Parenting Matters: The Importance of Feelings…Really

By Danielle DeTora, Psy.D.Photo for Colonial Times

“How does that make you feel?”  This is the quintessential therapist’s line that is often mocked in movies, television, books, and everyday life.  It’s unfortunate that feelings get such a bad rap because they are more important than people realize.  In fact, I believe that learning to understand and appropriately express one’s emotions is the single most important skill to promote mental health wellbeing.

DEFINING FEELINGS

People have a hard time identifying feelings.  Often when I ask how someone is feeling (yes, I do ask that question of my clients), I get answers that describe something else.   Statements such as, “I’m just stressed!” or “I’m overwhelmed” or “I’m anxious” actually describe a physiological state of being but they are not feelings.   For example, if a person is “stressed,” then they are likely experiencing a heightened state of arousal.  Maybe the person’s muscles are tense or his/her thoughts are racing or s/he has no appetite.  These are all examples of bodily reactions to some stressor(s).  They are important to attend to, but they are not emotions.  Examples of emotions are:  sadness, hurt, anger, frustration, fear, happiness, love, disgust, surprise, etc.  The difference between physiological states and emotions may seem subtle and insignificant but it’s key in helping manage stressors in our lives.

Everyday, our bodies have hundreds of emotional reactions.  Hard to believe?  Watch a group of preschoolers.  Because they are fully connected to their bodies, you’ll see them get sad (tears in eyes, shoulders hunched, frown on face), mad (knitted eyebrows, clenched fists, red cheeks), delighted (smiles, open arms, skipping), etc.  Typically, they experience whatever emotion arises in their bodies.  Then, often a teacher or parent helps them express it with words.  Afterwards, they move on to the next thing that catches their interest.  They gracefully allow feelings to come and go.  As we grow up, we shift our focus away from our bodies and into our thoughts.   Just because we’re not paying attention to our bodies as acutely as a preschooler, does not mean that we aren’t having those emotional reactions.  But how do you attend to all of these reactions as an adult and still manage all your daily tasks?  You don’t.  You learn how to recognize them, manage your access to them and most importantly, not disregard their existence.

RECOGNIZING FEELINGS

Recognizing an emotional reaction requires paying attention to sensations in your body.  Often, we spend so much of our day thinking of things to do, people to contact, places to be, etc. that we are not aware of our body.  A good example of this disconnection is when people are so busy that they ignore hunger signals and forego eating a meal.  The same process is true for emotions.  For example, if you see an elderly person struggle to walk across the street, are you aware of the emotional reaction you are possibly having?  Or are you so focused on where you have to go or the next thing on your “to do” list that you are unaware of any physical sensations that may be emotions?  If you pay attention to this moment and discover that it is sadness, you may then relate it to your own parents’ current struggles with aging or your deceased grandparent whom you adored and miss.  Allowing yourself to feel this sadness, even if only for a few seconds, validates your emotional self and keeps you connected to your body.

If paid attention to, an emotion is something that comes and goes, like a wave passing over you.  Too often, people will not allow themselves to feel an emotion for fear that they will get completely overwhelmed by it.  If they feel sad, for example, they will plunge into a deep black hole of sadness and not be able to stop crying.  Unfortunately, this thought is the result of not perceiving an emotion as something that occurs in our bodies and is temporary.  When we stop a feeling before it’s been fully felt, it reinforces the idea that feelings are “bad” or that they shouldn’t exist.  Feelings are just feelings – they are neither bad nor good.  If repeatedly ignored, however, emotions have a tendency to build up over time and cause symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, and more.

RESPONDING TO FEELINGS

In addition to attending to our own emotions, it is important to recognize them with others.  As parents, it is crucial to validate our children’s feelings.  When we validate their feelings, we validate their existence.  In other words, what they feel in their bodies is just as important as their thoughts.  Regrettably, we often do the exact opposite.  For example, if your child says, “I’m really bummed that we lost that soccer game” (translation, “I’m really sad”), how often do we respond with, “Oh, but you won all your other games.  It’ll be fine.”  Or “It doesn’t matter, you still have a spot in the playoffs.”  These statements are well intended to make the child feel better about losing the game but instead, they are invalidating the child’s emotional reaction.  In essence, we are telling the child, “You’re feeling sad and it is wrong or bad.” What we should be saying is, “Yes, I understand it’s difficult to lose.” Or even better, “Tell me more.” This latter statement creates a unique opportunity for the child to try and connect with the sadness and communicate it.  No matter what the child says, it is crucial for the parent to make it clear that being sad is a perfectly acceptable emotion to have in response to losing a game.  After a feeling is validated, then a parent can add, “Can I share some of my opinions about the loss?” or “Would it be helpful if I offered some ways to think about the loss?”  Asking, instead of launching into a series of statements, is yet another way for your child to focus on what s/he wants and needs in that moment.

Being able to identify our emotions in our bodies and express them appropriately is a skill that we all had when we were young children.  With practice and patience, that skill can be relearned and help us live more emotionally connected lives.

REFERENCE:

Frederick, Ronald J. (2009).  Living Like You Mean It.  San Francisco, California:  Jossey-Bass.

 

Danielle DeTora, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist with a practice in Lexington.  She works with adolescents, young adults, adults, couples and families on various issues related to emot
ional health and well-being.  Dr. DeTora helps people achieve and live more satisfying and meaningful lives.  Dr. DeTora can be reached at 781-862-6772, or email – danielledetora@gmail.com.

 

 

Parenting Matters is a collaboration between the Colonial Times Magazine and the Town of Lexington Human Services Department. This column is not intended as a substitute for therapy and the contents are do not necessarily reflect the views of the CTM editorial staff. The information contained in Parenting Matters is for general information purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for the advice of a mental health professional.

 

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