Emotional health

This post is a semi-ordered spew that has been sparked partly by ongoing reading / discussion with another blogger, partly by ongoing parenting concerns, and partly by this article.

A. Emotions are without moral content, neither right, nor wrong. There is no “should” with feelings, there is only “is.”

Mindfulness, as I understand it, includes being willing and able to feel your feelings as they truly are. It’s not (negatively) interfering with the feelings by trying to push them away or rise above them or ignore them. It’s also not (positively) interfering with the feelings by stretching, twisting, or magnifying them.

The former seems to make more practical sense than the latter. I think I can usually tell when I am trying to push away, transcend, or ignore a feeling. It seems harder to tell the difference between fully entering the feeling and interfering with it.

That may be partly because there’s rarely a single pure emotion going on at any moment. There might be some initial feeling, but several thoughts and other feelings will enter in response.

It may also be because the will gets involved. Again, the will to avoid feelings seems fairly easy to identify, but the will to magnify / catastrophize / aggrandize / etc feelings seems somehow less identifiable. I think I’ve identified it most clearly in efforts to extend or recapture pleasurable feelings that have faded — and occasionally when my will wants to hold onto anger and is unwilling to let go a grudge.

B. There is etiquette and wisdom around the appropriate expression of emotion. It is not morally wrong to be angry, but it is morally wrong to express anger by killing people.

This bit seems to be at least partly culturally mediated. Some cultures really push keeping emotional expression rather reserved. Some not so much. Same with families and other groups.

I tend to think of appropriate emotional expression in terms of words. I suppose I’m really thinking about communication, not just expression, although those categories overlap. I mean, if I’m angry with someone, I generally think it is best to explain my anger and my reasons in a calm and respectful tone of voice. It seems okay to let positive feelings “show” more in tone of voice, volume, phrasing, and so on, but not so much with negative feelings. If I need to yell, hit things, throw things, and so on, it’s better to do so in private and be careful what objects I use. See — when I talk about appropriate expression, I don’t mean that there’s always only one appropriate expression for any given emotion, but that some expressions are appropriate in private, and others are appropriate around family or close friends, and others in public.

If it’s this sophisticated / subtle / complicated (hey, are sophisti-cated and compli-cated and dedi-cated and lo-cated related?) with adults, now consider how to teach a kid about appropriate expression of emotions. To what extent can a particular kid fully feel her feelings and choose an age-appropriate expression for them? Is any instruction at all about appropriate expression going to put hurdles in front of full feeling of feelings? But without any instruction, how will the kid learn about appropriate expression? And some instruction is needed just to protect everyone and everyone’s stuff. Then think about how different personalities work — one person’s hurdle might be another’s nothing at all and yet another’s devastation.

Amy quite clearly doesn’t understand the distinction between feelings and attitude. And who can blame her. But I still think it’s important to keep talking to her about it… to keep telling her that it’s okay to feel feelings, and that it’s important to learn how to express them appropriately.

C. To what extent is it morally right and / or personally desirable to influence feelings?

First of all, all kinds of things already influence our feelings. How we eat, how our health is, what the weather’s like, what happened five minutes ago, what happened fifteen years ago, what’s on schedule for tomorrow, who we’re with, what we just read or saw or heard, and on and on.

Some of these things we have some control over, like what we eat or read. Others not so much.

There are some tools for influencing / managing / regulating emotions. Some DBT tools include the half-smile and the prompting event worksheet.

The half-smile is a physiological thing. You already know that what your brain says, your body does. But what your body does, your brain notices, too. So if you can deliberately choose a half-smile (not a full grin that could speak fear or anger), or a less curled-up posture, or deliberately relax certain tensed muscles, you can reduce the power / intensity of the relevant emotion.

I think of this more as breaking a feedback loop, and less as trying to dictate or deny my feelings. Attitude matters so much — if I felt that any such method was about merely making me more palatable to other people, or about cutting off my voice and my truth, I wouldn’t be able to use the method. But if I can see the method as compassionate and respectful to my truest self, then by all means I’ll use it.

The prompting event worksheet I use the same way. It helps me slow down enough to see what my emotions are telling me, what old thought-patterns they’re automatically triggering, and consider how I might challenge whatever’s false or unhelpful in those old-thought patterns and learn from whatever’s true or helpful in what the emotion is trying to communicate.

It’s amazing how tricky it is to discern between covering, hiding, avoiding, pushing away, clinging to, exploring, noticing, challenging, reducing, and so on.

The point seems to be something like, “What do I feel? What are the possible roots of this feeling? What does this feeling make me want to do, think, or say? What’s true / false, helpful / unhelpful, good / bad in those urges? What possible roots can I change? Which can I accept (not necessarily condone)? Which do I need to work through more?”

D. What do we do when our feelings seem out of proportion or irrational?

I think we still need to feel them and accept them for what they are.

We can’t bring our emotions into (what we think is) proportion and rationality by will alone.

Emotions that seem out of line usually point to something other than what is currently going on. Following them there can lead to useful working through of whatever that something is, whether it’s the weather or the past.

Feelings have proportion and rationality all their own, if we are mindful enough to feel them fully and listen to what they have to say. I don’t think feelings are ever random or arbitrary or meaningless, even if they’re also not always profound or deep.


10 thoughts on “Emotional health

  1. And since I hit “publish,” I’m thinking, when is the “making room for” the “interfering” — what is the difference between allowable influencing and forbidden interfering. (I can see someone asking, how do I know when it’s really a catastrophe vs. when I’m catastrophizing?) It seems like the answer must be in common sense somewhere…

  2. Hi Marcy, thanks for another thoughtful post. I think one of the things that’s always drawn me to literature was the glimpse it affords into how someone else makes sense of and deals with the world and experience. So thank you for a very direct look into your own process. It got me to thinking about my own mental processes, and what started as a comment here got long enough that it had to be an entry of its own, so if you’re interested, it’s there on my blog. By the time I got done with it, it felt at times like I was reacting “against” what you’d written, but I think that really just comes from the way that reading your thoughts helped give shape to my own introspection. And, as I said in my blog entry, I don’t believe there’s a “right way” in these kinds of things, just ways that work for a particular person and ways that don’t. So thank you for sharing your experience, even though–make that “especially because”–it’s different from my own.

  3. Hi Marcy! Like your thoughts! I was wondering if you have read The Mindful Way Through Depression by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I’ve found it really helpful. I think mindfulness has been one of the most significant tools in helping me with depression/anxiety. I’m really slow to wade into things, so I’ve just been taking it little by little over the last few years.

    And wow–the doing it with our kids thing is so hard. When B was little, I used to do lots of naming of emotions that she seemed to be feeling. Then one day I told her it was time for bed, and she told me she was angry about that! I was totally struck dumb–she was doing what I’d been working toward and I had no idea how to respond–ha ha! These days I wonder about the subtle things, like how often when they are feeling something do I respond with wanting to make it better, thereby not just allowing them to feel. It’s very complicated.

  4. Hi Christen!

    I haven’t read that book. All that I know about mindfulness is from the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy group I participated in during PPD.

    If you’re ever up for it, I would love to hear / read your depression / anxiety story — when you started noticing it, what you did about it, what roots it may or may not have, etc. I’d be happy to do likewise if you so desire.

    I had the same kind of thing with Amy that you described with B — it IS funny, and a little perplexing, and also thrilling. These days Amy gets mad at me because she’s trying to complain and all I do is say “Okay,” accepting her feelings, and I guess she either wants me to fix it or let her complain in peace. I think the difficult thing of the moment for us is what expression to allow her, especially for routine ordinary things like bedtime, and especially considering she doesn’t yet understand the difference between the feeling and the expression of it.

  5. I don’t always know how to help my kids distinguish between showing emotion and throwing a fit. I do sometimes tell them “you can do that (crying, stomping, etc.), but you need to go outside, or in the other room.” We’ve also had a number of discussions like, “how do we show that we are angry?” “I can talk about it, I can stomp outside, I can hit pillows.” “What is not ok to do when we are angry?” “Hurt or be disrespectful to other people, things, or myself.” (No throwing things or hitting people, for example) I also try to help them rephrase things that are disrespectful, and give alternative ways of expressing. I’m sure you do the same stuff. I don’t feel like I’ve got it down though. It still feels messy 🙂 I guess that’s the nature of humanity.

    On a side note, I used to get a lot of emotion from B about routine stuff because she didn’t transition easily from one thing to another. It helped to make sure there was lots of advance notice and preparation for what was coming next.

    And yes, I’d be up for sharing some of my story, but probably not real soon because we are in the middle of a move. I’ll try to remember later. I’ve appreciated what I’ve read of your story here on the blog.

  6. Yeah, generally our approach sounds like yours. And yeah, it is messy.

    Amy is ambivalent about advance notice for transitions. Often she just says, “Just tell me when it’s time.” Sometimes she’s perfectly cheerful to acknowledge a warning that time is running out, and then as soon as the time is done, she bursts. It seems to help a little to talk ahead of time not just about how much time is left, but about how not fussing means more time for story and a more pleasant bedtime experience for all. Once she’s upset, reminding her of those things doesn’t help her change her behavior.

  7. I just discovered your blog, Marcy. This discussion so describes my grandson. He doesn’t transition well and neither did/do I.
    Jon and I used to have the most awful arguments during transition times (airports, vacations, etc.)
    Now, our grandson’s smart mother has already become aware of this phenomenon(sp?) and is working on the explaining ahead of time part.
    I marveled last night at an outdoor concert at Ellis Hollow where Joe Goldston was performing and for almost three hours I didn’t hear one child breaking down and crying (and there were many, many babies and kids of all ages).
    It was remarkable, with kids coming and going. I truly wondered how all the parents pulled this off.
    Have you read, “Happiest Babies/Toddlers on the Block”?
    Seems like a lot of work to me, but my daughter seems to like it.

  8. Joe Goldston — is that a typo for Joe Crookston?

    I don’t think I’ve read that book, but another by the same author perhaps — the one I read was about soothing babies with five s’s, and it was very helpful. The book was full of rather melodramatic writing, but the techniques themselves are good.

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