Have you ever been in an emotional space that you couldn't name? "I just feel... bad." Is it anger? Are you sad? Kind of--but none of those words seem to fit. If you're like me, you learned to describe it as just being in a "funk". Maybe that's a little outdated.
One of the most frustrating things in life is not feeling heard. The ability to express what we're thinking and feeling in an authentic, accurate way is crucial to feeling connected and receiving compassion.
The Power of Emotional Awareness
In a recent study, researchers found that when teenagers have the ability to name specific emotions with accuracy and nuance, it can be an effective protection against depression.
“Adolescents who use more granular terms such as ‘I feel annoyed,’ or ‘I feel frustrated,’ or ‘I feel ashamed’—instead of simply saying ‘I feel bad’—are better protected against developing increased depressive symptoms after experiencing a stressful life event,” explains lead author Lisa Starr, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.
The impact of a negative emotional experience is compounded when we don't understand it, and more so when we can neither explain it to ourselves or convey it to others.
I've had more than one female client relay the frustrating experience of tears that come in anger, but are interpreted by others as sadness or even weakness. But more often than this I've encountered many clients whose troubles start with just not knowing how they feel.
In each person's story there is plenty of emotion, but there's also the relationship to those emotions. Did we learn to acknowledge our feelings, or ignore or deny them? Were certain emotions not safe or acceptable for us to have? Did the people around us talk authentically about emotion?
Raising Emotionally Resilient Teens
What’s the story with you and emotions? How’ve you learned to wade through and wield this turbulent part of human experience? The lessons we are taught (or teach ourselves in order to survive) are not always helpful for the long haul. We learn to say "I'm past it" when we're not, to regard certain feelings as invalid or unacceptable, we promise ourselves we'll never feel a certain way again.
All of this experience impacts the environment we create for those who depend on us.
The best thing parents can do is build a space that is as emotionally healthy as we can make it. And the best way to do that, is to model the kind of emotional life we wish for our kids. We need to learn to:
Talk about your emotions honestly
Talk about them specifically & accurately
Take responsibility for our emotions and how we respond to them
Notice the values we assign different emotions, and unpack why
Identify the emotions we have the hardest time with
Notice when we're blaming others for our emotional state
Get a counselor to help sort through the hard parts
Believe that working on and getting help for emotional health is a positive thing
We cannot emotion-proof our kids because we can't do that for ourselves. But we can move towards an ever-healthier relationship with emotions. And that starts with education and acceptance: knowing when it's shame instead of anger, or when it's grief and not depression. Knowing what remains true and valuable to us regardless of emotional experience.
This makes our next decisions informed, connected, and gives us the opportunity to just be with ourselves. And when you see someone who can do that, it's inspiring.
So, how are you feeling?
Mike Ensley, MA, LPCC, is a nationally board-certified professional counselor in Loveland, CO.