Many adults will tell you that anger was unjust in their childhood homes. They may have been on the other end of an angry hand or word, but when it came to them having colorful emotions of their own, especially toward an adult, they were shut down.
We were taught not to be mad, not how to be mad.
An emotion choked down even more than anger was sadness. Most of our family systems didn’t make space for that either. We were told to dry up and get tough or to stop being sensitive or we were gaslighted altogether.
We learned not to be sad, not how to be sad.
As such, unpleasant emotions were often bypassed and swept under the rug for the sake of our caregiver’s comfort (because an emotional child sprouts one’s own discomfort), and connection was derailed for control. How many times has someone tried to “fix” our emotions and how many times have we been conditioned to do the same?
We learned that happiness was convenient, good, and acceptable.
There is a societal misconception that names us as physical beings who feel. What research now shows is that we are actually emotional beings with a full spectrum of emotions.
And so here we are, adults parenting children, teaching them about emotions while lacking the skills ourselves. We don’t know how to feel a full spectrum of emotions because we were taught not to, and even if we did feel, we lack the language to communicate those feelings.
I mean, yikes, I am exhausted just typing it.
No wonder we are constantly questioning and debating our self-worth. We are unable to put words to the very thing that is us.
In order to find our way back to ourselves and help our children do the same, we must understand our emotions and build a language around them.
Our Emotional Layers
One of the first steps to emotional literacy is understanding that we are composed of emotional layers - a web of stories that have come together to create our feeling nature.
According to researcher and author Brené Brown in her newest book Atlas of the Heart, there are four elements to emotions. Namely,
- Biology. Emotions are physiological experiences that affect our bodies. What you are feeling and where do you feel it?
- Biography. What did you learn about this feeling when you were growing up and how does that affect you now?
- Behavior. How are you behaving in this moment and what is this behavior communicating?
- Back story. What is this emotion about, and why does it make sense?
While, for many of us, the enemy lines have been drawn, emotions are not a foe but rather an innate mechanism - a signal from the mind that something has happened.
Much like our emotional bodies, our brain is a layered construct - our brainstem, limbic region, and our cortex - and it is developed from the bottom up. When we receive input from the outside world, our thalamus helps us make sense of what is happening. The sensations are passed up to the cortex (our thinking brain) and down to the amygdala (our feeling brain).
Our feeling brain is greatly influenced by our genetic makeup, inborn temperament, and the experiences we have throughout our lives, creating our emotional and perceptual map of the world. So when something happens, our amygdala asks, “Is this good for me or not?” The response your body gives is based upon the thoughts and perceptions you hold around what’s happening. If a threat is detected, signals are sent to the brainstem where our body prepares to fight, flight, freeze, or fawn to survive.
Here’s the tricky thing though. The signals from the thalamus travel much more quickly to the amygdala than it does the cortex, which means our body is often already responding before we consciously know what is happening. Have you ever been in a situation where your reaction was not equal to the event? Like yell at your kids for something developmentally appropriate and seemingly minor, yet you can’t help that the behavior triggers something deep inside of you?
Because we were not taught how to manage our emotions, they fly out of us or we push them so far down that we eventually implode. The pathways to the amygdala have been strongly reinforced over the years as we were on the other end of shame, blame, isolation, and pain. Like deer who walk the same path to get from point A to point B, neurons travel the paths most familiar to them.
But just because this has been the case for most of our life, doesn’t mean we have to keep writing the same story. In order to strengthen the circuits to the cortex so that you can pause and respond to a situation instead of defaulting to your protective responses, you have to practice accessing it. This is done in a process called Name It To Tame It, Feel It To Heal It.
When you can name an emotion, link it to an experience and share it with another, your brain begins to send those signals upward so that you move out of your feeling brain and into your thinking one. Oftentimes, we assume that if we look at an emotion then we give it power. In reality, if we look at an emotion, it gives us power.
Suppressing emotions become stuck in the body. Expressing emotions allows them to move which is what e-motions are meant to do - flow through and out of us.
Building An Emotional Language
Philosopher of language and the mind, Ludwig Wittgenstein, once said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Most of us today have experiences that far outweigh our language for them, which narrows the scope of the way we connect with others and see the world. This had me thinking, if we are going to help our kids on this journey, then we must expand our comfortability, knowledge, and emotional vocabulary. When we understand what we are feeling and why, we can then translate that to others. This is the basis of connection.
The Time-In ToolKit is for this purpose. While it is an engaging way for our children to learn about bodily sensations and put words to them, it is actually designed for the adult. Spend time in your family’s Calming Corner. Look at the emotions and see how many of these you can recognize in your body. What do they feel like? When do they show up? How does your body respond?
Practice using “I feel” statements. This is like weight lifting for your cortex circuits, pulling you out of reactivity and into responsitivity. In doing so, not only are you helping your emotional and logical bodies integrate, but you are modeling these skills for your child too.
Because emotions are so intimate and highly affected by the four elements mentioned above, it becomes challenging to name someone else’s emotions. But what we can do is get curious and connect deeply. When you see your child melting down, ask yourself, “What emotion could be under this behavior and what does my child need from me right now?” The answer is often simple: they need a safe place to feel.