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.


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 Tips for Dealing With Stubborn People

Guy with fingers in earsHave you ever offered perfectly good advice to a loved one and been baffled as to why it fell on deaf ears? I have.

When the best course of action is clear and yet remains ignored by the person who most needs that knowledge, what’s going on?

This week I had the privilege of reading the transcript of a recent address by psychoanalyst Elio Frattaroli, author of one of my favorite books, Healing the Soul in the Age of the Brain.

In it, Dr. Frattaroli reviews the four therapeutic principles of Bruno Bettelheim, one of his early mentors.

I was struck by how effectively these precepts can be applied in our own lives — for example, in dealing with “resistant” loved ones who refuse to take good advice… or anyone else who seems to be behaving irrationally.

Why They Won’t Listen

1. The end is always in the beginning. The way any conversation turns out is heavily influenced by the way we approach it.

If we start with the assumption that the person doesn’t know what’s best for them, we’re going to convey that lack of faith. We’re taking an opposing side rather than being on the same team. And we’ll end up on opposite sides of a debate.

2. The patient is always right. The “patient” in this case is the person who’s resisting all our good advice. “No matter how confusing or maladaptive it may appear,” says Frattaroli, “whatever the person is saying or doing makes sense and is exactly what he needs to be saying and doing.”

3. Respect the symptom. Whatever seemingly wrong-headed position the person is taking is their best attempt to manage their own “stuff,” the other people (including us) in their lives, and their general circumstances — which we don’t have the same handle on that they do.

4. Whenever you’re confused or annoyed by the way the person is acting, ask yourself what you would need to be feeling in order for you to act that way yourself.

That’s probably the way they’re feeling, and it’s why they’re not listening to you.

As I always say (to the point of being irritating about it, I’m sure), there’s always a reason for our feelings and behavior.

That’s true for the “stubborn” person, too.

Unless someone has severe brain damage, everything they do (or refuse to do) is motivated by reasons that may not be obvious. Even to them.

Now I want you to take these precepts and remember them in your next conversation with a stubborn person.

… What do you mean, you’re not going to? What’s wrong with you?



Left Out? 3 Survival Strategies for the Fifth Wheel

woman alone at partyHave you ever been with two other people and felt like the odd one out?

Did it seem like nobody would notice or care if you weren’t there?

In that case you know what it’s like to be the fifth wheel.


Don’t I mean the third wheel?

Not unless you experienced yourself as a stabilizing influence!

Joining two people on a date doesn’t make you a third wheel; it just makes you a third person.

If you think about it, adding a third wheel to a two-wheeled vehicle is a good thing. It enhances the situation by creating more balance.

That’s why we give kids tricycles before they get a bike; that third wheel is a real tooth-saver.

A third wheel is an improvement on an unstable situation … unlike, say, joining a couple on their honeymoon.

In the latter case you would correctly be called (among other things) a fifth wheel.

Can you imagine any single vehicle needing five wheels?

A cart has four, one at each corner, and presumably carts were common when this phrase became popular.

There’s no place to put a fifth wheel, and certainly no need for one.

Hence the term “fifth wheel” being used to describe a person whose presence is extraneous.

Fifth Wheel Survival Strategies

In any case, it’s an uncomfortable feeling.

So what can you do to get through it gracefully?

1. Listen. If the conversation is flying back and forth in front of you, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Everybody can’t talk at once. Relax.

Eat more than your share of the appetizers.

If you’re an introvert or suffer with social anxiety, remember that everyone loves a good listener.

By listening well, including making eye contact and grunting agreeably from time to time, you’ll develop a reputation as someone who’s fun to talk to.

2. Learn. You can learn a great deal about the world by listening, but you can also learn about yourself by paying attention to your feelings.

Do you often feel left out? Lonely in a crowd?

Did you feel that way when you were growing up?

What is that like for you? Are there any other feelings there at the same time?

Being mindful of your own “stuff” around other people helps you figure out what’s true.

Are you just falling into old patterns of thought, or are you really getting signals that you’re not wanted?

3. Leave. If you’re truly being ignored for too long or feeling bored with the whole exercise, in many cases you can find a way to excuse yourself.

There’s no need to be passive-aggressive about it. If you want others to know how you feel, tell them.

Depending on your relationship you may decide to let them in on your discomfort, or not. There’s no right or wrong about it.

If you just want to leave, do so with a polite excuse and a regretful smile that lets others off the hook.

You’re Not Alone

Finding yourself in the fifth wheel position occasionally doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.

We’ve all been there.

Social groups spontaneously coalesce into clumps that often leave at least one member feeling like the odd one out, at least temporarily.

Keep your wits about you, and remember you have options.

Got some other ideas for how to survive this common situation? Please share them below in the Comments section.

Are You Emotionally Available?

couple back to back“If only my partner were more emotionally available.”

Have you heard this before?

Have you said it yourself?

Whenever emotional availability becomes an issue in a relationship, it’s wise to take stock of both partners’ emotional styles.

Why? Because if you’re with a person who’s emotionally unavailable, it’s an inescapable fact that, well … you’re with them.

Presumably you’re with them by choice. But if you’ve been kidnapped, tell me where you are and I’ll call the cops!

If you weren’t kidnapped, then you chose this emotionally unavailable person as a partner.


I’m just saying.

But rather than berating yourself for making a poor choice…

or assuming it’s random bad luck that has nothing to do with your own emotional style…

consider an alternative explanation.

The Safety Factor

Maybe through no fault of your own, you’re comfortable with emotional distance in relationships.

Having some space between you and the ones you love is at least familiar, if not pleasant.

Emotionally unavailable people come in two flavors:

1. Those who create distance, and

2. Those who rely on their partners to create distance.

Distance is safety. If you’re not in close emotional contact, you’re less exposed, less vulnerable.

Pursuer and Distancer

No matter who’s responsible for emotional distance in a relationship, both partners are protected by it in the same way.

Distance-themed relationships tend to follow a Pursuer-Distancer pattern.

In the role of the Pursuer, you experience yourself as wanting closeness. You may perceive yourself either as “the normal one in the relationship” or as “too needy,” depending on what sort of feedback you’ve gotten or which side of the bed you got out on.

In the role of Distancer, your job is to hold the space. You wish the other person would stop pursuing so you could experience the desire to be close (“How can I miss you if you won’t go away?”).

In some couples, the roles are fixed: One person always seems to want closeness, while the other consistently wants more space.

Some couples switch roles on a regular basis, with the pursuer becoming the distancer and vice versa.

But always, there’s a shared sense of safety because of the emotional distance maintained.

If you tend to do the distancing, is it conscious? If not, pay attention and see if you can uncover any concerns you may have about getting too close to your partner.

Then, experience those feelings consciously. Allow yourself to know what you’re protecting yourself from.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting protection; just make it conscious. Understanding the problem is the first step toward solving it.

If distancing doesn’t feel like a problem for you, acknowledge that it can still be a problem for the relationship.

If you tend to do the pursuing, consider what would really be required of you if your partner showed you his or her soft underbelly. Are you truly up for that?

Have you ever had a partner who reliably wanted to be close to you? If not, acknowledge that wanting closeness has felt more comfortable to you so far than having it.

Get curious about your pursuing pattern. There’s a reason you’d rather pursue than experience more consistent closeness. What is it?

If your relationships tend to follow the pursuing/distancing pattern, note that this pattern has been working for you on some level.

There’s no need to judge yourself or blame your partner; people engage in these patterns together for a reason. And every relationship pattern takes two people to maintain.

Assume you’re both doing the best you can, but make your “stuff” conscious rather than unconscious.

What you don’t know, controls you.

Couples counseling can help loosen relationship patterns. You don’t have to be on the verge of a breakup to benefit from seeing a counselor together.

Look for a couples counselor in your area by visiting http://www.GoodTherapy.org.

Photo courtesy of www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

6 Tips for a Good Cry

young  man cryingHave you had a good cry lately?

How about a bad one?

Tears can definitely go either way.

Sometimes you feel better when you’re done, but other times you just feel drained.

Not all tears are healing, it seems.

While crying does have some observable physiological benefits, the way you talk to yourself when you’re crying is at least as important as the fact that you’re crying at all.

The trick is to cultivate self-compassion.

Don’t cry in vain. Check out my recent post on PsychologyToday.com:

Is Crying Good for You? It Depends

Photo courtesy of www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net