So… how are you feeling?
Hold on! Before you answer that. I am talking about, you know, emotions.
Glad, sad, mad, scared, ashamed…?
These are some of the words therapists use to help get their clients started on identifying their feelings. You might be using these words, among many others, to identify your own feelings. If so, good for you! However, you might also find yourself to be not so comfortable in talking about your emotions. In fact, not always even sure of what emotions you are experiencing.
If being aware of your own emotions doesn’t come easily, and if talking about emotions is also hard for you, you are not alone. But having said that, emotions are part of being human. And being aware of our emotions, and being able to express feelings, enhances our overall wellness. As well as improving communication.
If you are living with a chronic condition like a bleeding disorder, or have a child or other family member who is, you most likely experience all kinds of feelings. My clients often tell me stories about an especially difficult day, like when a bleed or another medical issue occurs, can be an emotional roller coaster for everyone involved.
And In Case That Wasn’t You Need a New Challenge… COVID-19 is Here!
Life sure has changed. We’re all hunkering down, as the saying goes. Tucked away in our homes as we comply with the request to reduce contact with other feelings. And feeling, well, isolated. Even as we tiptoe into loosened restrictions that offer a little more contact with others, privileges that we are also warned may be snatched away in the even of an increase in infection numbers.
In psychology school, we’re taught to encourage our patients not to isolate themselves. And now, by necessity, we all have to do just the opposite. But human beings are social by nature. So we’re all feeling the isolation, along with the uncertainty about when we will all return to some kind of normalcy. Did I say uncertainty? That’s something else that humans don’t do well with. We want to know!
Sure, we’re taking a few very slow, agonizing steps toward some kind of normal. But the world as we have known it? (Or whatever the future is going to look like.) Where’s that magic date?
How are you feeling? If you’re anything like the people I am talking with every day, as a mental health professional, as a friend, as a family member, you are most likely feeling all kinds of emotions as you cope with life as we currently experience it. Frustration, fear, anger, sadness, disappointment. And more frustration. Ready to join me in raising your voice in one collective scream?
So, more emotions bouncing around in your head, in your heart, in your home.
What Are You Doing With Your Feelings?
Pretending that you don’t have feelings, also referred to as swallowing your feelings, doesn’t make them go away. Doing this only causes pain to yourself and the people who care about you. Here are some past examples:
I recently spoke with wife of a man who is living with a bleeding disorder and who has had a couple of setbacks recently. She wept as she described how her husband has a lot going on emotionally, but won’t talk about how he feels. The only emotion he shows is occasionally getting angry (including when she asks him to talk). She knows he is suffering, as she is, and doesn’t know how to help him.
A teen is having the experience of being an outsider at his school. He has a slight limp because of his bleeding disorder, and has been made fun of by some of the guys in his classes. The junior prom is coming up and he is not sure if any of the girls will want to go with him. He’s feeling pretty bad about himself right now but he doesn’t want to admit it to himself. He tells himself he isn’t going to let any of this bother him, but of course it is. And he doesn’t want to tell his parents for fear they will also be upset and he thinks they have had enough to deal with over the years.
And a more recent example:
Another client, a single parent, talked about how she doesn’t know how to talk to her children and family about how she’s feeling. Or if she even should. Due to COVID-19, her company is not doing well and she’s concerned about family finances and healthcare if she loses her job. She wants to “be strong for my kids,” and fears that, if she shows how sad and worried she is, they “might start worrying, too.” And she is concerned that talking about feelings might cause her to break down. So she avoids any talk about emotions. You can only guess at how lonely she must feel.
Notice anything here? The person with the feelings is trying to deny their own emotions. They think expressing feelings is a sign of weakness, or that they might lose control. Or that they need to protect their loved ones from how they feel.
Unfortunately, all too often, my clients tell me that feelings are like an elephant in the room. Everybody in the house is full of feelings but nobody is talking about how they feel. But talking about emotions has to start with allowing yourself to be fully aware of how you feel, being honest with yourself about the feelings that a situation or event may be bringing up. In other words, taking ownership of your feelings.
How do you do that, you might be asking? Well, I just happen to have a few ideas.
In the Moment, Engage Your Rational Mind
Clients often say to me, “Sometimes I am just overwhelmed by feelings. They just run away with me. How can I keep that from happening? Here’s how:
Start by accepting that feelings are part of being human and own your feelings! Many of us were brought up in families where emotions were not okay. As a result, we learned to swallow our own feelings. If this was your experience, you may also have learned, perhaps the hard way, that unacknowledged feelings build up and find their way out, often at the wrong place and time and with a much greater intensity than the situation warrants, like blowing up all over the place over something pretty insignificant. So feel how you feel. And give yourself permission to tell other people how you are feeling, as feelings arise, not after you have been holding them back for a few days. This may take some practice. But if you do make it a habit of expressing your feelings on a regular basis, you will also feel less at risk for having your feelings fly out of control. In other words, let go of the assumption to automatically assume you don’t have a right to your feelings.
Take a step back when you need to. When you’re caught up in a situation, it’s really hard to not to get overwhelmed emotionally to the point where you become alarmed by the intensity of your feelings and possibly concerned over the impact of your feelings on other people. Often after it’s too late and your reactions have done damage to yourself and others. You may also be likely to feel overwhelmed and out of control if you feel your emotions are being ignored or disrespected by others. This is a good time to take a step back from the situation. It might mean holding up your hand and stating that you need a couple of minutes. It might also mean leaving the room for a brief period of time. The point here is to do what you need to do take care of yourself and your emotions. In the moment.
Breathe. You can use your breath to help you from becoming overwhelmed by your emotions. The technique is called diaphragmatic breathing. A slow deep breath in through your nose, all the way in until you belly sticks out. And then slowly release your breath out through your mouth. Do this a few times and you will be amazed at the results. Diaphragmatic breathing helps to give you sense of peace and calm. It also helps you to engage your rational mind so your emotions don’t run away with you.
A Few Additional Thoughts About Anger
Sure, getting angry is part of being human. Keep in mind that anger is a primary emotion. When someone treats you or someone you care about in a disrespectful or aggressive manner, it’s only human to get mad. Nature has wired us to get angry. Where the complications arise is what we choose to do with all that anger. Emphasis on choose!
However, anger is also what therapists call a covering emotion. In other words, we may have an underlying emotion, like fear, or disappointment, or sadness, going on. If we are avoiding acknowledging or experiencing that emotion, we may find ourselves veering into anger instead. And keep in mind that anger may feel more comfortable at the moment, and more acceptable than the feelings the anger may be covering. For example, have ever felt deeply sad or disappointed, and found yourself on the edge of blowing up at someone? If so, you were using your anger to cover another feeling.
And let’s face it, anger can sure feel better than whatever emotions it’s covering up. Sadness can feel like one long heartache that seems to hang over you like a dark cloud. Fear conjures up lots of “what ifs,” and reminds us that not only are we not in control of whatever situation is causing the fear, we might also be helpless to stop it from happening. Disappointment is just plain old crushing. And so it’s human nature to latch on to anger to cover it all up and, at least temporarily, make it go away.
Anger can feel energizing, purposeful. Blowing up all over the place can make us feel like, at least temporarily, we are actually doing something. Not just sitting with sadness or fear or disappointment. The problem is that our anger is generally not aimed toward constructive action. Anger is all too often a destructive force, doing great damage to our wellness and our relationships. Wouldn’t be a better idea to acknowledge the emotions we are trying to cover up with all that anger, and learn some creative ways to cope?
In the moment of anger, take a step back. Do whatever it takes to engage your rational mind, whether it’s taking a few deep, calming breaths, or leaving the room for a moment to regroup, or whatever else you can do to help you think before you react. Get back in touch with what’s pushing that anger button. This will help to get a handle on that urge to go from zero to sixty.
Don’t let yourself hide behind blowing up. Sometimes you’re mad because you’re mad. But other times, anger is not anger at all. Instead it’s sadness or fear that you don’t want to admit to, and so you cover those feelings up by blowing up. And if you’re feeling helpless in some way, like the challenges of living with a bleeding disorder or being the parent of a child with a bleeding disorder, anger is often the go-to response. What to do about that? Ask yourself: Am I really mad about something? Or is it too hard for me to admit how I really feel? It might help to sit down and sort your feelings out with someone who can listen. And remember, anger puts a wedge between you and the people around you, at a time when you could use some support.
And be ready to apologize. You’re dealing with a lot, and you’re doing the best you can. As are your loved ones. If your anger got the best of you, admit it. Resolve to do better next time. Ask for help. This is also called damage control.
Come on Guys! You Have Feelings, Too!
You might remember the “strong, silent type” of guy from the movies in the 40’s. He’s the self-reliant guy who with the poker face who never let anyone know how he was feeling. Instead, he was all about taking charge. Well, guess what? A lot of guys are still walking around holding in their emotions. And it’s not helping them, nor is it helping the people who care about them.
What about you? Or what about the guy in your life?
It’s not easy opening up about your emotions when you’re a guy. I know I’m making a generalization here. Lots of guys have no problem talking about feelings. But it seems to me that most guys do. And I’m not just hearing that from the guys themselves. More often I’m hearing it from the women in their lives – their wives or partners, their children, their parents.
Human beings have emotions. Swallowing them or pretending they aren’t there doesn’t make them go away. And when men won’t talk about emotions, they miss out on the opportunity to connect with their loved ones, to be supportive, and to get support.
I also notice that the one emotion men are more likely to be comfortable expressing is anger. It is somehow more acceptable for men to get mad than it is for them to show how sad or how scared they are. Sure, the challenges of living with a condition like a bleeding disorder can make you mad. But anger can also be a way to cover up – or deny – fear or sadness. And anger can put up a wall between you and everybody else.
What I tell the men I speak with is that holding in their feelings isn’t helpful. It can affect them physically. It can lead to stress, depression, and anxiety. And it can place a wedge between them and the people around them.
Men often tell me they don’t talk about feelings because they don’t want to lose control of themselves, to appear weak, or not to be strong for their loved ones. Here’s what I tell them:
Letting those feelings out doesn’t mean you will lose control. Actually, it’s the opposite. Because feelings kept inside will build up over time. They have to go somewhere. They may cause internal stress, which can have a negative effect on your well-being, and even affect your health. Built-up emotions can lead to tension that never seems to away, which can result in high blood pressure, heart problems, stomach issues, among others. Or mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.
Feelings may also “leak out.” Like when you find yourself blowing up over something that normally wouldn’t bother you and cause damage to relationships. Or, on the other hand, breaking down over something relatively small, and finally letting out all that sadness that may have built up, and not necessarily at the best time to break down.
Start the Day Being Aware of Your Emotions
Here’s a way to get on top of your emotions proactively:
Each morning, do an inventory of your emotions. Ask yourself: How am I feeling today? Glad? Great! Or sad? Scared? Frustrated? Just plain old mad? Ask yourself what’s causing you to feel that way. Most likely you can identify thoughts or recent events that are bring up all those feelings. If you’re angry, ask yourself why. And if you can’t come up with an answer, cast a wider net for other feelings that may be behind all that anger. During this time of COVID-19, with many of us working at home and spending more time with family members, it’s especially important to stay aware of emotions.
Beware of helplessness. Often, thoughts and events cause us difficulty because they remind us that so much of life is out of our control. Nobody knows this better than someone who is living with a chronic condition like a bleeding disorder. As I said earlier, sadness, disappointment, and fear may make us feel helpless. And humans don’t do well with helplessness.
Take a look at what you can and can’t control. Taking a moment to acknowledge your level of control, or lack thereof, can help you to maintain your perspective. Is it time to recite the serenity prayer, and accept what you can’t control? Or is it time to take some action to address an issue you have been pushing aside?
Know what you need to do to stay in a mentally healthy place. Again, be proactive. If you start the day with feelings that are hard to sit with, like sadness or frustration or fear, then consider what you can do help yourself cope. Is there someone you can call for a pep talk? Do you need to take time for a walk? Maybe some meditation? A break with some calming music? Or a maybe a religious or spiritual practice? I always recommend to clients that they have a tool box of coping skills they can pull from as needed.
Maintain self-awareness. It’s only human to feel overwhelmed when something happens that presses a button. So how do you stop that from happening? The key is to be aware of yourself, each and every moment of the day. That means knowing when you are might be feeling especially vulnerable. Being your authentic self can enhance your wellness. Doing your morning emotional inventory will kick start your self-awareness for the rest of the day.
Make Your Home a Safe Space for Emotions
Help your family members to feel comfortable talking about feelings. This will have an incredibly positive impact on the emotional wellness of everyone in your household:
Practice using feeling words. My clients have said to me that they’re afraid that if they actually talked about how they’re feeling, the roof might come crashing down on them. I can pretty much guarantee that won’t happen. So give it a try. Start with something about how your day went: “I felt frustrated at work today when…” Or, “When I saw that traffic was backed up, I was worried that…” Wow, you just expressed a feeling. That wasn’t so bad, was it?
And don’t assume your loved ones can’t listen to how you feel. One of the biggest excuses I hear for holding in emotions is protecting other people. In the first place, they can see your feelings all over your face so, chances are, you’re not fooling anybody. And in the second place, your loved ones may not be as fragile as you think they are. Not sure if they can talk about feelings with you? How about asking? And while you’re at it, volunteer to listen to how they feel, too.
Encourage your children to express emotions! Remember, kids know how their parents are feeling, and they may as a result hold back on saying something they fear may upset their parents. So they may be holding back on talking about their feelings and not get the support from their parents they need. Kids are feeling especially stressed as they cope with the many changes that COVID-19 has brought to our lives.
Have a heart. Living with a bleeding disorder brings up all kinds of emotions. You can’t control how you feel but you don’t have to let your feelings control you. Accept your own feelings – all of them – and let yourself be human. Be aware of the range of your emotions. Sure, feelings can be scary. But allow your feelings to see the light of day.
Give yourself a break, and you’ll be that much more able to give others a break, too. We’re all in this together!
Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and educator, specializing in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening health conditions, as well as their families and professional caregivers. He works with them to understand and cope with their emotions, to learn about their lifestyle and treatment options, to maintain compliance with medical regimens, to communicate effectively with each other and healthcare professionals, and to listen to their own inner voice as they make decisions about the future. His website is JustGotDiagnosed.com.