Emotions are to therapists as numbers are to an accountant, a hammer is to a builder, or an engine is to an auto mechanic.
We simply cannot do our jobs without them.
Since I’ve been treating individuals and couples in my therapy office for almost twenty years, I have learned a great deal about emotions and how they work. I’ve also seen an almost endless number of different ways that emotions can wreak havoc in people’s lives.
Interestingly, we all see the things that happen in our lives as the cause of our problems, and truly, events can be incredibly challenging.
Your car breaks down on the highway, you are laid off from your job, or your child drops out of school. Yes, all of these have a great impact on your happiness and well-being, for sure.
But think of these events as a rock dropping into the pond of your life. You can allow the ripple effects to go on and on and on, outward into every area of your existence. Or you can respond in a strong and healthy way, by taking charge of those ripple effects before they infiltrate your entire life.
One of the most effective tools for taking charge when a rock is dropped into your pond has little to do with the nature of the rock itself and everything to do with the ripple effects, or the emotions you have in response to its impact.
The 3 Greatest Mistakes People Make With Their Emotions
- Avoiding / Escaping: Your feelings have the greatest power over you when they are unacknowledged, walled off or pushed away. Most intense emotions refuse to resolve (or go completely away) until you allow yourself to feel them. If you distract yourself from your feelings with methods such as electronics or activity, you are short-changing yourself in multiple ways. That sadness, hurt or anger you’re avoiding will simply go underground and wait until something unrelated touches it off, and then you may find yourself over-emoting or over-responding in some later situation. Or your emotions may pool together, forming a black cloud that hangs over you, creating depression or anxiety.
- Overthinking / Doubting: With this common mistake you are at least acknowledging your emotion, but then you are not accepting it. “I shouldn’t feel this,” “Is this really what I feel?” “Does it even matter that I feel this?” or “It’s not right to feel this” you may say to yourself. You are fighting your feelings by trying to reverse them with logic or judgment. This is a futile process, since emotions are not subject to the laws of logic, nor are they subject to moral judgment. Nor do you have the power to choose them. But most importantly overthinking and doubting your emotions is just another way to avoid what has to happen: feeling them, accepting them and processing them.
- Giving them too much power: Giving your feelings too much power is the mirror image of the first two mistakes. But with this one, your emotions become larger than life in your own head, probably because you haven’t learned the steps to tolerate, manage, interpret and use them. Your emotions sweep you away, and take control of you. You are sometimes helpless, and do what they tell you to do, which can get you into trouble.
If you see yourself in one of these mistakes, you may be feeling upset with yourself right now. So I want to tell you that it’s not your fault. Emotions are complex and powerful. And chances are, your parents weren’t able to teach you how to process and use them while they were raising you (an important part of Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN).
Don’t worry! If you missed these skills in childhood, you can learn them now, as an adult.
3 Ways to Stop Making Mistakes With Your Emotions
- Become more aware of what you are feeling. And put more energy into understanding why you are feeling it.
- Accept your feelings without judgment. Your emotions are what they are, and virtually all emotions dissipate after you sit with them, feel them and try to understand them.
- Build your coping skills. For example, learn what soothes you, and use it when you’re experiencing strong emotion. Learn how to talk to a trusted person who can share and understand what you are feeling. Ask yourself what this feeling is telling you, and whether you need to act on it or not.
These three steps may seem difficult, and I have to admit that they are. But they are very possible! And learning them will probably be one of the greatest things you can do for yourself. When or if a rock drops into your pond, you will be able to take immediate charge of its ripple effects. And that is the nature of true resilience.
To find out whether you grew up with Emotional Neglect, Take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free!
To understand more about emotion and how it works, and for help learning the skills you missed, visit EmotionalNeglect.com.