“The past is a foreign country,” author L.P. Hartley famously wrote in his book The Go-Between. Perhaps that’s why we hold on to the postcards…
Imagine what the world would be like if people were taught to explain how they felt rather than reacting with hurtful words or angry punishment. How would life be if we learned to express our emotions verbally, rather than acting out frustration by drinking, using drugs or rage eating? What if, instead of resorting to violence, we just ‘used our words’ to explain the toxic anger we feel?
Many of us were raised with unhealthy notions about emotions. Parents who were experts at suppressing their own emotions, taught us to quench ours (“I’ll give you something to cry about!”). Therefore, we received messages that we were wrong to feel emotions and learned to judge those who did (“Big girls don’t cry!”). Thus, we shut down, partially or fully, with emotions eventually exploding, inappropriately overreacting. Needless to say, this is a root cause of upsets in many relationships on a global level.
Improving your ‘emotional literacy’ means learning to define what you’re feeling and communicate about your emotions using precise descriptive words. This will positively impact your life and health and in doing so, will also teach others by example, eventually filtering down to society. Undoubtedly, the number of mental illness, suicides and needless killing would drop enormously.
Accepting your own emotions may be challenging at first, especially if they’ve been skillfully suppressed or misunderstood for so long. But I guarantee that it will become easier with time and committed practice. One of the most powerful ways to teach about emotions is to model them. Discuss with your family that it is safe to acknowledge their fears and that no one will judge them or invalidate the way they feel. Remind your family that fear is just false evidence that our mind believes is real, but by acknowledging their fears about expressing an emotion, it will help to release it: “I am so uncomfortable sharing how angry I’m feeling. I’m terrified you will judge me or think I’m silly.” By just hearing their fears without comment, a safe space will open up for them to continue talking truthfully.
Ways to teach yourself and your family mindful techniques to communicate
Explain to your children and partner why you think it’s important to allow emotions to be felt and to learn to use words that describe them. Clarify that once this becomes a habit, there will be less angry words, yelling, hurt feelings, depression, and frustration, as well as the need to act out.
When sitting at the dinner table as a family, begin a discussion about what kind of day you each had. Make sure to ask each child and help them choose a few of the ‘feeling words’ when they’re describing their day. A wonderful alternative that encourages openness and connectedness is to ask each child as you put them to bed. At first it might be awkward, and you may have to probe a bit. But, as children (and you) get more comfortable with emotions, this will happen organically.
Ask various questions each day. For example: “What was the best part of the day and how did you feel?” “Did anything make you sad today and why?” “What was the one thing that upset you today?” “What part of your day was the most boring and why?” What made you proud of yourself today? (Each night zero in on different emotions.) But when a child or adult seems to be feeling an emotion, but not able to express it, offer one or two of the ‘feeling words’ to open the discussion. “Did anything happen today that made you upset?”
Another way is to use a scale. For example, “Today, on a scale from 1-10, I’d say I had a 5. I arrived at work late and then I spilled coffee on my pants. I was upset with myself and then I reminded myself that accidents happen and then the rest of the day was perfect.” “How was your day?”
Feelings posters that offer a visual scale can also help and are available for different age groups. Visit https://creatingbranches.com/tag/sharing-feelings/ for an example. Print one out and place it where the family will see it frequently (the kitchen is usually the ideal spot) to use as a reference to help with emotional literacy. This technique should be used at least once a day with young children and the adults in the household should be modeling it for your family every day.
If your kids are fighting, calmly ask them why. Ask each one how they felt when the other child took a toy away or pushed him. Ask your kids what they think some solutions might have been to solve the problem rather than fighting. Don’t give them your solutions since you’re trying to help them think for themselves. Don’t judge or feel sorry for them or take sides. Most of all, acknowledge everyone’s feelings. “I understand that must have been upsetting to have your toy taken.” To the other child, “I can see it was scary to be pushed.”
The purpose of doing the above exercises is to allow emotions to be accepted, even when in the middle of feeling them. After doing this practice, if your child or partner is angry, they may automatically express it in words rather than acting it out. If they don’t, you can gently ask them “So, what is the emotion you’re feeling right now?” Keep in mind that the timing of your question is important—be quietly present with them, allowing time for them to feel for as long as they need without rushing them into labeling the emotion until they’re ready.
If your emotions are triggered when they are expressing theirs, let them know that, responsibly. “When you told me how sad you are, I felt very sad as well.” “When you expressed your anger, I noticed that I was triggered and wanted to yell at you.” “When you were upset about what was going on, I really wanted to just tell you to just get over it.”
Talk. Share your day. Share the funny moments. Share your favorite moment that day. Share your anger and frustration. Share your fears and your hurts. Use feeling words and most importantly, allow yourself time to feel. And equally important is to make sure everyone respects each other’s feelings.
As an adult, it may take time and effort to feel comfortable to openly and responsibly express emotions. It’s much easier to fall back on patterns of just reacting or shutting down. But the more you do it, the easier it gets.