Early Experience Affects How We Deal With Feelings

adult not understanding kid's feelings“Why do we find it so hard to sit with our own emotions?” asked one of the audience members at a talk I gave last Tuesday about constructive wallowing.

I think there are two reasons:

1. We’re hard-wired to avoid pain. If a feeling is unpleasant, we automatically try not to pay attention to it and hope it goes away.

Example: You’re reading on the patio when a thought strays into your mind … something about a letter from the IRS and unpaid taxes.

Rather than continuing that line of thought, you get up and head to the kitchen in search of potato chips (or brownies, or beer, or …?).

2. Early training. We’re taught over and over again in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that it’s socially unacceptable to express negative feelings.

And if we can’t express them (goes our logic), why should we even bother to have them?

Someone else in the same audience last Tuesday offered a brilliant example from her own life of what this early training looks like.

How We Learn to Ignore Our Feelings

At a recent baby shower, a 3-month-old girl fell over, bumped her head, and started crying.

Instantly several people rushed over …

Not to comfort her.

Not to soothe her.

But to DISTRACT HER FROM HER PAIN.

They waved toys in front of her face. Her mother bounced and rocked her.

The adults put on big smiles to show her everything was fine.

This is a clear and striking example of how we learn not to just sit with our feelings, but rather to ignore them in favor of social acceptability.

Early Training Can Be Overcome

Is it any wonder that as adults, when something bad happens, we try to distract ourselves from our feelings?

It’s okay — necessary, even, if we want to feel whole —  to honor our “negative” emotions when they arise.

When bad things happen, go ahead and feel bad about what happened.

Try to put a word to what you feel, be it “angry,” “resentful,” “ashamed,” “scared,” “hurt,” or whatever.

Then feel that emotion fully and willingly.

Wallow in the emotion, not in what happened.

Instead of there-and-then, focus on the here-and-now: How do you feel in this moment?

Offer yourself compassion if you’re suffering.

Think of this kind of wallowing as like going to the gym, only this workout gets your emotional life into shape.

If you wallow in all your feelings, good or bad, then when good things happen you can finally enjoy them.

Have you ever felt so good that you found yourself waiting for the other shoe to drop?

Well, embrace that other shoe. Learn to love it.

It takes two shoes, not just one, to walk life’s winding path.

Wallow well!

4 comments on “Early Experience Affects How We Deal With Feelings

  1. Dyan says:

    I think you are right! We are a sum of our parts and a huge part of us is our feelings. We don’t ignore our hunger, and like wise, we must not ignore our feelings. We should not go around hungry, nor should be go around hurt!!!!!!!!

    Dyan

  2. I appreciate how you distinguish between the there-and-then, and the feelings you have here-and-now. I think I got that confused for a long time. And when I was in the there-and-then, the hurt or anger never went away. I’d ruminate about it for days, and lose sleep. I still often get the two confused. Is there any easy way we can tell if we’re not in our feelings of *this* moment and stuck in the there-and-then? When I look back at those times, I feel like I had blinders on. It makes me wonder if we can ever pull ourselves out of it without help from someone who cares.

    • Thank you for your comment, Cheryl. I can relate.

      Sometimes it takes me a good long time before I realize I’m ruminating. When I feel bad enough about what’s going on inside my head, that bad feeling can act like a memory aid; I finally remember to ask myself the magic question, “What am I feeling right now?”

      You can also use physical memory aids in the form of stickers or objects placed around your home where you’re likely to see them several times a day — the kitchen or the bathroom, say. They can serve as a reminder to ask yourself the magic question.

      If you don’t mind being a little public about it you can even make a sign that says, “What are you feeling right now?” and post it somewhere you’ll see it.

      Of course, a counselor or therapist can help you get into the habit as well. Most therapists are very curious about what our clients are feeling!

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