Have you ever had anyone tell you that you shouldn’t feel a certain way or try to talk you out of your feelings?
“All the time.”
“Yeah, me too.”
Does that help you get over how you’re feeling?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed that many (most?) people seem to have an inability to acknowledge how someone else is feeling. My personal experience with this phenomenon started in childhood. After complaining to an adult that my head hurt, I was told, “Children don’t get headaches.” Oh. Silly me. Although the revelation of this little-known “fact” about children and headaches did cause me to shut up, it certainly didn’t make my headache go away. Go figure…
I wonder what your experience is with this issue? Are you aware that not having your feelings affirmed is a problem? Unfortunately, “feeling-minimization” happens more than you think:
- Little Joey falls off this bike and is hysterically crying. Mom responds by asserting, “You’re okay!” (Hint: A crying child who just fell off the bike is scared, hurting, and/or bewildered. He is not “okay.”)
- Sarah’s eyes fill with tears as she speaks about her mother losing her battle with cancer. A friend responds, “Well, at least she’s no longer suffering.” (Hint: This statement will not make Sarah’s grief disappear nor make her feel better.)
- A teenage boy is upset because he was cut from the soccer team. His dad responds by saying, “Don’t worry; you still have plenty of other activities to keep you busy.” (Hint: This statement won’t take away his disappointment.)
- A husband tells his wife he’s worried he will lose his job in the next round of lay-offs. She tells him it will be his company’s loss if they let him go. (Hint: This statement won’t help him deal with the fear he’s feeling about losing his job.)
I completely understand why people find it difficult to acknowledge another’s feelings. Most of us try to quickly fix whatever is going on in the other person so they feel better. For example, when a mother tells her crying child that he’s okay, she really does want him to stop crying and be fine—like now. That’s certainly not a bad thing. It’s just not very comforting or helpful for the person who is hurting, scared, lonely, or angry.
Another reason people don’t acknowledge someone else’s feelings is that they don’t want to admit they caused them to feel pain. Therefore, instead of acknowledging the feeling, they respond defensively:
- “I feel hurt by what you said.” The other person (OP): “I was just joking.”
- “I was worried when you didn’t call.” (OP): “My phone ran out of battery.”
- “I feel lonely and ignored when you’re on your phone.” (OP): “I just was just checking the weather.”
- “I’m angry that you left your dirty dishes in the sink again.” (OP): “I got up late and had no time!”
Although you may think you have a perfectly valid reason (ahem…excuse) for why a person shouldn’t feel their expressed feelings, you’re missing a critical point: Feelings aren’t right or wrong; they just are. Understanding that it’s not your job to judge someone else’s feelings or be responsible for them puts you in a position to affirm or acknowledge what they are feeling so they can feel heard and valued. And this, my friends, is a key to strong and meaningful relationships.
When we don’t acknowledge someone else’s feelings, the effect it can have on them can be hurtful at best and devastating at worst. The reason for this is we are biologically driven to attach to others in order to survive. Attachment happens when someone is attuned and responsive to our feelings—especially in childhood. Counselor Adam Young maintains that your most important attachment was the connection you had with your primary caregiver. This attachment impacted many critical functions:
- ability to regulate your emotions (calm yourself)
- ability to be aware of your emotions
- ability to rebound from distress, harm, or tragedy
- the style of relating to others throughout your life
If you are like most people, you may have grown up in a home where your parent(s) were not capable of attuning to your emotions. You may have been seen but not heard. (Did they ever tell you that if you didn’t stop crying, they would give you something to cry about?🙄) If that’s the case, you may not even know what you’re feeling, never mind what someone else is. However, learning to acknowledge and affirm someone else’s feelings can be learned and ultimately mastered. The benefit of building an emotional connection with others is well worth the effort. In a day and age where people are more disconnected than ever, we need more people committed to facilitating heart-to-heart transformation.
“I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek 36:26)
Below are a few tips to get you started on building attunement in your relationships:
- Fight the urge to “fix” the feelings of another person. Instead, affirm how they are feeling. Ex: “I bet it’s really worrying to face a job loss.” “It was scary falling off your bike.” “I can only imagine how disappointed you are by not making the team.” “The loss of your mom is devastating, isn’t it?”
- When someone expresses emotion to you, refuse to defend yourself, even if they really did misunderstand your intention. In other words, connect to them first so they can process the emotion that came up. You can sort out what happened after you help them process the emotion. Ex: Person A: I’m angry you missed Katie’s soccer game again! Person B: I hear you. You are angry that I let Katie down.
- If a person is expressing a strong emotion you can’t quite decipher, admit you aren’t sure what is going on with them, but you’re willing to listen. Ex: “I’m sensing you are upset. Help me to understand what’s happening with you right now. What did I miss?” *This is very helpful with surly teens who stomp around the house but don’t speak.
- Practice “feeling discernment” on yourself by learning to express your own emotions. Pay attention to what is going on inside of you and be curious about what is going on. Remember not to judge your emotions (“I shouldn’t feel that way.) Emotions just are.
Next week we will take a deeper dive into emotions. In the meantime, let me know how you are doing with attuning to the emotions of others.