My grandson Finn is my new role model. It doesn’t matter that he hasn’t yet mastered speaking (or walking, for that matter); he is a genius when it comes to expressing his emotions. Upset that I recently took away the silverware he was enjoying dumping on the ground, he brilliantly expressed his disappointment by grimacing his face, whining, and then lying face down on the floor. There was no doubt in my mind that my tiny grandson was very sad that the game of crashing cutlery was over. (As a side note, the face-down-on-the-floor thing fascinates me. No one taught him this. The behavior seems to be innate. This may explain why I have the urge to lie face down on the floor when Jeff eats the last of the ice cream 😩😜.)

Interestingly, I barely had time to say, “I know you’re sad, buddy,” before Finn popped back up and moved on to the next thing. As soon as he expressed his emotion, it was over. If that isn’t genius, I don’t know what is.

Truth be told, all babies are born knowing how to express their emotions well! Authenticity and transparency come as naturally to them as breathing. Because they don’t feel the need to self-censor or spiritualize their feelings, they don’t worry whether it’s over-the-top to be excited about snack time or if it’s sinful to experience fear during a loud thunderstorm. What you see is what you get, and that’s a good thing. They express their emotions and move on; that’s exactly as it should be.

Of course, as children grow, they will eventually need help regulating their emotions, but ideally, that will happen naturally within a healthy caregiving relationship. For clarity, the ability to regulate your emotions means the ability to experience extremes of emotion and then return to a balanced state. If parents can stay regulated when their kids are experiencing big emotions (and if the parents don’t try to squelch what their kids are feeling), those kids will learn to regulate their emotions over time on their own. A child who learns how to regulate his or her emotions will continue to excel in emotional intelligence into adulthood. Sadly, that practice isn’t typically the norm.

Just as children can naturally regulate how much food they need (unless a parent intervenes), they also have a natural ability to express a felt emotion (unless a parent intervenes.) Unfortunately, well-meaning parents create situations that lead children not to trust their body’s signals, whether for sustenance or emotional expression. For example, telling a child that he has to finish the food on his plate (when he said he was full) creates a situation where the child learns that he can’t trust what his stomach is saying. He learns to override his “I’ve had enough to eat” sensor. I’ve worked with countless people who have difficulty discerning when they need to stop eating, and I can promise you this: They weren’t born that way. Overeating is a learned behavior.

In a similar vein, if children are told (directly or indirectly) that their emotions are inappropriate, wrong, or just not welcome, they will eventually respond by shutting down (disassociating), or they may display wild and dramatic expressions of emotion in an attempt to get their caregiver to attune to them. Unless parents allow their children to express their emotions with authenticity and transparency and regard their feelings as valid (no matter how young they are), children are at risk of becoming emotionally disassociated from themselves and others. Sadly, this kind of misinformed parenting has contributed to a great number of people who now have to navigate through life unaware of their emotional cues. Maybe you are one of those people…

person in black shirt holding white paper
Photo by Ryan Snaadt on Unsplash

Here’s the problem with not knowing what’s happening inside ourselves: emotions happen in us whether we recognize them or not. Further, unprocessed emotions are detrimental to our mental and physical health. Buried emotional pain, such as sadness, hurt, loneliness, or guilt, doesn’t dissipate when ignored. It gets buried alive and, like the worst zombie move, will arise from the grave to manifest as a stress-related illness or mental health disorder. Dr. Gabor Matè discusses this problem in his book, “When the Body Says No.” Matè notes that “the brain and body systems that process emotions are intimately connected with the hormonal apparatus, the nervous system, and in particular the immune system.” This is why unprocessed emotions can make us sick.

“Self-suppression is not innate. It’s a learned coping style. When you’re a child and your parents can’t handle your feelings, you learn to suppress them to maintain your relationship with your parents. But what was a coping response in the child becomes a source of illness in the adult.” Dr. Gabor Matè

To make matters worse, some people resort to numbing agents like food or alcohol or other coping mechanisms like overworking to help deal with their unidentified and unprocessed emotions. This adds another level of dysfunction to their already broken ability to discern what’s happening inside. It’s hard to recognize and express pain when you’re working ten-plus hours a day or spending hours on your phone or device. I’ve worked with many people over the years who don’t recognize they have a problem until their health or relationships begin to suffer. By then, it can almost feel like the issue is too massive to fix. Thankfully, that isn’t the case: The good emotional health that you exhibited as a baby can be relearned.

“For with God, nothing shall be impossible.” Luke 1:37

This might be a good place to pause to briefly discuss what it looks like to process emotions in a healthy way. I’ve briefly summarized the practice below:

  • Recognize and Acknowledge: Start by identifying the emotions you’re feeling. Recognizing emotions is often the hardest part for most people. It can take lots of practice to get good at this. Many of us try to push them aside, but acknowledging them is the first step towards dealing with them.
  • Acceptance: Accept that it’s okay to feel the way you do. Emotions are a natural part of being human, and it’s important not to judge yourself for experiencing them. Emotions are not good or bad; they just are. It is not sinful to experience fear, anger, or any emotion for that matter. Jesus expressed his emotions and never sinned.
  • Express Your Emotion: It is healthy to admit to yourself or another person that you are experiencing pain, fear, sadness, or any other emotion as it pops up. Denying or minimizing the emotion is not.
  • Understand the Emotion: It can be helpful to try to understand why you’re feeling a certain way. In other words, what triggered the emotion? Understanding the root cause can help you decide if you might want to pursue deeper healing for ongoing emotional triggers. This step is not mandatory for processing your emotions healthily but certainly can help you better regulate your emotions over the long haul.

If you are like me (and most of my clients, for that matter), learning to recognize what’s happening inside of you is a skill that still needs development. In the past several weeks, I’ve heard my clients say things like:

  • I don’t know how I feel; I’m all over the place.

  • I don’t think I ever grieved my divorce.

  • I’m just numb.

  • I felt overwhelmed. I needed to find a place I could cry to let it out.

If you would like to get better at recognizing and processing your emotions, I have a simple and fast exercise for you to incorporate into your day. The Core Emotion Wheel, developed by therapist Dr. Glenn Hill and his wife Phyllis, helps you identify the eight core emotions humans experience. (I recommended the wheel in a past post as a tool to help develop intimacy in relationships.) Using the tool daily is the equivalent of going to the gym for your emotions. A daily emotional workout helps you identify and then express what’s happening inside of you.

The best practices for using the wheel daily are below:

  • Pick a place to start on the wheel and think about the last time you felt that particular emotion. For example, “I felt guilt when I didn’t call mom last night.”
    Go around the wheel, processing all eight of the emotions. Don’t skip any of the emotions, even if you struggle to remember when you last felt that emotion.
  • If you can’t remember a recent time you felt one of the emotions, go back as far as you need to identify when you felt that emotion. For example, “I felt sad when my dog died six years ago.”
  • Many people struggle to differentiate between guilt and shame. Guilt occurs when you feel bad about something you did, while shame occurs when you feel bad about who you are. For example, “I feel guilt for not calling dad last night. I feel shame that this isn’t more of a priority for me.” This is really important—avoid labeling yourself (“I’m a terrible daughter or son”); just acknowledge and name the emotion you are experiencingDon’t rationalize away your emotions. Remember, you don’t choose to feel a certain way—you just do. The goal is to recognize and acknowledge the emotion and then let it out by expressing it.
  • Recognize that the wheel is just a tool to develop your emotional intelligence. The goal is to be able to express your emotions as they happen (just like Finn does.) For example, within the first twenty minutes of getting up this morning, I felt sad that I didn’t finish writing this blog last night. I felt joy that my grandson Finn was at my house, but I also felt fear that I would get distracted from writing because he is here. I felt guilt that my house is not yet put back together after the move. It’s important to note that while it’s expected that my house is in disarray after the move, I still feel guilty, which needs to be acknowledged and expressed.

Although all of us were as good as Finn at expressing and processing emotions when we were babies, most of us have lost the ability to process our emotions in the moment. But with regular practice using the Core Emotion Wheel, we can relearn what we lost. Yaayy to that!

You may have been disconnected from yourself for so long that using the wheel feels like a huge challenge. If that is you, please reach out for help. Jeff and I are certified Connection Codes coaches, and we would love to support you on your healing journey. Reach out and start becoming more emotionally healthy today!

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