Parents await the first cry of their newborn baby with baited breath; a loud and full throated wail is music to their ears. It seems however, that for some, this is the first and last time that natural displays of emotion are rejoiced.
Throughout childhood many of us learn that certain emotions are either not okay to be expressed, or not okay to be experienced at all.
When we cry we’re told ‘there there, don’t be silly, no need to cry.’ As though our tears are shameful evidence of our incompetence, rather than the natural, useful, miraculous way that the human body is cleverly designed to release stress toxins like the endorphin leucine-enkephalin and the hormone prolactin, and lower levels of Manganese – which in turn elevates mood and decreases anxiety, fatigue and aggression.
Displays of anger in childhood are often met with punishments doled out with the intention of solving ‘problem’ or inappropriate behaviours (like hitting, shouting or ‘answering back’). While the behaviours of young children who are angry may not be particularly welcome, the inadvertent message that children are given is that the emotion of anger itself should be hidden, suppressed, ignored or denied. However, this again means that the hormones, toxins and natural instincts to fight our way out of stressful or dangerous situations become trapped in our bodies, which often means that anger begins to leak out in inappropriate ways (Explosive violence, drug or alcohol fuelled outbursts, road rage), or gets turned inwards (Self-criticism, self-punishment, eating disorders, depression).
So now that we know some of the (many) reasons that perhaps we might not ‘deal’ with some of our emotions very well, let’s look at just how CAN we manage difficult emotions?
If we go back to the baby that we talked about at the beginning, and watch the way that it naturally behaves, we’ll notice that it flows in and out of emotional states - often in very quick succession. Babies in their natural state are peaceful, playful, sensitive to their environment, and fully in the present moment. When an emotional state is triggered they respond to it immediately, by crying, laughing, screaming - whatever is their natural expression - and when they have finished, usually when the trigger has been removed (they are no longer hungry, or mummy has stopped playing peek-a-boo) they move quickly back to peacefulness, or into the next emotional state - most parents will be able to tell stories of their children crying one moment and laughing the next.
Of course societal ‘norms’ dictate that in many circumstances it isn’t acceptable to express our emotions in just any way we choose, or with whomever we choose, so we need to find ways of allowing and expressing emotion in a way that is comfortable for us and acceptable for others, while still being biologically useful.
Many of us treat our emotions as though they are abnormal occurrences that need to somehow be figured out, analysed or fixed, when really what they need to be is allowed, welcomed, felt, and at times, witnessed.
It is important to remember that ideally emotions flow like water; sometimes emotions are barely noticeable little trickles, others are rapids, and others still are tidal waves, but whatever they are, no matter how big or small, they all pass.
In order to let some of your bigger, tidal wave feelings out it may be necessary to find somewhere or someone with whom you feel safe to take them to; this might be a friend, a family member, or a professional therapist...eventually, once you have become familiar with the sensations and the feeling of safety that continues alongside experiencing and expressing your emotions, you might be able to take them to yourself, as your own friend/internal therapist, but remember that social support and meaningful relationships can be deeply healing and supportive, ask yourself how it feels when you are able to offer kindness and support to others, perhaps it might be okay to allow someone the privilege of supporting you too?
When a feeling arises it is important to make space for it, take some deep, soothing breaths into the abdomen– without gulping down the air to chase the emotion away – and gently take your attention to the feelings and sensations in your body. Without trying to change them, just notice and acknowledge the way that this emotion is trying to express itself. Remind yourself that all feelings pass. No emotion can hurt you; all emotions are there to serve a purpose.
Consider what you might find comforting or soothing, perhaps wrapping a blanket around yourself, stroking your hair, write down anything that comes to your mind, draw or create something that is an expression of the feelings that you are having, move around, beat a drum. Try asking the emotion or the sensation that you are feeling how it would like to be expressed and see if you can find a way to allow this expression.
Once you are used to the way an emotion feels to you, it may be that you do not need to ‘do’ anything at all; by simply noticing that an emotion is present, taking your attention to it and acknowledging it, often you will notice that the sensations immediately begin to soften.
The number one key to emotional expression that I have found is compassion.
When you can allow your feelings, without judgement, without shame, with kindness and with a desire to nurture yourself and move back into your natural peaceful state, the strangled sensation that happens when we are fighting off emotions that are seeking their natural means of expression becomes released and we move back into our natural flow.
Once you are comfortable with your emotions you have no need to fear, avoid, or hide them, you can notice them, welcome them, learn from them and let them pass, returning once again to presence and peace, until the next wave comes.