not one of my kids who cries very often, and her eyes were swollen and her face was red, and I walked in and I sat on the floor and I just said, “I’m so sorry.” And she was just like, “I don’t want to talk about it.” And I said, “I totally understand that. I totally get not wanting to talk about it, and I’m not going to make you talk about it. I’m just going to sit here with you because this sucks.” And we were able… she did start to talk about it, and she talked about how she felt like this political game that is involved in a lot of high school sports to be honest that she thought she was kind of consequence of the politics of high school sports, and that was probably true, and she got angry and she talked about how unfair it was, and she expressed a lot of emotions, and I just sat and listened and validated and said “That all makes sense. Yep, it makes sense that you feel it’s not fair. It makes sense that you feel angry.” And we were able to just kind of talk as I sat there in her room with her, and I did my best to try to not, “Michael Jordan had this thing and look what he did…” and not to try to bypass this, not to try to move into fixing it and just allow her to feel it, and so she got the results on a Thursday, and so we went through the weekend and she was kind of shut down a little bit and just kind of mopey throughout the weekend, which was fine, I get that, and Sunday night, we were talking and I said to her, “Look, you’ve had the weekend to feel what you get to feel, and I totally get that, and I think it’s important that you were just able to kind of disconnect, she didn’t want to talk to her friends, she didn’t want to talk to her other teammates who, by the way, she was only like 1 of 3 on her team who didn’t make their high school team, so she didn’t want to talk to her friends, she didn’t want to talk to her coach. She just didn’t want to do anything through that weekend, and by Sunday night, I said to her, “That’s been fine, but you now have to make a decision about how long are you going to stay in this ‘that wasn’t fair’ or stay in the anger of the politics. I think you need to start figuring out how you’re going to get up and come back from this setback.” I also told her because she’s one of those people who I had told her like “Up until this day, everything you wanted, you worked hard and you got, but that’s not always how life works. Sometimes we can work really hard going after something we want, and we don’t get it anyway, and we can learn important lessons from not getting what we go after just like we can learning important lessons from setting goals and trying and going after something and succeeding.” So I will say she talked to some of her coaches and some of the coaches who were going to be doing the provisional team, and she was able to have a really good experience on that provisional team that year, and she looks back at that now, and she talks about how important that was for her even though… she’ll still say, “I wish I had made the high school team my freshman year, but because I didn’t, I still was able to have a positive experience playing soccer and learning some skills that made me a better player while I played on that provisional team.”
M. Scott Peck says, “The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled, for it is only in such moments propelled by our discomfort that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.” I have found that the experiences that have come from parenting my kids is one of growth and healing. I have an opportunity to do it different than what was done for me, to correct the experience that I had and to give my kids what I needed. It also, though, takes me right back into that attachment wound or that trauma wound of not getting what I needed. It’s been healing for me to not give my kids my childhood. Now I’m not perfect at this, but when I look back at my younger self, it amazes me how much healing has happened. When I look back at her, I see a scared, very guarded girl who wears a lot of masks and wears them very well. When I hit my teen years, I had a lot of difficulty dating because I couldn’t get close to people, not that close, and I also wanted relationships, so these two, my need to not be hurt and not to be abandoned or let down in my relationship, also kept me from getting this need about wanting relationships, so when I look back at that young girl, what I see is she tried to make modifications. She wanted to have relationships on her terms and hopefully without any pain. Now as I’ve done my own work and my own therapy, I’ve realized that relationships on my terms don’t work. They’re not really relationships, and relationships without pain aren’t possible either. So just like in the story with my daughter trying out for the soccer team and me not wanting to feel her pain, I also didn’t want her to feel any pain, but it was only when I went into her room, sat down on the floor, that we could connect, that I could see her and she could see me, and that made that pain precious. Maybe not right in that moment, but I think for both of us when we look back at that time, there are some memories of that that are now precious to us.
Carl Jung says, “Real liberation comes not from glossing over or repressing painful states of feeling, but only from experiencing them to the fullest.” Tian Dayton, I don’t think I’ve talked about her on this podcast ever before, she’s an author and she has several books that I have loved over the years. One of her books that I love is “Emotional Sobriety”. She has one called “Heart Wounds”, “The Drama Within”. She’s got a ton of books that she writes about emotional sobriety and family dysfunction. She says, “Neural-repatterning comes as we enter into and sustain new types of relationships that allow us to re-regulate our sense impressions slowly and over time.” I know for me as I’ve done work on myself to become healthier and to improve my emotional intelligence, the relationships that I have entered into, whether it be with friends, whether it be with my spouse, whether it be with my kids, my siblings, has allowed me to re-regulate my core beliefs that were not healthy, my sense impressions and have moved me into being able to be more relational.
Now I think it was in the early 70s, Dr. Scott Wolf was encouraged by his mentor to do a longitudinal study of marriages in order to gain evidence-based research into effective skills for working with couples. At that time, there were a few studies looking at successful marriages, and a lot of studies on divorce. As Dr. Wolf looked at the studies on marriages, he found some significant methodological errors in how the study had been conducted. The studies he was looking at concluded that communication was the most important variable; however, the most significant finding from Dr. Wolf’s study was that the perception of how empathetic your partner is toward you is the greatest variable in marital satisfaction. We have to believe deep down that despite any surface differences, our partner is empathetic and is willing to see things from our point of view. Empathic understanding is one of the primary processes in marital communication which facilitates satisfaction. Empathy encourages emotional bonding and determines in part whether or not a couple will describe their marriage as satisfying. What predicts marital satisfaction is the process of actively reaching out to understand your partner’s thoughts, feelings, and inner world, and when you show compassion, you demonstrate the capacity to describe your partner’s inner experience and communicate that understanding so effectively that your partner feels like you’ve got them. You also consistently show curiosity, ask thoughtful questions, remain attuned with your partner as your growing understanding of their feelings unfolds. Empathy includes not only how you think, but also how you regulate your emotions and how effectively you can communicate without sliding into defensiveness or criticism.
So let’s talk about some of the tips and tricks for managing our emotions and regulating our emotions. So tip #1: Pause to look inside and label your internal feeling. Tian Dayton also said, “Suffering is to the heart and soul as tears are to the eyes, cleansing and expelling toxicity from the inner system. When we do not allow ourselves to feel appropriate pain, we move into a sort of non-experience. We watch life rather than live it. We look but never get too close.” So we’ve got to start pausing and we’ve got to go look inside, we’ve got to get familiar with what is the language of emotions.
Tip #2: Look for a second response. So some of our default settings will come up regardless of how much work we’ve done to correct them. I often tell clients the key isn’t to extinguish these reactions that have been born our of our trauma and our attachment wounds, but instead to have a second response. We may have that default first response come up, but if we can practice looking for another possibility or another perspective or another option for us to respond with, I think this comes from developing our own inner observer. Tian Dayton says, “Part of what makes a situation traumatic is not talking about it. Talking reduces trauma symptoms. When we don’t talk about trauma, we remain emotionally illiterate. Our most powerful feelings go unnamed and unspoken.” So if your response is similar to mine, to lean away from and to move out of feeling emotion, you can develop and practice a second response of coming back in and moving in and sitting with.
Tip #3: Optimize the likelihood of being heard. So I think often once we reflect in and we can have a second response, we then strategize how best to express what you’re feeling and experiencing. We have to recognize hot-button words and phrases that might not get us what we want. We don’t get the response, we don’t get the connection we’re needing if we say things like, “You’re so much like your dad” or “You’re so much like your mom”, just different words and phrases that we use that are just going to appear to be an attack and thereby bring a defensive reaction. I often say your approach dictates your response, so if we can begin with something like “I feel” or “I felt” or “I have been feeling” and become familiar with emotion words and the difference between emotions and thoughts. Sometimes we go to “I think”. Well we’re still looking for this emotional connection, so we might have a thought about it, but let’s back that up further because initially we had an emotional response.
Tip #4: Give the back story. Explain the source of the feeling. So for some people, what they’re feeling internally, they may have been kind of chewing on for a week or two weeks or a month or a couple of hours, and all of a sudden, they start talking on day 7, but they’re not giving what happened day 1 through 6, so for the person that they’re talking to, often this feels like well, where is this coming from? This seems like it’s coming from out of the blue, and you’ve got to give the back story. You’ve got to give the context as to where this started.
Tip #5: Identify your need with the emotion, and then ask for what you need, within reason of course. So do you need to cry? Do you need a hug? Do you need to have someone sit with you? Do you need to be supported, and how would that look?
Tip #6: Recognize it takes time and practice. I often tell people rarely in the moment do we respond the way that we hoped that we would respond, and that’s okay. There’s nothing that says when this moment passes, I can’t go back to it and clarify and have a conversation. One of the most important things I think that I teach people, especially couples, is this phrase, “I need to circle back. I need to circle back to Tuesday when we were discussing this.” So give yourself time, give yourself space to work through what’s going inside and be able to strategize on how to effectively communicate that in a way that you’re going to get the response that you’re needing and then circle back.
Tip #7: Own your own emotions and take responsibility for them. We are going to impact people around us. Usually we don’t have the same response when we’re impacting people for the positive, although that can make people feel very uncomfortable as well, but the reality is we’re going to impact people in good and not-so-good ways. Sometimes when I’m working with couples, I find that it’s difficult to give feedback about yourself. They’re sitting in the room and their partner is trying to give feedback, which also is difficult if they know the person is not going to like what they say, and the person can’t accept feedback, so I use this example often to explain what’s going on. I’ll say we all have this idea that many of us have become familiar with which is to leave no footprint, and this came about as discussions regarding environmental protections increased, and as we are all looking to be better stewards of the world we live in, and I think this idea of “leave no footprint” is a great concept that gets us thinking when we go outdoors and spend time in nature. I think it’s also probably more accurately worded to say “reduce your footprint”. Maybe not as catchy, but probably a little bit more accurate, since it really isn’t possible to leave no footprint. This is also true with our relationships. We’re going to impact the people around us, good, bad, or otherwise. We are going to leave a footprint that we can see and they can feel. Just as we can be mindful and intentional of the footprint we leave when we go out into nature, so we aren’t leaving our mark in ways that we can correct like taking out what I take in, not writing on things, not carving my name into trees. We can also start to be more aware and intentional of the impact we leave in our relationships. The goal is not to shrink yourself so small that you’re not taking up your own space in the relationships you’re a part of. The goal is to become accepting of the fact that you will impact those around you and you will impact them sometimes in ways you wish you wouldn’t. Those closest to you will be impacted the most, and we need to create relationships in which we can have those conversations, in which we can hear so that we can make change and we can give feedback so that we can grow.
Tip #8: Honor your emotions. Emotional wounds are beyond sadness. They are felt in the depths of your being. Honor your pain, sadness, fear, grief, insecurity, love, passion. Don’t run from it. Unplug, put time aside to reflect and give yourself permission to feel whatever is there. Feelings are universal, and communication is the key to opening up paths for those emotions to flow. Emotional intelligence is built a day at a time, by learning to understand emotions instead of running from them. It is an ongoing process with no end date and with a learning curve. Don’t feel overwhelmed when you feel your emotions are controlling you instead of vice-versa. Practice compassion for what you are learning. Tolerance of others and yourself is a good place to start. Practice being forgiving and patient, responding to life’s challenges with thoughtfulness and serenity.
I want to end with this quote by Tian Dayton that is actually on her website. She says, “Just for today, I can sit with what I am experiencing right now. I can live my life a feeling at a time, a day at a time. I am learning what it means to live an emotionally sober life. I used to think that emotional sobriety sounded dull, flat, and unexciting. I thought that living in the emotional extremes was living life to the fullest. But today, when I feel the beauty of feeling my feelings without acting out, I have a kind of peace inside that feels good. I understand that emotional sobriety allows me to feel more fully and deeply when I can allow my feelings to fill and inform me, but not control me. Doing this expands my sense of self and my confidence that I can manage my own inner world. It allows me to live in the moment and to be more spontaneous and adaptable. Now I see living in emotional extremes as a way of not feeling fully, as a form of acting out or running away from what I feel, running from my manageable feeling center. Emotional sobriety allows me to be more of who I am.”