This morning the OH and I had a disagreement about a post in a Facebook group we jointly run. This led to him leaving the group. This was not an agreed action. It was an impulsive reaction to feeling angry. Within half-an-hour he had apologised, and all was back to normal.
This got me thinking though. When we are under pressure, in stressful situations, tired or busy (or all three). We can often default to our habitual ways of being. These are so ingrained in us. They were learnt when our brains were still forming and developing. The thing is they weren’t the most productive or the most desirable ways to be.
I talk lots with my clients about how we could only learn what we were taught about emotions by our parents or carers when we were small. And they could only learn what they were taught by their parents. And likewise, their parents before them. As the saying goes ‘we don’t know, what we don’t know’. And I certainly didn’t know very much about my own emotions for years!
But when I had my son, and all my emotions felt out of balance. And I didn’t know what many of them were, or what they meant, I realised, I needed to do all I could to change how I was dealing with them. I also realised that if I understood more about emotions then I could understand other people easier, and maybe I could help them to learn how to do the same.
This way life could be a little bit less scary. Because that was the real problem. I was scared of anxiety. I worried about being anxious. I feared getting angry. I also hated other people getting angry. Worried about them getting anxious and was so nervous if people were sad because I never knew what to do or what to say to them. I didn’t particularly like people being too happier or excitable either. Weird huh?
Why should this be? Surely emotions are natural. We all have them. So, what makes them so darn frightening? Why did I feel so nauseous just anticipating an emotion. Was it confined to negative emotions? Was it due to the potential behaviours that might follow? I needed to know, and I needed to know how to change it.
I started to search for answers. I found some from my meditation and journaling practices. They allowed me to gently, and slowly, build up confidence to engage with my own emotions. To get to know them much better. To recognise how they feel physically. What thoughts accompany them. How I behave or feel urged to act. What happens when I do, or don’t act on the thoughts. It’s been a journey. A journaling, journey of curiosity and surprises.
I’ve also been privileged to work with so many fantastic clients over the last 13 plus years. I learn every day from them. And guess what? It is probably the most common issue I encounter in my therapy practice. Other people are afraid of emotions too! They fear their own emotions. And they are frightened of other people’s emotions. Perhaps I’m not such a freak after all…Okay, maybe I am…just a bit 😊
About a year ago, I came across a questionnaire. (Those of you who know me, will know that I love a good, standardised questionnaire). This was the Emotional Beliefs Questionnaire (Becerra, Preece, & Gross, 2020). It is a 16-item measure that assess beliefs about the controllability and usefulness of emotions, both positive and negative. This was what I had been looking for.
I could objectively test if people judged their own emotions as uncontrollable and useless. And whether this varied between positive and negative emotions. Also, I could start to see if people’s backgrounds, and the emotional difficulties they presented in therapy for, corresponded with variations in their beliefs about emotions.
What I have found is that there are no differences between people; men, women, older, younger, from Eastern or Western countries, we all have the propensity to fear our emotions. Most people who have come to me for therapy over the last year have had this same fear. More so for those emotions traditionally labelled ‘negative’ than those called ‘positive’. And they have also believed that those negative emotions are less controllable and less useful than their positive counterparts.
I found this fascinating. In Mindfulness research it has been reported repeatedly that accepting and allowing our emotions increases emotional intelligence and this in turn helps us to stay grounded and to feel less anxious or angry, stressed, or depressed. But how do we practice Mindfulness to improve emotional intelligence when we are so scared of these ‘negative’ emotions to start with? How can we stay with the physical feelings of an emotion and the thoughts about it, when everything in us is saying NO!?
It is possible, it does take a bit of practice, but it can be done. I have developed a protocol that I have been using successfully with people in my private practice. I also teach it to the mums in my Good Enough Mum Facebook group (GEMs) and on the Creating Confident Kids workshop that I run.
It allows us to start to develop our emotional intelligence SAFELY. Using 6 scientifically validated steps.
STATE THE EMOTION – Name it to tame it (Seigel). This starts the process of moving our thinking from the amygdala in the limbic system (which is the emotion centre of the brain) to the pre-frontal cortex (the thinking, planning, problem-solving part of the brain).
ALLOW THE EMOTION – Don’t push it away or avoid it. It’s not dangerous. It can’t hurt you.