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Do You Control Emotion, Or Does It Control You?


You think you have a calm, rational handle on your emotions, and then they come spilling out uncontrollably.

You are really good at thinking things out logically, and not "overreacting." Maybe you got the message early that tears are a sign of weakness, and strength is something that is important to you. You do NOT EVER want to appear weak.

Your thoughts, your ability to be rational is a deep seated part of who you are, it has helped drive you and gotten you to where you are. And yet, sometimes you find this quality not helpful in personal relationships. Sometimes even with coworkers.

On another hand, emotions, while you maintain as much composure as you can, it's not enough.

Sometimes and some nights, tears or anger come flooding.

And you think what is happening? Where is this coming from?

One reason is how you learned to experience emotion.

Childhood

Growing up felt like survival. What can I do to get through this day, or this week? How can I avoid my parent's wrath, ridicule or indifference? Where can I take the sadness or shame that I feel?

Shame is something that can happen easily when you're yelled at a lot or criticized a lot. And shame sits very heavy on our psyches. It comes with negative beliefs about ourselves, that we are wrong, that we deserve pain and that we are unworthy.

Sometimes neglect is not as obvious as a starving child or an unsupervised homeless child. Sometimes neglect is being ignored at length and at pivotal childhood moments. Not being allowed to speak, feel, be seen or be heard.

And when you don't have anywhere to take these heavy and intense emotions, the shame, sadness, fear and rage all build, they get stuck. In essence, you get stuck. Or your emotional self gets stuck.

Some Context

Attachment research shows that human relationships are a survival need just as food and water, and in isolation, our brains behave as they would in a traumatic situation.

All humans (that aren't psychopaths) have emotions. Some humans choose to hide them (they think they are being strong), and some have them pour out (they are often seen as weak).

Now as children, our emotions are still developing as our brains are developing. We do not know how to manage big emotions like shame, sadness, fear, anger. We rely on our parents' brains, their prefrontal cortex, to help us manage the big emotions.

Having an indifferent or extremely critical or habitually angry/sad parent can get in the way BIG time of our ability as adults, to manage emotion in a HEALTHY way.

If we never had a parent that behaved calmly and kindly with our big emotions, we probably got the message that our big emotions are NOT okay, so shut them down and put them away. What this usually means is that we learn to ignore them when they well up and pretend we are not bothered. Sometimes we know we are doing this, sometimes we are even fooling ourselves.

What To Do

THIS PATTERN CAN CHANGE.

Emotions need to be expressed and validated:

You: "I am angry"

Trusted Friend: "I get why you are angry, that was a shitty thing that happened"

Emotions need space.

You: Feeling sad, allowing your body to feel tense, tight, etc. Letting sadness be OKAY. Not distracting yourself immediately with television or your phone or the next task on your list. Not letting rational thoughts swoop in to save you from the discomfort that 'big sadness' brings with it.

Emotions need process.

You: Journal intense emotion, use words, use drawing, use painting, use music, etc. Explore what is underneath the emotion, ask yourself why is this coming up right now? What questions and beliefs are in your gut as you process?

Emotional health makes us better friends, better partners, and better parents.

If you are having difficulty managing emotions, or you'd like to dig into underlying causes from your childhood, psychotherapy is a great way to do this.