In a way, I envy toddlers. Whatever emotion they feel, they announce it proudly to the world.
- Happy? Babble and sing and do the “shake your butt” dance
- Salty? Smash the crackers in their tiny fists and promptly throw them at your face
- Distressed? Climb all over you and attempt to burrow through your neck
- Mad? Throw all the toys on the ground then collapse on the floor where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth
Why can’t I do that?
My go-to response when someone upsets me, angers me, or insults me is to put on the stone face. No tears or hurt looks escape from the stone face! Like most everyone else, I use the stone face as a defense mechanism – a way to deny the offending party the response they want and protect myself from… protect myself from…
Ah, there’s the problem. Protect myself from what? Myself? My feelings? Other people? By shutting out the emotions related to fear, anger, resentment, embarrassment, etc., I’m only hurting myself, not helping.
So, what’s a grown-up to do?
Answer: Feel your feelings. All of them. The good ones, bad ones, uncomfortable ones, and especially the socially unacceptable ones.
Now, I’m not advocating that you wallow in self-pity and cry yourself to sleep for days because someone said your outfit was ugly. Just acknowledge the feeling when or not long after you first feel it. Say it to yourself, out loud or just in your head. Take a moment to process what happened and own how you feel about it, even if it’s embarrassing or uncomfortable. Need some examples?
What happened: Your friend tells you she is getting divorced.
Your real feeling: Joy. You never liked her husband. He was weird and not good enough for her.
What you do: Take a minute to admit that you just don’t like that guy and you think she’s better off without him. Say it to yourself and own the emotion.
What you say/do next: Support your friend in the ways that help her. You don’t have to tell her all your feelings about her soon-to-be ex, but you need to be honest with yourself.
What happened: You see a person that upset you in the past. (You seriously do not like them for a lot of reasons.) It’s obvious that they gained a lot of weight.
Your real feeling: Satisfaction. That person made your life miserable and now they’re fat. Ha!
What you do: Accept that you are being petty and not nice, but that your feelings of satisfaction are valid. Stop where you are and be a snarky adolescent for just one minute.
What you say/do next: Remember that you are an adult and words have power. Choose your words carefully, or maybe look down and keep walking.
What happened: A terminally ill or elderly person (that you know) dies.
Your real feeling: Relief. Caring for and worrying about very ill people is exhausting. You want to sleep in your own bed and watch TV from your own couch.
What you do: Be kind to yourself. Caregiving depletes physical, mental, and emotional energy. It’s okay to think about yourself for a minute. You are also impacted by this situation.
What you say/do next: Grieve. Be with family. Celebrate the person’s life.
What happened: Someone else got the job or promotion you wanted.
Your real feeling: Annoyed. That person is less qualified, not funny, and a stupid-head.
What you do: Take a minute to be irrationally mad at the person who got what you wanted. Feel the anger; roll your eyes all the way around; huff and puff til your heart’s content.
What you say/do next: Realize that you are disappointed and the other person didn’t maliciously take a job/promotion from you. (If they did, that’s an entirely different situation…)
Identifying feelings, owning feelings, processing them, and moving past them takes practice – especially if you have spent your entire life mastering the art of stuffing emotions into an imaginary vault and locking them away forever. Start small and celebrate each victory along the way to healthy emotional management.
And if all else fails, throw a giant tantrum in the middle of the grocery store and see what happens.