As you may recall, the myth of Pandora’s Box involved a Forbidden Box which was not supposed to be opened, but of course WAS opened, and then unleashed Evil . . . . and finally, Hope.
We each have similar boxes; ours are often boxes of emotions.
I remember standing with my father in his home office when I was a young adult. We were talking about life, and coping with emotions. I told him that getting in touch with my emotions had not helped me feel better at all! Instead, getting in touch with my emotions was making me miserable and made my life more difficult than it already was. He commiserated with me and went on to say that his experience had been similar, and yet in the end, he had found it worth all the trouble it was to learn how to truly feel his emotions and to deal with them directly.
Indeed it had. All during my growing up years, my father had outbursts of anger. Most of the time, he was even-keeled, but every now and then, when you least expected it, he would explode verbally with anger in response to something someone said or did. It never made sense. The last time whatever-it-was had happened, he hadn’t reacted like this. So we were left always wondering how to stay on his good side, and how to not trigger his verbal volcanic eruption.
These eruptions eventually stopped sometime after I was in college. He was in a training program to advance his certification as a hospital chaplain, and reached a point where he could go no further. According to the training committee, he could not advance more until he got therapy and “dealt with his anger”. So he started therapy. He drove from San Diego to Long Beach once a week to meet with his therapist. For two years or more, he made that weekly drive and delved into. . . . whatever it was that they talked about. I was away at college most of this time, coming home for short breaks. But even in that amount of time, I could tell a difference in him. The angry outbursts gradually disappeared. He became calmer. He started talking about his emotions (instead of acting them out), including his anger, but not in an explosive way. No wonder he said it was worth the trouble to get in touch with his emotions and to learn how to deal with them effectively. Not that he became perfectly able to balance and express his emotions after that, but there was a great improvement, and that great improvement benefited him and also all of us around him.
I share this story because you and your children can have a similar result. If and when you take the trouble to get in touch with your emotions and learn how to deal with them effectively, you won’t be able to perfectly balance or express your emotions, but there will be a great improvement. That great improvement will benefit you personally and also everyone around you.
What’s different about dealing with emotions for highly creative, acutely aware, highly sensitive, intense or gifted people? Your emotions often come faster and harder, are more pervasive and more intense than others. They can be overwhelming and all-encompassing. You have a more perceptive and a more reactive central nervous system which spawns this intensity. This intensity makes it both more imperative to balance your emotions, and more difficult.
My clients often ask me, “Why is it so hard for me to get in touch with my emotions and to talk about them?
Among other things, Doing this asks us to violate two Taboos: “Don’t Feel” and “Don’t Talk about how you feel”
Most of us humans in current culture all around the globe have been carefully taught to not feel our emotions. For example, have you ever been told, “Don’t feel sad!” “Don’t’ feel mad!” Don’t feel guilty about that!” or some such thing? It’s rare to find someone who has not been told these things. We also say them, almost without thinking of it. I find myself saying these kinds of things, in spite of my beliefs to the contrary. It’s pervasive in the culture. That doesn’t mean that it’s useful or helpful to any of us.
John Gray is famous for his work, “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.” What is not commonly known is that his first, and foundational, book was “What You Can Feel, You Can Heal.” He says that the main premise of the book is that your repressed emotions block the flow of love into your life.[i]
Carl Jung taught that the “best foot” that we like to put forward is our Persona, and those things that we would rather not, or don’t have permission to, have or experience, we put behind us, into what he called the Shadow. A significant task of psychological growth is then to become conscious of what is in the Persona vs. what is in the Shadow. This sets the stage for coming to terms with what is in the Shadow, so we can develop an authentic personal life in which we can choose what part of ourselves to bring forward in any given moment. For most of us, emotions are some of what gets relegated to our Shadows[ii].
When and how is it that we are taught to NOT feel our emotions? Memory Lane is active again. After I was married and after I had my first or second baby (I can’t remember which one it was), one day my parents came to visit. We were all standing around our kitchen; my Dad was holding the baby, who started to cry. Dad told my baby to stop crying. Nothing changed, of course. So Dad squeezed him quickly and a bit sharply while telling him to stop crying. Not hard enough to hurt him, but enough to get his undivided attention. The baby got a startled look on his face and stopped crying. Only later did it occur to me that this is one example of how we learn, long before we can walk or talk; that it’s not okay to feel our emotions, and certainly, not to express them.
I am not recommending that we allow our babies and children (or ourselves) to spew emotion all over us and everyone around us. It’s a tricky thing. We walk a razor’s edge here. There’s a perpetual question:
How can we allow, and even facilitate ─for ourselves and our children─to feel our emotions and express them (constructively)?
This question is one of the main reasons many adults come in to therapy and one reason why many parents also bring their children in. Answering it often involves this discussion we’ve been having here, and includes discovering that almost all of us have been taught to be afraid of, fend off or squelch our emotions. With this background in place, let’s look at emotions from a different angle.
Emotions are much like ocean waves. Waves in the ocean come from energy that’s transferred from the wind and moves through the water[iii]. Emotions are energy that moves through our bodies. Neither ocean waves or emotions ask our permission; they just show up, whether we like it or not. And if you’ve ever tried to fight an ocean wave, you know that it doesn’t usually work very well. We get knocked off our feet, or in some other way, off balance even more than we were before.
Similarly, when we try to fight our emotions, it doesn’t work well. It’s as if we wear an invisible backpack, and stuff that unwanted emotion in it. Before long that metaphorical backpack is filled up. The next time we open it to stuff in another unwanted emotion, all that pent-up emotion may instead come bursting out, just like in Pandora’s Box. Another scenario, especially for highly creative, acutely aware, highly sensitive, intense and/or Gifted children or adults, AKA CASIGYs, is when someone else bumps into this metaphoric backpack, a meltdown, a flood of emotion or a volcanic eruption of emotion can get triggered in a nano-second. This often leave us wondering, “What just happened here?!”
When we squelch or fight our emotions, we are squelching or fighting our own energy.
We have learned this so early, and so pervasively, that we do it even without knowing that we do it. It’s a well formed, life-long, unconscious habit. The longer we have been practicing this, the more it can feel scary or at the very least, awkward to begin to let even a little bit of emotion through. And to do it in a planned, conscious way can be even more so. In addition, once we take down the barrier against our emotions, even a little, it can release a flood of emotion, or that’s often what we’re afraid of.
Changing a life-long mind-body habit like this also takes time and practice, just like learning a new sport or learning to play a musical instrument. So in order to begin this process, we need to find ways to control this (potential) flood, or to change the metaphor, to keep the damn we have built to keep back our emotions from breaking.
In a literal damn on a river, water is released in a measured way to keep the damn from bursting flooding. Someone keeps track of how much water is coming downstream, and that information guides the decision as to how much water is released through the flues to go downstream. In our lives, we need a way to measure how much ‘water’ is coming downstream, so we can know how much to open our metaphoric flues and let emotional energy out so that emotion doesn’t build up and cause havoc or even damage in our lives. The water coming downstream would be the amount of emotion that’s being generated inside of us.
We’ll come back to this shortly, but for now, let’s return to the comparison of ocean waves and emotional waves. Ocean waves respond to the weather. When there’s a storm, the waves get bigger, stronger and wilder. Waves of emotion respond to the metaphorical weather, that is, the events in our lives. The more stress we have, especially distress, the bigger our emotional waves get. Like the ocean, there’s always a low level of waves. Life’s storms create bigger ones; the bigger the storm, the bigger the waves. Earthquakes and earth-shattering events cause tidal waves or Tsunamis.
When you live at or near the ocean, you get good at paying attention to what’s going on with the weather and the waves. In our lives, on the other hand- as we’ve been discussing, most of us have been taught to pay attention to the weather, that is, the events in our lives; but to studiously ignore the waves of our emotions. No wonder this doesn’t go well, especially for highly creative, highly sensitive, intense and/or gifted people.
So How Can You Help Yourself or Your Children Feel and (Constructively) Express Your Emotions?
The Daily Tune-iN Tool (TNT)
- facilitates paying attention to your weather, AKA the events in your life, AND your emotions.
- provides a small, safe container in which to hold the information that comes from your tuning in, and also the energy that accompanies it.
- is like the flue on a damn that you can open to channel a small, measured amount of water/emotion through, thus keeping it from building up and overflowing.
- helps you gather the information you need to communicate with others about what’s going on inside of you
- can be used for yourself, and also with your children. When you want to use it with your children, it works best to start using it yourself first, and become familiar with it and even comfortable with it before you introduce it to your children. If they are too young to read, you can still have these conversations with them – you can ask what emotions they are feeling, and have them draw pictures of their emotions rather than write words. And there’s also a version of the Daily TNT just for kids, the “Waves of Emotion Play Page” that you can download here.
Here’s How to Use the Daily Tune-iN-tool (TNT):
You CAN do this mentally, but most people find that writing it down helps to ground the process in your body, which helps to move the emotional energy through you much better than just thinking about this. The Daily TNT has one row per day for a whole week. It has one column for Events and another for Emotions. There’s a third column that we’ll ignore for now.
It’s helpful to identify one event that’s a ‘High’ or something that felt good, and one ‘Low’ or something that didn’t feel so good. There’s also space for one more event; another one of either of these or whatever else comes to mind as being significant. In the Emotions column, write down all the various emotions that accompanied each event that you wrote down. Or you can start with your Emotions and follow up with the Events.
When you need a prompter tool, and most of us do, especially in the beginning and any time we’re stumped, to find words to describe what we’re experiencing, there’s lots of Emoji or Emoticon apps available. You can also use this old-fashioned tool (click on the link for your free download) to give you ideas of some of the most common emotions. Often emotions will show up with some of their buddies, so be sure to include all that apply.
As you can see, these are simple tools that, when used consistently, help facilitate a complex inner process.
I’d love to hear your questions and feedback in the comments section below.
[ii] Miller, William A. Make Friends With Your Shadow. 1981. Augsburg