This next part of the Know Thyself series focuses on exploring our emotional expression. Interestingly, understanding, processing, experiencing, and communicating our emotions is something that is not incorporated into our standard education system. Of course, every interest group believes that what they have to say is important and should be included in, what is often described as, an overcrowded syllabus. However, it baffles me that something that is at the centre of our well-being is rarely formally taught.
Most of us have strong intuitions regarding why we teach subjects such as mathematics, science, history, and physical education. The logic goes – people (much smarter than me) have made discoveries about these subjects, so let us give that collective wisdom, built over the last few years/decades, to our children so they do not have to make the discovery for themselves. Yet, despite the massive collection of research that has provided us with a host of ways to better regulate our emotions, we don’t believe this is something that should be part of formal education. This subject is meant to be in the realm of parents and caregivers – because, naturally, with age and experience comes wisdom. None of us has ever seen a middle-aged person breakdown, throw a tantrum, enter a bad relationship, say mean things, have a panic attack, become sulky etc… [raises eyebrow].
If we can accept that there are probably more useful and less useful ways to regulate and express our emotions, then there are undoubtedly ways that we can learn how to do it. In fact – that is literally my entire job as a psychologist. To this end, this post will not be covering specific ways to help self-regulate, but I want to pose a number of questions to start you thinking about yourself, your beliefs about different emotions, and how you currently go about communicating them.
- What emotions are you happy to show (anger, happiness, excitement, pride, sorrow, sadness, pain, disappointment)?
- Would you describe yourself as typically more open, or more closed, to expressing emotions?
- When thinking about your childhood, what emotions most stand out for you?
- Which emotions were acceptable in your household growing up (was it ok for you to feel anger, anxiety, sadness, disappointment)? Do these emotions match what you are comfortable showing now? Or are they the opposite or different somehow?
- Are there certain people in your life who you would/wouldn’t express certain emotions with? Anger in front of your dad, emotional pain in front of your mum, vulnerability in front of your romantic partner? What does that say or mean about those relationships?
- Does showing certain emotions make you “weak”? What is it about them that makes you weak? Do you actually believe that you’re weak for showing these emotions or do you believe other people see you as weak?
- How readily would you let someone know that they had hurt your feelings? How would you normally approach this situation? How readily does another emotion, perhaps anger, cover up feelings of hurt or disappointment?
- Do you often feel pride or recognise your achievements? If not, why? Is it wrong or sinful? If you feel pride is it likely that something will come along and knock you off your pedestal?
- How readily do you express anger or irritability? What are the thoughts you have towards yourself when you express anger?
- How often do you avoid things that make you feel nervous or anxious? Are you typically someone who can tolerate the uncomfortable sensations of anxiety?
- Would you consider yourself a happy person? What does being happy or having a happy life mean to you – what does that look like? Is that life realistic? On a scale of 0 – 10, where 10 was your happiest life and 0 your worst, where would you put yourself? What would you need to be doing to be one point higher on that scale?
Recognising that we have learnt to subjugate, dismiss, or express specific types of emotions can be an important first step in taking control of our emotional experience. While you cannot change the past, you can choose to learn and implement new ways of experiencing how past experiences have shaped the way you express (or suppress) emotions. If you notice that there are persistent problems in certain areas of your life – perhaps deepening friendships, perhaps coping with work or with your children, perhaps in navigating romantic relationships – it may be that you hold on to unhelpful ways of interpreting, experiencing, and expressing your emotions. Further exploration with a mental health professional may be warranted.
I hope these questions continue to help you on a journey of self-discovery.
Daniel J Brown