Demystifying & Debunking Myths about Emotions
You have a better sense for what an emotion is and some of the ways that we think about emotions and our responses to them. In this blog, we will look at some of the unhealthy familial emotional environments that set us up for having a harder time with emotions later on in life, what we can do about that, and debunk some common emotional myths.
Our families are the first places we learn about emotions. From being just sensations that are happening in the body similar to hunger, thirst, and sleepiness, by the time we are only a few years old, we already have a sense for how our parents feel about our emotions (if we have two caregivers, we can differentiate between them), which emotions are acceptable to express and when/where/how, and what we are expected to do when we feel emotions.
There are two unhealthy familial environments when it comes to emotions. While these are extremes, which one sounds more like the environment in which you grow up?
Some people have grown up in emotionally repressive environments where only a limited range of emotions were acceptable or safe to show, if any.
In these families, only “negative” emotions are unsafe whereas in other families, even “positive” emotions are not acceptable and emotional sterility is valued. Unacceptable emotions were judged, shamed, punished, or discouraged. In these families, children might be taught to “suck it up,” “not complain,” or blamed for their emotions (“if you did X, then you wouldn’t feel Y.”)
Families like this are uncomfortable with strong expressions of emotion - even acceptable ones. Because their caregivers were dismissive of their emotional needs, many children in these contexts try to stay as agreeable and harmonious and “even keeled” as possible to keep the peace and comply with the conditions under which they will receive their caregivers’ love, acceptance, and approval.
They may work very hard not to let emotions impact their decision-making or actions at all. They might see this as a strength and a point of pride. The message is that people are expected to deal with their emotions privately and to not express certain emotions to one another.
Emotional neutrality is prioritized at all costs. In environments like this and the ensuing adult patterns, the “feelings are not facts.” part of the sentence I shared in the last blog reigned supreme.
On the other side of the spectrum are individuals who grew up in emotionally expansive environments.
Maybe there were lots of emotions expressed, outwardly and in intense, often chaotic ways. Sometimes this can be accompanied by substance use or mental health issues. Maybe there were parents who didn’t have a lot of self-regulation skills or emotional maturity.
Expressing any and all emotions was okay as well as acting upon them. Children might be blamed for “making” their caregivers feel a certain way. The emotions of others might be your responsibility to manage. People are free to express their emotions honestly and fully, regardless of what the impact is on the other.
Emotions and thoughts or actions are often fused (“I did that because I felt angry”). Children may feel very comfortable with strong emotional expressions and feel out-of-control in relationship to them, believing that they should just let whatever emotion they feel influence their actions without any intervention. They might see this as being “true to themselves” and “authentic.” These environments might be volatile and intense.
Emotional expression is prioritized at all costs. In these environments, the “feelings are our friends” part of the sentence I shared in the last blog reigned supreme.
Neither of these environments is a complete or healthy picture. Emotions are important to take into account AND to master and regulate. One without the other leads to an extreme that is unhealthy at best and abusive at best.
Sometimes when we err on the side of seeing emotions as irrational, we also discount any of the information they have to provide us. Yes, emotions don’t follow an exact formula but when we are feeling sad, unfulfilled, excited, or defeated, those emotions can help us figure out whether something in our lives, internally or externally, is contributing to that. Knowing this can help us figure out the next steps.
Additionally, knowing we usually respond in a certain emotional way to a certain event (getting angry in traffic) can help us work on the response so as to have a healthier way of responding (breathing, surrendering control).
Our emotions actually provided a roadmap for the internal work we have to do - this is how self-awareness and self-regulation are a part of emotional intelligence (EQ).
Within this framework, many people believe that they are not impacted by emotions. However, that is impossible. They just don’t see the impact it is causing and thus, have little to no control over that impact. Their desire for control ironically leaves them more out of control.
Ignorance is not really bliss! It is confusing and disorienting and takes a lot of effort. Most times, people in this camp don’t address emotions until things have become a crisis. It can be so messy and difficult that afterward it has them running back to the model of ignoring their emotions, only to have the cycle repeat again.
When we err on the side of seeing emotions as the end-all-be-all, we also discount that they can be fickle, easily influenced, and often associated with our history and internal makeup rather than external facts. Emotions can be impacted by physical needs like hunger or sleep (hangry or sleepressed anyone?).
They can be influenced by old wounds where we feel similarly to ways we have felt before again and again because of a pattern we are repeating (we tend to distance ourselves from friends because of fear that we will be left out and then we feel left out because we have created this distance).
They can be messy and muddy and not always directly influenced by a recent event (having many different emotions as a result of remembering a dream). When we experience strong emotions, our system can become overloaded by the intense electrochemical response and thus, not have as much access to our logical thinking.
Whether it’s a comfortable or uncomfortable emotion, we can be swayed by our emotions and not make logical decisions. We can become tunnel visioned. For example, when we are feeling anxious, we might feel like something terrible is going to happen. This is catastrophic thinking and it is a symptom of anxiety. Feeling anxious, we tend to overestimate the probability that something horrible will occur, even though its probability hasn’t changed and in reality, most catastrophic events are very, very rare. Knowing that we can be prone to emotional thinking can help us regulate, take time to let our emotions settle, and ask ourselves questions to help re-orient ourselves in a more balanced way of thinking.
Within this framework, many people believe that they are only impacted by emotions. They surrender their power rather than seeing how they can make choices that help them manage and address and even prevent emotions depending on the circumstance.
People who are high in EQ are able to link patterns and see how one thing usually leads to another and to take steps to be in charge.
For example, if they know they tend to procrastinate when they have a new, big project at work, which only causes them anxiety, they can take actionable measures to breaking down the project into manageable chunks, ask for help early on, and leave themselves enough time in order to avoid the anxiety spiral.
This would mean acknowledging that emotions are not more important than thoughts or actions. The more they think emotions just happen to them, the more they give away the opportunities to use their emotional responses as a way to get to know themselves and to become better.
Think of the Venn diagram below from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (check out the creator of DBT teach Wise Mind). On one extreme is the hot emotional side. On the other is the cool reasonable side. Where they overlap is the seat of wisdom. It is where your metaphorical heart and mind come together to make decisions based in the facts and the figures as well as the feelings and the flavor.
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Sadly, many of us do no receive nonjudgmental, science-backed explanations of emotions from our families through schools. Many people grow up very misinformed when it comes to something so basic to our functioning and so integral to us functioning well.
Here are a list of commons emotional myths. Which have you heard, been taught, or even believe? Can you think about the challenge to these myths?
There is a right way to feel in every situation.
Letting others know that I am feeling bad is weakness.
Negative feelings are bad and destructive.
Being emotional means being out of control.
One should only share positive emotions so as to not make others uncomfortable.
Some emotions are stupid.
All painful emotions are a result of a bad attitude.
If I lean into an emotion (crying when I am sad), I will never stop.
If others don’t approve of my feelings, I obviously shouldn’t feel the way I do.
Other people are the best judges of how I am feeling.
Painful emotions are not important and should be ignored.
Extreme emotions get you a lot further than trying to regulate your emotions.
Creativity requires intense, often out-of-control emotions.
Drama is cool.
It is inauthentic to try and change my emotions
Emotional truth is what counts, not factual truth.
People should do whatever they feel like doing.
Acting on your emotions is the mark of a truly free individual.
I am my emotions.
My emotions are why people love me.
Emotions happen for no reason.
It's better to be rational than emotional.
It's better to be emotional than rational.
Emotions should always be trusted.
Emotions should never be trusted.
In the next blog post, I will lay out the five universal emotions in more depth and give you a really cool resource that allows you to see years of emotion research in action.