“A clear understanding of negative emotions dismisses them.” – Vernon Howard
I remember my partner crying her eyes out and I felt frozen in fear. I had no clue how to comfort her. Here she was, pouring her heart out next to me, and I felt disconnected and numb.
The Complexity of Emotions
All of us have different experiences around emotions. Some of us love a surprise birthday party. Others hate it. Why the difference?
Take a look at your history of a particular emotion.
For the partner who loves surprises, they likely have had positive experiences such as being given a surprise gift or being offered their favorite ice cream after dinner.
For the person who hates surprises, a surprise could recall reacting to their mother’s explosive anger. This person wasn’t sure when their parents would go off and so surprises bring back the fear associated with the times they were surprised by their parent’s volatility.
What angers us in another person is more often than not an unhealed aspect of ourselves. If we had already resolved that particular issue, we would not be irritated by its reflection back to us.” – Simon Fuller
We not only learn how to express certain emotions (or not express them) in our childhood but also how to respond to those emotions. We assign different meanings to emotions, such as believing that anger is healthy, or anger must be avoided.
Here are some emotional rules that I learned growing up:
- Fear meant you were a “baby.”
- Anger means you’re “out of control.”
- Sadness means you’re not grateful enough.
Over time these rules become our emotional blueprint for coping with our own emotions and the emotions of others. For those of us who learned that negative emotions are bad, we may become, as Dr. Gottman describes, the “self-reliant problem solver who avoids feelings.”
As Brené Brown says, “We can’t selectively numb emotions; when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” Yoshimoto’s research found that partners who were emotionally dismissive of difficult emotions also felt uncomfortable with uninhibited expressions of affection, praise, and care.
Why Can’t Everyone Just Be Happy?
Have you ever felt sad about something and then judged yourself for feeling sad? Almost like, “I shouldn’t be sad, I have so much to be grateful for.”
Emotions are complex. Not only do we have feelings, but we also have feelings about our feelings. Psychology calls this meta-emotion.
Dr. Susan David surveyed over 100,000 people and discovered that 33% of us judge ourselves for feeling “bad emotions.”
Western culture has taken a stance that natural human emotions are either good or bad. People believe that they can “choose” to be happy over being sad, calm over being angry. And so, we bottle up our “bad” feelings and pretend they aren’t there.
To maintain this stance, we treat our lovers and children the same way.
As Dr. David mentions in her TEDTalk, “Research now shows that radical acceptance of all of our emotions – even the messy, difficult ones – is the cornerstone to resilience, thriving, and true, authentic happiness.”
In my own interview with Dr. David, she remarked that our emotions are directors, not dictators of our lives. Within our difficult emotions lie the secrets to what we value and care about. And when we understand our values, our emotions can lead us to create a more meaningful life.
Building Your Emotional Intelligence
When people have limited expression of emotions, it can negatively affect the emotional connection and stunt open and honest communication in a relationship.
This undeveloped emotional intelligence is not much different than having a strong vocabulary. With few words to describe something, people are constrained by the language of their emotions which inhibits the capacity to cultivate emotionally rich and rewarding intimate relationships.