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Dealing with Emotions
Children in dysfunctional families get taught not to feel, and feeling or expressing emotions also gets associated early on with shame and invalidation.  If you get instructed to smile when you are sad or fearful, to not talk about bad things happening in the family, or get punished for crying, it is no wonder you want to numb out or not feel!  Painful feelings then become the “problem to be solved” rather than natural responses to a situation.
 
The key, then, is to allow yourself to experience feelings without judging yourself for having them.  This is called validation, and it is what many people don’t get as they are growing up in such a family.  Furthermore, you probably won’t decrease your emotional stress by stuffing the feelings – they will eventually surface in some form.
 
It helps to identify the emotion – name it, note the interpretation you give it and the behavioral and physical experience of it, and the aftereffects. This is the beginning of mindfulness.  A therapist can help you do this by validating in a non-judgmental manner – but you can do this for yourself if you will just accept that a) the emotion is normal, whatever it is, b) it isn’t going to kill you and c) all emotions pass, like waves, if you will just ride them out.
 
Judging emotions as “bad” only leads to more guilt, anger, anxiety, or whatever, and makes the distress more intense.
 
It also helps to breathe!  Seriously, this sounds too simple, but breathing does help process feelings.  Breathing helps us release things as they come up, allowing them to pass through us rather than getting caught in an endless cycle of tension and denial.
 
Some common feelings about emotions:
  • “Being emotional means I might get out of control.”
  • “Some emotions are really stupid.”
  • “There is a right way to feel in every situation.”*
What are other fears of yours about emotions?
 
* Linehan, Marsha M., Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder, Guilford Press, New York, 1993, pp. 84-94

Other References:

Bradshaw, John, Healing the Shame that Binds You, Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, FL, 1988.
Klausner, Mary Ann, and Hasselbring, Bobbie, Aching for Love, the Sexual Drama of the Adult Child, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1990.
 
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