Use Your Words
In America, we tend to place a great deal of value on “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”; those individuals who seem able to just endure anything, stand on their own two feet and tough it out, no matter what the circumstances. That is largely what has accounted for much of the success of many famous people in our history and in society.
While there are certainly many valuable and worthwhile aspects of this drive and self-sufficiency, a close look at most of those examples of American achievement also reveal many people living in emotional distress, with a good deal of suffering in their personal and family lives. Many of those we esteem as great success stories were not considered successful in their roles as parents or as a spouse. The drive to achieve often meant those closest to them were pushed aside and, in many ways, lived in the shadows.
This emotional pain is often the trade-off these success stories made for their achievements, sometimes knowingly, but all too often with little regard or even awareness of the emotional damage to those most intimately involved in their lives. All too often, these individuals give little credibility to the emotional needs of themselves or those around them. As we sometimes see in the headlines today, many of those who seem to have all the fame and fortune they could ever want are secretly barely holding their own emotions in check after a lifetime of ignoring and repressing them.
It’s okay to acknowledge having emotions – we all have them as just a normal part of being human. Having emotional needs is not a weakness; ignoring emotional needs is the weakness. Once we give ourselves permission to acknowledge our emotions, even those that are painful or distressing, then we can begin the process of sorting them out, understanding their cause and coping with them in healthy ways. One of the essential pieces of addressing our emotions is putting them into words.
This may mean expanding our vocabulary of “feeling words” beyond just “angry”, “sad” and “happy” so that we are better able to describe to our loved ones (and ourselves) what we are experiencing. It is in sharing our needs with one another that we build trust, as we expose our own vulnerabilities and needs, we allow those who love us to move past the walls we often put up to protect ourselves from ever having to face difficult emotions.
Taking these walls down is risky, and should be done judiciously. However, leaving the walls up, even to those who love us, is a sure-fire recipe for broken relationships and broken families. We all want to feel needed and one of the best ways to make someone in your life feel needed is by allowing them to help you process your emotions, even if it is just by listening. This process of taking risks and building trust is how relationship grow and mature. Over time, this creates a deep, rich love that can sustain a happy marriage over several decades.
So, how does this relate to parenting? As parents, you are your child’s first and most impactful role models of how and whether emotions are discussed, recognized or tolerated in your family. When children learn that emotions are a sign of weakness, only to be ridiculed, then they learn to stuff those emotions down and never let them show. When faced with emotions that seem painful and unpleasant, children who have grown up with this philosophy often see themselves as defective and weak.
What is often left as the only “acceptable” emotion is anger, so, in essence, all of their emotional needs come out in ways that appear to be only an angry child, who later becomes an angry adult. This is the person who is afraid to acknowledge their emotional needs, which often translates into broken family relationships, emotional distress and a lifetime spent searching for contentment, acceptance and personal meaning. You can set your child up for success in all areas of life by teaching them to identify their emotions, put them into words and ask for help in dealing with them.
And an essential element of good mental and emotional health is also taking responsibility for your own emotions, rather than blaming someone else for the way you feel. Without a healthy way of identifying and handling emotions, the anger that results typically boils over into a rage against another person they see as responsible for “making” them feel defective and weak.
Raising adults who are able to recognize, understand and cope with difficult emotions means teaching your children a wide range of words to use in expressing their emotions in a healthy way, while taking responsibility for the way they feel and changing how they respond to stressful events. This is one of the best investments you can make to help ensure your child develops good emotional health and finds personal satisfaction in all of their pursuits.
Larry Deavers is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker and Executive Director of Family Counseling Service of West Alabama.