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What you Learned About Emotions as a Child is Probably Wrong

Here's why that matters to you today.

Emotions are neither good nor bad: They just are. But that’s probably not what you learned growing up.

Maybe you learned that your excitement was too much and you needed to simmer down to keep the adults around you happy. Or that anger was to be avoided at all costs and/or overwhelming and destructive. Perhaps you heard gendered messages: boys don’t cry; girls have to be nice or are too emotional (whatever that means!). Or that your tears and sadness made people come running from all directions to attend to you. Maybe you noticed when you expressed joy, people drew closer to you. All of these experiences matter.

You and I learned about emotions from our experiences in the social context of our families and the communities in which we grew up. So did our parents and caregivers. The way that your parents or caregivers did or didn’t respond to emotion–yours, their own, and that of others–when you were growing up directly influences how you experience your emotions right now, today.

Many of us learned at a very early age that some emotions are acceptable and others are unacceptable. These experiences have been hard-wired into our brains and unconsciously impact the way that we respond to others and our environment.

If you learned that anger is unacceptable, you will likely automatically avoid feeling anger in moments when anger makes complete sense. For example, let’s say that your friend was going to take you out for your birthday and then cancels because she’d rather go to a movie with another friend. If you’re someone who avoids anger, you might feel anxiety, sadness, or maybe even shame instead. Why is this a problem? The anger is still there, even if you unknowingly suppress it.

Emotions, when you listen to and experience them, provide a compass for what you need or want. When you avoid them, or are unable to regulate them, they can impact your mental and physical health.

So, contrary to what you likely learned as a child, all of your emotions are important and healthy.

Your emotions happen in your body; they are physical reactions that can literally move you into action by getting your nervous system ready for what you perceive in your environment. Have you ever gotten a burst of adrenaline and had the instinct to run when you were afraid?

Emotions do more than just signal danger, they are also brilliantly adaptive messengers. Sadness tells us that we have experienced a loss and need comfort. Anger tells us that a boundary has been crossed and/or that we need to fight or advocate. Disgust warns us to stay away from something that might harm us, to spit out that big gulp of spoiled milk, to throw up the poison. Joy and excitement move us to seek connection with others. They make us want to pick up the phone and announce the new baby, the work promotion, or the all-clear diagnosis from the MRI. Joy and excitement inspire us to learn and grow. Emotions have the ability to connect us more deeply to ourselves and others–but only if we are able to feel them and listen to what they are telling us. We need our emotions to help us be healthy and flourish.

Emotions are neither good nor bad: They just are. But that’s not what many of us learned, and so our emotions can become problematic for us. Especially when we avoid or are unable to regulate them.

The consequences of not feeling your emotions can be wide-ranging. Author and psychotherapist Hilary Jacobs Hendel writes the following in her book It’s Not Always Depression: “But researchers now know that blocking emotions is detrimental to mental and physical health. Blocked emotions lead to depression, anxiety, and a wide variety of psychological symptoms caused by chronic stress. Additionally, chronic emotional stress causes changes to our physical health by increasing the amount of stress hormones, called corticosteroids, coursing through our body. Emotional stress has been linked to heart disease, stomach pain, headaches, insomnia, autoimmune disorders, and more.”

Indeed, as Dr. Bessel Vander Kolk points out in his book The Body Keeps the Score, unresolved emotions and trauma embed themselves into our bodies. They might present as the knot in your stomach, the reflux that keeps you up at night, the chronic tension in your shoulders or back, or the headache that inevitably comes on when you’ve just had a fight with your mother.

So why am I telling you all of this? If you struggle with feeling your emotions are you doomed to continually repeat the patterns that echo your experiences from childhood until now? Are you just stuck with the way things are?

Not at all! You’re incredibly resilient and your body is primed for adaptation. And just as your past experiences with emotions have wired your brain in a particular way, so too new experiences with emotions can rewire and change your brain. That’s what neuroplasticity is all about!

Experiential therapies like Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) and Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP) center your emotional experience. They make space for all of your emotions–the ones on the surface and the ones underneath. The theory of change is that having new and different experiences of your emotions in the presence of a safe and secure other, the therapist, enables you to access a fuller range of emotional experience, to expand your view of self and others, and to have more choices in your responses and actions. Emotion is both the target of the therapeutic process and the primary agent of lasting change.

Take a moment and reflect: are there some emotions that seem acceptable or unacceptable to you? It’s important to notice your inherent beliefs about emotions and why. This is not to shame or judge you or your parents or caregivers (who had their own relationship to their feelings that they learned from their caregivers and experiences…), but to validate the good reasons why you might have difficulty with certain feelings. And to remind you to be gentle and loving with yourself as you learn more about yourself and your emotions.

So now that you know all this…what can you do with the knowledge? Stay tuned for the next blog where we’ll talk about how slowing down and having a new experience of your emotions, especially with a safe, trusted other person, can be transformational.

Resources and Recommended Reading:

Hendel, H. J.(2018). It’s not always depression: Working the change triangle to listen to the body, discover core emotions, and connect to your authentic self. Spiegal & Grau.

Johnson, S. & Campbell, L. (2022). A Primer for Emotionally Focused Individual Therapy (EFIT): Cultivating Fitness and Growth in Every Client. Routledge.

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score : Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.

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Rebecca Fraser
Rebecca Fraser
06. Nov. 2023

What a great article on our complex emotional lives! I look forward to reading Part 2. Thanks for your insights.

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