Building an Emotional Muscle

One of my favorite definitions of mental health is the ability to experience and express emotions in an effective way. It’s simple, but so on point.

Recently, I came across this blog post on how parents can help their children identify and express their emotions. I love how the author encourages naming – and honoring – of emotions from birth.

All too often, though, children are raised without this kind of emotional attunement, or as we call it, “mirroring,” by the adults in their lives. Kids are told not to cry, not to be scared, to get over it, that they’re “fine,” and to be happy – even when they’re not. Parents might have the best intentions – most don’t want to see their children upset – but avoiding and discouraging emotions will invariably backfire. Children are invalidated, they question their emotional experiences, and they might even amp up the emotional volume in order to be heard. Later in life, it’s possible they’ll invalidate their own emotions, which can potentially lead to mistrust of their experiences and is associated with a number of psychiatric symptoms.

It’s never too late, though, to build your own emotional vocabulary – to identify what you’re feeling, to respond to your emotions compassionately and with empathy and curiosity, and to practice acceptance of the waves of feelings that flow through you each day. If you’re having a particular emotion, instead of doubting it or pushing it away, see if you can embrace this stance: “Of course I’m feeling this way.”

Can you acknowledge your feelings without judging or negating them? Can you accept what you are feeling without trying to make it go away? Can you just let your feelings be? Often, the more we accept our emotions – and then less we discount them or try to suppress them – the less power they have over us. Emotions are like waves; riding the waves, instead of resisting them, is easier and more productive. Sitting with feelings helps us to get more effective at sitting with them in the future; tolerating our feelings takes practice. It’s just like strengthening a muscle or honing a skill. People sometimes ask, “But what do I do about my feelings?” At times, the answer is “nothing.” Just observe them, accept them, and be with them. And in doing nothing, we do quiet a bit to help ourselves experience our emotions more effectively.


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