Every one of us grew up in a family with its own philosophy of emotion. Dr. Gottman’s research highlights that families tend to fall into one of four emotional philosophies:
1. Coaching: Accept the expression of all feelings and support one another in coping with difficult feelings (sadness, anger, fear) and resolving problems.
2. Dismissing: Hide feelings, especially difficult ones. By not expressing feelings, the family fails to offer guidance on how to cope with them.
3. Laissez-faire: Accept expression of all feelings, but do not support each other in coping with difficult feelings. The attitude is “this too will pass.”
4. Disapproving: Difficult feelings are hidden and if they are expressed, the response is hostile or critical, which blocks expressing emotions.
Because of Danny’s upbringing in an emotionally dismissive family, it makes sense why he would also dismiss Ryan’s compliant. The meaning he took from his family of origin was “feelings are useless” and thus he must always think “logically.” This also created the message that difficult feelings should be ignored. As a result, he stuffs his difficult feelings or avoids his partner’s difficult feelings by withdrawing.
Sadly, these avoidance behaviors deprive Danny of the opportunity to express his feelings or to enhance his experience to cope with difficult feelings or conflicts and strengthen his relationship.
Ryan, on the other hand, tends to get stuck in the emotions. Ryan starts to feel lonely and then feels angry about feeling lonely and begins to criticize Danny, rather than expressing the loneliness in an emotionally intelligent way.
The Problem With Stuffing or Stewing Difficult Feelings
When we attempt to banish our feelings, they don’t vanish. The reality is our suppressed emotions leak into other interactions. For example, Danny attempts to stuff his resentment toward Ryan’s criticism and tells himself, “Just roll with it.”
Unfortunately, Danny doesn’t roll with it and when they are sitting down for dinner, he criticizes Ryan for the way the table was set. Or he finds himself raging in his car behind a person who is driving 2 M.P.H. under the speed limit. This is the cost of stuffing feelings.
“We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” – Brene Brown
Not to mention, when we stuff our feelings related to relationship conflict, our partners may perceive our emotional shutdown as “not caring.” The biggest problem with avoiding our feelings is it blocks us from experiencing our capacity to stay connected to our feelings and use our emotions to help resolve conflict.
Stewing in difficult feelings is just the reverse. Instead of stuffing, we ruminate. Like a soup on the hot stove, our feelings and thoughts heat up until they boil over into multiple areas of our lives. We can’t let go of the thoughts and feelings we have. As a result, sometimes the little things become big things.
Susan David likens emotions to quicksand. “The harder you struggle with your emotions, the deeper you sink.”
This is especially true in our romantic relationships because these feelings are related to one of the most significant individuals in our life.
Below are Five Steps to work on expressing the underlying feelings that are continuing to cause problems in your relationship.
1. Cultivate Healthy Self-Doubt:
Sometimes our thoughts and feelings feel so “right” that it feels wrong to question them. Many of us are not mindful of the ways our brains filter events in the world to fit our belief system, nor are we aware of how our brain unconsciously fills in the details when we don’t know something such as why our partner continues to not talk to us.
So our brain makes things up, such as: “They just don’t care.”
Like a fish in the sea, we are unaware that we swim in the water of our thoughts and feelings every second of every day.