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3 - 5 min read

Feeling Emotions As An Adult When Taught Not To As A Child

I spent most of my childhood and a good part of adulthood thinking that there were certain ways to feel. 

Feel happy, not sad. 

Feel grateful, not mad. 

Feel calm, not frustrated. 

Somewhere along the way, I developed an emotional ceiling … emotions were allowed to escalate only so high. And there was an unseen emotional cap … I was only allowed to feel so much for so long. 

After a time, it became a part of me. My conditioned self masquerading around as my authentic self. But deep down I knew the truth. The real me was hiding, and she was scared to show herself.  

I had become so good at being what others wanted me to be. The focus was on being pleasant and feeling pleasant because unpleasant meant bad, and pleasant meant good. And I was a good girl. 

But …

When we learn to numb some emotions, we anesthetize all emotions. All of a sudden my happy didn’t feel as happy. My calm, not quite as calm. I can only attribute it to the fact that we are emotional beings, and to fully live, we must afford ourselves the birthright to feel a full spectrum of emotions. 

Emotional Agility And Rigidity

Emotions are neutral expressions from our bodies that are meant to inform us.

They are neither good nor bad. 

They are data, not directives. 

Emotional agility is the byproduct of emotional awareness (noticing how we feel) and what I call emotional curiosity (investigating and understanding what these signals are telling us about our wants, needs, and relationships). This allows us to then use our cortex to accept, problem-solve, and adjust. 

But I had been stuck in emotional rigidity. Not necessarily because I consciously chose it, but because my body is brilliant and will adapt in the name of survival. In order to fit into a family system that doesn't value, honor, or accept unpleasant, hard, shadowy emotions, you survive by not feeling them - or at least by getting really good at not showing them. 

But here’s the thing, you can only do that for so long before emotional tension stacks up. Emotions are meant to have motion - to move through the body. When they don’t, they get stuck, and that can lead to a plethora of physical and mental health problems. 

Brooding and bottling emotions and false positivity doesn’t cause our emotions to go away, it causes them to get stronger. And the long-term result gets you here, where I am. 

Face to face with myself, reflection in the mirror barely recognizable. Stored-up emotions so strong that they override my conscious decision-making, causing me to act in ways that are contrary to my innate values. 

As a mother who is confronted with her children’s bubbling emotions 1,000 times a day, you can imagine how difficult this must be. I couldn’t even handle my own, how am I supposed to sit with theirs? It was an incredibly uncomfortable experience all day, every day. 

According to Susan David, psychologist, speaker and author of Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, “Those of us who wish the unpleasant feelings would go away have dead people’s goals. Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.” 

And then I had an epiphany.

Was my son bad when a thwarted desire brought about his frustration and anger? No.

Was he bad when he was tired and needed rest and was melting down? No. 

Was he bad when his fish died and he felt sad? Gawd no.  

So, if my son could feel all of these unpleasant emotions and not be bad, maybe the little girl inside me who wanted to feel these things and was told she couldn’t wasn’t bad either. What if I began to see and hold myself with the same love I had for my sons?

I wasn’t totally sure, but what I did know is that I didn’t want my children to carry my baggage. I didn’t want them to be extras in my play where I acted out my stuff onto them. I had no idea how to do this but I knew it wasn’t in stopping or fixing what they were doing, it was in witnessing the parts of myself that were too scared to call out. 

5 Emotional Tenets 

So, not knowing where to start, I created a few emotional tenets to live by.  

1. We are emotional bodies. When I feel an unpleasant emotion, the first thing I do is pause and ask, “Where do I feel this sensation in my body? What does it feel like?”

2. Emotions are data. After my pause, I ask, “What is this emotion telling me right now?” And maybe I don’t know in that moment or maybe I am too worked up to try and figure it out, in which case what it is telling me is simply that “I am triggered.” When we begin to look at emotions as data, it transforms how we think and feel about emotions in the first place, which ultimately affects how we identify with them and channel them into productive responses. 

3. Emotions are neutral. They are neither good nor bad. They just are. So I permit myself to feel them in the full capacity that I am feeling them. This step is pretty uncomfortable for me and requires several slow, deep breaths as an anchor. Inhale, I see that I am feeling mad and I am allowed to feel this feeling, exhale. Repeat. 

4. Emotions are not my identity.I am not mad. I am feeling mad. I am not happy. I am feeling happy. When we claim a feeling as our identity, we become hooked into them. But they are not permanent states of being. Emotions, like the waves of the ocean, come to the shore and then pull away with the tide, making way for a new round of emotional waves. When we say things like, “I notice that I am feeling angry” instead of “I am angry,” we gain the necessary space between ourselves and our emotions to better make choices aligned with our values.

5. No one can make me feel anything. I have heard so many times in my life by parents, partners, friends, and more, “You make me so ….” (fill in the blank with whatever emotion). And I can admit that my children have been on the other end of that line, too. The truth is, our feelings are our own, intimate and personal. People can do things that trigger something inside of us that lead to a thought and a subsequent emotion, but these feelings are vibrations within us. We have power over what we do with these feelings, which kind of goes back to the emotions are data idea. 

3 Daily Emotion Rituals

Some ways I incorporated this emotional education for myself and our kids (because let's face it, we are learning together) were with these three tools:

1. I took a positive parenting course and learned how to do a trigger worksheet to help me understand my triggers, thought patterns, and release disempowering goals. 

2. Each night, my family came together in our Calming Corner to use our feelings posters to ask this question, “When did I feel happy, sad, calm, and mad today?” Or, “When did I feel a yellow, blue, green, and red emotion today?” It was helpful to notice, recall and share our authentic selves with each other as a family ritual to rewire my brain and circuit theirs. This felt like a step forward toward breaking generational cycles. 

3. We read the book Heart’s Treasure Hunt as a family as part of our before-bed ritual which was a playful platform to discuss an important message: Each of us is love, and love lives in our happy, sad, calm, and mad emotions. 

No matter how you find yourself feeling at any given moment, know that all of your emotions are sacred and valid. This is a truth I am beginning to accept. Emotions are powerful informants, and yet they don’t have to run your life. One of the best gifts we can give ourselves is to let our feelings flow, listen to their messages, and allow the data to inform the course of action that aligns most with our authentic selves. 

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Ashley Patek is the Content Director for Generation Mindful. Ashley is an occupational therapist, certified lifestyle/parenting coach, and mama to four children; two boys and two daughters born to Heaven. She believes that parenting starts with us as parents and focuses on the whole-parent, whole-child, and whole-family dynamic.