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Inadvertently teaching our kids to suppress their emotions


I've been reading a great book lately, Permission to Feel by Marc Brackett, Ph.D., the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence (yay that this exists!) whose mission is to give kids permission to be emotional. (He's got a program that thousands of schools in the States have adopted.)

It's one of those reading experiences where I'm inwardly nodding my head as I read, excited to be on the same page (ha) as someone over a topic I feel (ha, again) so passionately about.

Here's a short excerpt:

"Our lives are saturated with emotions -- sadness, disappointment, anxiety, irritation .... Sometimes -- often -- those feelings are inconvenient. They get in the way of our busy lives, or at least that's what we tell ourselves. So we do our best to ignore them.

....The irony, though, is that when we ignore our feelings, or suppress them, they only become stronger. The really powerful emotions build up inside us, like a dark force that inevitably poisons everything we do, whether we like it or not. Hurt feelings don't vanish on their own. They don't heal themselves. If we don't express our emotions, they pile up like a debt that will eventually come due."

I'm sure you already know this to some extent because you've encountered your own build-up of emotion and then blowing your top. Yet what I've noticed is that the obvious, like that we have these huge inner lives where we're always trying to figure out -- and be okay with -- life, isn't talked about.

So I'm so glad whenever I see someone so prominent in the educational sphere doing this work. (He's taking the torch from Daniel Goleman's seminal Emotional Intelligence and running with it...)

He's giving voice to the inner lives and accompanying emotions that we learned to bury for the most part when we were children. The confusion, anger, sadness, despair ... those big emotions we didn't know what to do with because they didn't seem to be welcome by those around us.

We certainly didn't feel capable of feeling them -- they felt way too big. So what could we do?

We suppressed them.

We were actually so good at it that most of us aren't aware of what we are feeling, particularly, at any given moment in our present lives. (*lots of studies on this in Marc's book.)

Here's what that means and why it matters to you: you have A LOT of emotions stuck in you and make no mistake, they're running the show. As Marc points out, they don't just magically go away by themselves. (I highly recommend Michael A. Singer's latest book, Living Untethered if you're interested in a detailed description of how, exactly, this all works.)

We thought that by not feeling them, we had avoided them.

But actually, we have to ... eventually ... feel them. If we want to stop being run by them and inadvertently teaching our kids to suppress theirs too. Because if we aren't comfortable feeling our own emotions, I guarantee you that no matter what you say to your kids, they will pick up on this and take their cue: emotions are to be avoided; they're not welcome here and they're dangerous.

I know this firsthand ...

When my daughter, Bella, was younger and got upset, I immediately tensed up inside. I thought something was wrong that she was sad or angry or frustrated. And I thought it was my job to fix it.

Some parents rush to get the child a treat of food or a toy or something to try to distract them or get disproportionately angry to try to shut them down and don't understand why -- anything so that we don't have to deal with our pain over perceiving theirs. (Ahem, you see how it's really about us feeling better, not them ...)

So, naturally, she believed that emotions = bad and that our job is to get rid of them as quickly as possible.

One of these times, I remember vividly, we were driving -- Bella in the back seat because she was still young -- and something clicked: "Honey, do you just want me to listen to you when you tell me what's bothering you instead of trying to fix it?"

I remember an emphatic, "Yes!" Like, what her little brain couldn't yet cognize I had finally found and put into words for her.

It was rather like a palm-to-forehead moment of, Of course! She just wants to know that someone understands how she feels. How many times have I wanted that too? This is something I very much relate to!

Yet even though I understood now what was actually supportive of her, rather than what I imagined was supportive of her, it didn't fix everything. It didn't actually fix anything ... because then I had to be okay with her emotions.

And I wasn't.

I still tensed up inside as if something in me was screaming, "MAKE HER FEEL BETTER! QUICKLY!"

I mean, isn't this a mother's job?

I was clear that I had some work to do. And thankfully, I knew how because I had The Work of Byron Katie.

So I wrote a worksheet on Bella. "I am upset (emotion) with Bella because she's so emotional (reason). This is my answer to Q.1 and on it goes through 5 more questions -- a deceptively simple but profound set of questions.

And then on to the 2nd part of The Work, the 4 Questions. This process quickly put me in touch with my own emotions that I thought I was too scared to feel ... and the past experiences which gave rise to these emotions.

It's all given, all shown.

Unlike therapy, it doesn't require analysis. In fact, it's the opposite of analysis. It's meditation.

As I did my Work whenever I felt tense over Bella's unhappiness, I was able to see, learn, and most importantly, release these emotions from being stuck in my consciousness and secretly, silently controlling my life and my parenting.

I was learning to be comfortable feeling my OWN emotions that I had unknowingly suppressed a lonnnnnng time ago.

And then I was able to teach Bella by example that she could actually feel anything that arose -- let it fully in ... it was safe, it wouldn't kill her ... that she is actually the space that is bigger than these emotions and allows them to exist -- and then let them naturally fall away.

Just by sitting with her, peacefully, as her big emotions rose. Not trying to make them go away, not trying to fix something that was wrong.

And actually, I didn't teach Bella any of this. She taught me.

I invite you to experience this deepening of awareness, of expanding your freedom in life, for yourself.

Byron Katie has rocked my world and shaken loose my mind more thoroughly than any other spiritual teacher I've ever encountered, living or dead."

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic

It might seem like terrible news that you have to feel the emotions that you suppressed in the past as a child if you actually want to not be run by them, but I'll tell you why it's not: feelings don't kill us. That was our fear as kids so it's our fear now -- that if we feel them, we won't be able to withstand it.

But what I've discovered through my own personal experience, is that difficult emotions don't even hurt -- without a story we tell ourselves about what they mean, they truly are just energy in motion, meant to rise and then fall away.

And it's good news because since you aren't a child any longer, you can actually learn how to find those mystery emotions tied to the mystery experiences you couldn't integrate at the time.

There's a sweetness to allowing these emotions and experiences to surface. You know how when you've really cried ... really sobbed ... even though there was a part of you that was suffering, there was also awareness that you were fine and more than that, that this was a catharsis? It's like that. But way way better ...

I hope to see you on the inside.

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