We usually think of “emotions” as being “tears” or “anger outbursts” — both signs of being “out of control.” In fact, many people in our society believe that to become “strong and in control” means to flush emotions out, move past them, and operate without that “weakness.” But the opposite may be true.
Kirk Voss, LMFT, is the clinical director at Amber Creek Family Counseling & Psychiatry and he explains how showing emotion can be a sign of strength.
We often apologize for tearing up or “becoming emotional,” but why? How often do we hear a parent on a soccer field or at a dance competition say “Don’t cry, walk it off, be tough”? Or how about characters on TV? After a tragedy or divorce has occurred, the actors often say something like “I have to stop crying–I have to be strong for the kids (or for my partner).” Yet current psychological research tells us that emotions aren’t our “weak hinge,” but are actually a key point to our strength. We get stronger when we manage the river of emotions within us, not when we dam it up and pretend that it stopped. Maybe conventional wisdom has been wrong all along!
We can see this illustrated in the current research about anger management, substance abuse recovery, and defiant teenagers. For decades, these issues have been treated through a “top down” approach: recognize the problem, stop the behavior, change your lifestyle, lose your unhealthy attitude and negative thinking, and then you’ll feel better and the unhealthy patterns will resolve. While there IS value in tackling those things, the order has been wrong. Some of the most successful research in the past few years has pointed to restoring emotional strength as the main objective, rather than the final step. Research today tells us that emotions drive thinking and behavior, not the other way around. When parenting challenging teens, for example, most people assume that their defiant or manipulative teenagers are simply angry and selfish. Yes, teens usually have a gift for knowing how to push our buttons, and they do try to elicit reactions out of us as parents. But for many teens, it isn’t really their anger or selfishness that ultimately drives their rebellion. Though many parents struggle to believe it, most defiant teens are actually overwhelmingly insecure and truly unaware of how to resolve the emotional pain they feel. When a teen is trying to find acceptance, a voice, and ways to heal their hurt, those feelings often manifest themselves on the surface as anger, indifference, sarcasm, and meanness. As parents, often our gut response is to force kids’ behavior by clamping down, pushing back, or matching their anger. But in reality, parents lose the most ground with their kids when they show a reaction of hurt, fear, or anger. Those reactions actually reinforce teenagers’ defiance and hurt feelings and can even encourage a teen’s self-loathing. Current research shows us that we gain the most ground with our kids when we address their core emotions, not when we ignore or sidestep them. The treatment, just like the problem, lies in addressing the underlying core emotions a teen is experiencing. And that is how we heal our relationships with them. That is how our families become stronger.
So, if our teens heal their behaviors and attitude through becoming emotionally stronger, then it becomes very clear that to prevent family rifts, create closer relationships, and become our strongest selves, we need to learn to use and navigate emotions, not avoid them or “overcome” them. And our kids will learn volumes by watching us manage our own emotional health.
We can tackle this head-on in 3 key ways:
1) Distinguish our Surface Emotions (reaction & instinct) from our Core Emotions (the root of what we felt first)
Surface Emotions include anger, rage, irritability, resentment, jealousy, flippancy, or “choosing not to care.” Core Emotions include pain, fear, hurt, rejection, abandonment, loneliness, grief, depression, inadequacy, love, trust, peace, and safety.
For example, Shane HATES getting cut off on the freeway. Sometimes he’s driving in a clear lane of traffic and a car pulls in front of him and slows down for no apparent reason. He becomes furious at the other driver, and he wants to lash out at them. But…if he honestly thinks about his emotions, just a half-second before he was mad he probably felt disappointed, maybe disrespected, or possibly fearful for himself and his family. THEN, an instant later, he reacted with anger. But the whole process happened so fast that he can only remember the anger. Shane could read self-help books or attend classes for his angry behavior, and only find temporary (if any) success. Why? The core issue for him to work on is coping with disappointment, fear, and feeling disregarded. Once Shane can begin to identify his core emotions, he will be able to understand his surface reactions and begin to calm (and even prevent) anger. Then his behaviors will start to shift.
2) Use Daily Coping Skills that WORK
Once we start to identify and distinguish core emotions from surface emotions, we are faced with the need to work through them in healthy ways. For example, Maggie is busy with a toddler at home, a husband who has been deployed several times, and classes in preparation for medical school. It would be easy for her to become tired, overwhelmed, and even scared of not keeping up with her busy schedule. With those core emotions, it’s very common for people to become irritable, frustrated, or flippant on the surface. But Maggie takes healthy steps to cope with her core emotions, and that helps her reduce the angry reactions that might try to take over. Those healthy steps include things like daily exercise, being self-forgiving, and communicating/ venting her core feelings to her husband and close friends. We all have a “stress cup,” like a measuring cup, which gets added to little by little with each stress, frustration, and sadness we experience. Like the rest of us, as long as Maggie has more “room left in her cup,” she will be able to take things in stride and generally respond with patience. It’s when her “stress cup” fills up that she struggles to control irritation and frustration because THEN even the smallest of frustrations “can cause an overflow,” triggering anger and surface reactions. There ARE things each of us can do to drain our “stress cup” each day, but sadly, for many of us, we don’t take the time or give the effort daily to do that. When we avoid taking care of ourselves in that way, our “nearly full” or overflowing “stress cup” can cause us to start our days with an angry or reactive attitude because of the day before. We owe it to ourselves and our families to take time to “dump our cup” each day.
How do we “Empty our Stress Cup”?
· Engage in physical activity
· Practice self-forgiveness
· Identify and voice core emotion
· Challenge our own negative self-view
· Build intentional tradition and ritual into our week
· Engage in activities, venues, and relaxation without guilt
· Set healthy emotional boundaries with jobs, family, and friends
· Give anxiety an intentional place in our lives, instead of running from it
3) Embrace our Emotion, Don’t Run from It!
We must learn to identify, feel, and manage a full spectrum of emotions. Then we need to communicate our core emotions.
For example, Matt and Shannon fight about Matt coming home late from work. He could arrive home by 5 PM each night, but he starts arriving home at 6 PM, and Shannon (who is caring for 2 small children at home) is frustrated when he walks in. He quickly dismisses her and sits down to flip through channels on TV. The next week, he comes home at 7 PM, and when he walks in the door Shannon yells at him with comments like “Thanks for coming home!! I could have used some help around here! You think this is easy?? Where have you been?” Still, he says little, walking past her to sit on the couch and watch TV. Soon Matt starts coming home at 9 PM. Now his wife is furious. As soon as he walks in, she lets him have it and this time he snaps right back at her. He says things like “Don’t you realize how hard I am working?? Do you think I love getting home and having you yell at me??” One day in counseling Shannon finally breaks down her walls and tearfully says—this time without the anger—that she is just lonely. She craves adult conversation, and she misses her husband. Sure, she’s angry at the situation, but she really is hurt, feeling rejected and abandoned. A short time later, Matt says something that really surprises her. Tearfully, he explains that underneath what she sees as his anger and apparent disinterest, he “doesn’t know how else to save the marriage” besides coming home late. At this point, his wife is angry and confused. He says, “If I come home earlier, we will fight and you would eventually get so angry with me that you will throw around threats of separating. But if I come home later, there is less time to argue, and the fight doesn’t lead to talking about divorce. I love you—I just want to save our marriage.” Sometimes we are convinced that we know exactly what the other person is feeling because of what we see on the surface—but very often the surface isn’t what we are really feeling.
We can do our families a great service by being willing to express and show happiness, joy, peace, appreciation, grieving, sadness, and/or disappointment, rather than pretending “everything is fine” all the time, or bouncing between the extremes of being “excited in the moment” or “angry in the moment.” We should show our families a full spectrum of emotions. Our kids will learn how to grieve and face disappointment in healthy ways if they can see us do it. If we can come home and say, “I didn’t get my promotion at work, and it’s disappointing to me, but I’m going to get through this,” we model healthy resiliency from an emotional blow. If we just pretend to be “strong” all the time, the first time our kids have an emotional struggle, a big disappointment or a big loss hits them, they will either hide it and swallow it down (because they don’t want to look weaker than their parents), or they may try to “manage it” in their own way, which often leads to addictions, rebellious behaviors, and things that will only make their life harder.
Emotions truly aren’t our weak hinge – they are the foundation of strength.
For more information, you can contact Kirk Voss at Amber Creek Family Counseling & Psychiatry
801-455-0045 Individual, Couple, and Family Counseling / Psychiatry
9035 S. 1300 E.
Sandy, UT 84094