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Self-Validation: Accepting your Emotions
February 28, 2018
I’ve worked with many individuals who in different ways and for different reasons, did not like their feelings and would constantly attempt to avoid, ignore, or change them. These strategies never worked (in the long term), because we cannot rid ourselves of our emotions. Emotions are like an inborn GPS system - instead of longitude and latitude, emotions tell us what we find meaningful - what we care about, love, like, hate, fear, believe in, value. Emotions tell us where we are and where we are going in our world. Emotions are embedded in our bodies, our nervous system, our culture, our humanity. We can’t get rid of them.
And yet it is possible for individuals to develop negative attitudes and judgments about their emotions, such that they strive to not have them. The three main reasons are, I believe, trauma, learning, and neglect.
TRAUMA Theodore Roosevelt said: ”Americans learn only from catastrophe and not from experience.” Not just Americans: the nature of the human brain is such that we’re impacted mightily by a traumatic event. Trauma is its own kind of learning.
The overwhelming emotions we experience in trauma (even if it’s brief, it’s intense) serve to burn our experience into memory. These experiences have multiple aspects to them, but perhaps the most primary aspect is the physical and emotional sensations. These experiences - say, of feeling overwhelmed, paralyzed, terrified, bowels quivering, heart racing, chest clenching - are remembered at a level below conscious thought. Increasingly, trauma experts identify physical issues as central to the experience of PTSD (see “The Body Keeps the Score”).
The thing about anxiety is that it generalizes. If I have a car accident on the highway, I might become scared of the highway, but I’m also likely to become scared of driving altogether, or of leaving the house. The emotions and physical sensations I experience when anything triggers my re-imagining the car accident become things I fear. If my trauma involves being hurt by a person I love (say, being betrayed), I might become anxious if I develop feelings for someone new. If my trauma involved my anger (say, when I became angry at an abusive parent and got severely punished), I might become anxious about being angry. If my trauma involves pleasure (i.e being shot at while enjoying a music festival) I might become scared to feel good.
In these ways and a myriad of others, trauma teaches us to fear our feelings, and by doing so, lead us to suppress, deny, or avoid our naturally-occurring emotions. If trauma has “taught” you to not like your feelings, you’re likely either pervasively anxious (attempt to avoid or flee your feelings) or angry (internally hating/fighting your feelings).
Healing in these cases means unlearning the lessons of trauma. Healing requires the courage to confront the trauma and identify if as “not-you”: as an event that happened to you. In terms of emotion, healing means reclaiming your emotional self, giving yourself the right to feel again (even if those feelings don’t feel so wonderful). It’s psychological and spiritual work, sorting backwards to find your true self - the self that lies beneath your emotional reactivity.
LEARNING As children, we absorb our family’s unique culture, and a key part of a family’s culture is how it models, rewards and punishes emotions and emotional behaviors. In a healthy family environment, adults accept emotions. They respond in a way that helps children experience, regulate and understand their negative emotions (and events triggering negative emotions). They also help children learn how to communicate and behave emotionally. To do all this requires adults to have the ability to accept their own emotions (see Daniel Siegel’s Parenting from the Inside Out). Children do not learn what adults tell them to learn; they learn by our example.
There are many families, however, where adults do not accept their own emotions (and by extension, their children’s). Instead, some emotions are valued while others are devalued. As a general but pervasive example, many American families are overtly or covertly patriarchal (men own the power). In such families, gender roles are taught partly by dissuading boys to show feelings of vulnerability. What this means is that feelings associated with vulnerability (depression, grief, fear, relational needs, love) are suppressed and converted into a kind of pseudo-strength, a false front that is prone to imploding or exploding under conditions of stress.
There are many other examples, as families are idiosyncratic; I once worked with a woman whose depressed/angry father would punish her for laughing, and fifty years later she still could not help but grimace nervously when she smiled. Other families can model an aversion to anger, leading the children to become conflict-avoidant, and/or passive-aggressive in their later relationships. In families with secrets (in particular, where there is sexual abuse) children risk developing anxiety (and substance use) disorders partly due to the fact that they have limited ability to identify, process, or resolve issues related to role disruptions and boundary confusions.
Healing in this case means un-learning some of your family’s emotional processes, and learning new ways to experience and express emotions. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy offers the very useful idea of “Primary and Secondary” emotions; the key idea being that when we judge a contextually appropriate emotion, we replace that first emotion with the emotion associated with our judgment (for example, if we think that being sad is stupid, then we change sadness into shame). The problem with this process is that our secondary emotion does not help us adapt to the situation, and acting out of it usually makes things worse.
EMOTIONAL NEGLECT Another significant factor limiting people’s ability to validate their emotions is emotional neglect (http://www.drjonicewebb.com/). When children have no adults to guide them in understanding what they feel, they can develop into adults who experience emotions as foreign, unsafe, scary. When a parent fails to recognize or validate their child’s emotional lives, the child is vulnerable to developing multiple problems related to their sense of self, and associated struggles with creating and maintaining healthy relationships.
A significant symptom of emotional neglect is one I see in the majority of my clients: the tendency to be excessively and unrealistically harsh in their self-appraisals. Increasingly I find myself explaining (pathological) self-criticism/loathing in the context of neglect: that harsh internal critics represent an undeveloped and hence childlike tendency to judge harshly (e.g. the way a child who doesn’t get what they want might call an adult “bad” or “stupid”). This criticism also is applied to emotions, feeding a vicious circle of self-invalidation.
In its more extreme forms, people can develop alexythymia and/or come to feel that they have within them a “fatal flaw” that, if known, would cause others to reject them. It’s my sense that emotional neglect can also be experienced in an existential-like way, in which a person feels not-quite-alive, which can show in terms of feeling pervasively alienated, as if they don’t quite belong to the human race. When this experience is accompanied by anger/rage, an individual can become vulnerable to developing anti-social traits, with deficits in feeling empathy, and tendencies to see themselves as victimized, and then accumulate grudges/resentments.
Healing from neglect is difficult and somewhat paradoxical, because it means validating self-invalidation - recognizing your tendency to ignore your emotions. Emotionally neglected individuals are prone to drop out of therapy, and to drop out of meaningful relationships generally. It required a hefty decision to change, and therefore is aided by a conscious assessment of how much self-invalidation is costing you. It can also help a person to see (non-judgmentally but accurately) how their childhood functioned to limit their awareness of their emotions.