The Epic Lies About Emotions You Learned from Your Parents

The topic of repressed emotions strikes a chord with many people; it reflects the significant impact your parents had on molding your emotional world. You may have grown up being told, in essence, not to feel or express your feelings or emotions. Some recall being told to stifle tears or toughen up, thus shaping their expressive tendencies. Others might not have received explicit directives on emotions yet witnessed self-destructive emotional coping mechanisms modeled by their parents. Throughout generations, parents have ingrained in children the habit of numbing, escaping, or suppressing emotions.

The truth you were never told is that emotional repression is the source of many of this world’s woes; humanity must break this cycle of behavior to find emotional freedom. It’s a journey of self-discovery and understanding that offers a few surprises along the way.

Parental Modeling of Repressed Emotions

Think back to your childhood. Remember those moments when you witnessed your parents dealing with their emotions—or perhaps, more accurately, not dealing with them? From the subtle cues to the outright lessons, our parents had a big hand in teaching us how to handle what we feel. Yet our inability to deal positively with emotions isn’t really their fault; they learned how to deal with emotions from their parents. We could go back many generations of emotional repression and never find the one person who started it.

Many people are unaware of the extent of behavioral patterns associated with repressed emotions. Here are some examples of how parents may have demonstrated the repression of emotions. This repression manifests in three main categories: Numbing behavior, Escaping behavior, and Suppressing behavior.

Numbing Behavior:

  • Ignoring Feelings: Parents may dismiss or downplay their emotions, teaching children to ignore or invalidate their feelings. The renowned British reserve, “Keep a stiff upper lip,” is a notable illustration of this behavior.
  • Substance Abuse: Children witnessing parents turning to alcohol, drugs, or other substances to numb emotions learn to cope similarly.
  • Self-harming: Cutting, emotional eating, anorexia, bulimia – any behavior that seeks to numb painful emotions through self-harming activities.

Escaping Behavior:

  • Distracting Activities: Encouraging constant engagement in activities like excessive work, television, shopping, exercise, or gaming to avoid confronting difficult emotions.
  • Avoidance of Conflict: Parents may shy away from addressing conflicts or disagreements, teaching children to avoid uncomfortable situations.
  • Physical Distance: Some parents may physically distance themselves from emotionally charged situations, indirectly teaching children to escape from emotional intimacy.
  • Overemphasis on Positive: Constantly focusing on positive aspects while avoiding discussions about negative emotions may lead children to believe that negative feelings should be avoided rather than addressed.

Suppressing Behavior:

  • “Toughen Up” Mentality: Parents may enforce a “toughen up” mentality, discouraging the expression of vulnerability or sensitivity.
  • Punishment for Emotional Expression: Children who are scolded or punished for displaying emotions like crying or anger learn to suppress these feelings to avoid punishment.
  • Emotional Invalidation: Parents may dismiss or belittle children’s emotions, teaching them their feelings are unimportant or invalid.

The way your parents demonstrated this behavior could vary significantly, ranging from extreme cases like a father developing alcoholism or workaholism to subtler instances like your mom reaching for a glass of wine after a stressful day. Perhaps they taught us to suppress anger or conceal sadness because those emotions made them uncomfortable. Or maybe they struggled openly expressing their feelings, unintentionally leading us to mimic their behavior without realizing it.

The Truth About Emotions

But here’s the twist: the majority of these teachings were unhealthy. All the behaviors mentioned above are considered negative coping strategies for handling emotions. While individuals tend to label emotions as either positive or negative, few are aware that emotions themselves are neutral; how you choose to express them can be either negative or positive.

There is limited discussion regarding the positive expression of emotions, although some psychologists employ techniques such as writing or art therapy with their clients. Any form of self-expression can serve as a constructive method for navigating emotions. Engaging in art and journaling offers individuals valuable avenues to explore and process their feelings healthfully.

When expressed negatively, anger can manifest inwardly through self-harming behaviors or outwardly by projecting pain onto others. Conversely, positive expression of anger might involve activities like punching a pile of pillows or running through nature—anything that allows the energy of anger to dissipate without causing harm to oneself or others.

Whatever your coping strategy, understanding whether it is a repression method is the first step to breaking free from the generational behavioral pattern of repressing emotions. Let’s turn the tables and reclaim control over your emotional well-being. It’s not an easy journey, but trust me, it’s worth it.

Breaking the Chains: Overcoming Repressed Emotions

Begin by being honest with yourself. Recognize the emotions you’ve suppressed and permit yourself to experience them fully. Feeling angry, sad, or scared is entirely normal—it’s an integral aspect of being human. It’s also acceptable to select a more suitable moment to express these emotions, perhaps postponing them because it’s uncomfortable in public. The crucial aspect is to allow these emotions to surface at some point during the day.

The Process of Focused Attention

One quick way to process a feeling is through Focused Attention. In this process, you focus on the feeling, noticing its breadth, depth, consistency, color—any way you can describe the emotion. Next, you identify the emotion, acknowledging its existence. Lastly, you permit yourself to feel that feeling, knowing it’s a valid and natural part of your experience. When you practice this process, the feeling will flow and quickly dissipate.

Scientists have quantified the biochemistry of a feeling—it typically lasts between 30 and 120 seconds. Anything beyond that is the story, your version of the circumstances that initiates the emotion. The fallacy we were taught is that we must manage our emotions; the reality is we must choose our thoughts. Constantly revisiting the story of your circumstances only lengthens your exposure to the painful emotion.

Lastly, practice some self-compassion. Cut yourself some slack, and remember that you’re doing your best with what you’ve learned. You probably didn’t have anyone who modeled positive emotional expression. If you need extra support along the way, don’t hesitate to contact a therapist or a trusted friend who can lend an ear.

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