All Emotions Are Valid Even If All Responses Are Not
Allow people to feel how they feel or risk alienating them by your emotional ignorance. My journey to emotional intelligence.
# 44 on my, 99 Life Tips – A List is: Allow everyone in your life to feel how they feel, they’re going to anyway. If you tell them they shouldn’t feel a certain way, you’re alienating yourself by your own emotional ignorance.
To start, I want to acknowledge and thank John Gottman, author of multiple books, relationship and marriage therapist par excellence, and founder of the John Gottman Institute, where many fine people continue his work on relationships and emotional maturity. Many of the things I will touch on in this article I learned from reading his books and watching his videos and Ted Talks (like this one with over a million views).
I’ll also be linking to several articles for further reading. I promise I’m not intentionally plagiarizing any specific comment, phrase, or idea, but after 16 years of assimilation, I’ve adopted a lot of the language as my own.
Wow. Where do I start with this one? It is regrettable that I discovered the truth that all feelings are valid, far too late in my life. 40 years old, married, and the father of 7 kids, I was an emotional idiot, alternately over or under reacting to the negative emotions of the people around me. I even became a full-time minister. Nevertheless, I possessed zero, ZERO emotional intelligence. Why? Mostly because of how I was raised, and consequently conditioned, to deal with negative emotions.
Before proceeding, it must be noted that emotions, typically thought of as feelings, are not just feelings. They are behaviors, too. They are behaviors, too. The feeling of anger can give rise to an outburst (behavior). Negative emotions form patterned responses (including associated behaviors) from a young age.
Four Parenting Styles
Gottman identifies four distinct parenting styles that influence the development of these patterned reactions. These styles imprint children for dealing with negative emotions as they grow into adulthood. I’ve linked an article outlining each of the styles. Only one of them can develop emotionally stable kids who grow up to be emotionally intelligent and emotionally mature adults. That style is the ”Emotion Coach”.
Emotion Coach parents recognize the validity of a child’s negative feelings, and help their child work out appropriate responses. This is the crux of the matter if you ever hope to become emotionally intelligent, benefitting both yourself and the people with whom you are in relationship. All emotions are valid, all responses are not.
I wasn’t raised by an Emotion Coach. I was raised to deny negative emotions, to ignore them, and to distract myself from them. My mom was a bi-polar, suicidal alcoholic who took her own emotional medicine. When she felt bad, which was often, she wrote bad checks, or passed out drunk, or slept with inappropriately aged young men, or sometimes…took handfuls of pills.
Whenever I felt bad it was, ”Here honey, you don’t need to feel that way, have a drink.” And when I got angry, she’d get just as angry, or worse, apparently believing the way to exorcise anger was to blow it out of your system. We could be angry together. It was us against the stupid world.
Being A Christian Doesn’t Impart Emotional Intelligence
So, of course, my life followed the stereotypical pattern. I didn’t like to feel bad. I had learned that I shouldn’t have to feel along with many ways to make myself feel better. Sex, and cocaine, and pot were great ways to avoid, ignore, or distance myself from negative emotions.
This wasn’t going to end well, but it was definitely going to end.
At 21, I became a serious Christian. I mean really serious. But reading and memorizing large swaths of the Bible didn’t make me emotionally intelligent. In some ways, my poor understanding of Jesus and Christianity made me less so. If a Christian feels bad, it’s their fault, right? God doesn’t feel bad. Jesus doesn’t. If you feel bad, you must be doing something wrong that more prayer, or listening to more teaching tapes on Faith, or attending more meetings on Sundays and Wednesday nights can fix.
In short, I grew up believing that feeling bad is not okay. Feeling bad when you’re a Christian is REALLY not ok. I mean, what’s the point?
Maybe you grew up in a lion’s den, too. Maybe you were taught to deny your negative feelings because it is not acceptable to feel bad. I want to say however you feel right now is valid. It is how you feel. You don’t have to rationalize those feelings or justify them to anyone. They are yours, and you are entitled to them. I’m sure if we could all see inside your life and your head, we’d understand a lot better why you feel as you do. And if we couldn’t, that’s our problem, not yours.
Having said that, all of your responses to your feelings are not appropriate. I’ll explain shortly.
Even as an ardent Christian, I went years in a state of emotional detachment to people. Growing up with a mom who routinely attempted suicide, and even more regularly threatened it, doesn’t exactly make one trust and value long-term relationships. I had seen her be gut-wrenchingly depressive so often, with nothing ever coming of it, that I completely detached if anyone around me ever cried or got upset. My mom's drunken, cryee-faced, suicide routine had taught me that kind of drama wasn’t real, and not something to get too alarmed about. .
For years, I was happy, rarely depressed, not a substance abuser, had a wife and kids, friends, and at 26, became a full-time minister.
Then, 12 years ago, after 22 and a half years of marriage, I found out my wife was cheating on me with an old high school ”friend” she had reconnected with on Facebook. I was so emotionally oblivious that it went on for 6 months before I discovered her treachery. But then, according to pattern, I was devastated and angry. Murderously angry.
Those feelings, given my situation, were completely valid. (I even had a licensed Christian marriage counselor tell me so). Feeling betrayed, I wanted to kill. That’s understandable. But actually killing either of them would have been horribly inappropriate. It wouldn’t have erased the adultery, it would have just put me in jail for murder.
That’s an extreme example, but it is my story, and I’m sticking with it.
I’m also ashamed to admit, that sometimes after my girls became teenagers, struggling with typical teenage girl problems, they would cry themselves to sleep at night, and I was emotionally unavailable. Sometimes I would make it worse by telling them to pray. I didn’t want them to feel bad. I offered many reasons why they shouldn’t…usually heavily laced with what I thought were uplifting scriptures. But my attempts were born out of a stupidity about the nature of emotions and emotional connection.
It seemed the more they cried and hurt, the more shut down and aloof I became.
This all changed one night when I picked up my 15 year old second daughter from a party with friends. I knew she had a crush on a boy at the party and on the way home I asked her about him. She became upset and teary as she explained that he had hardly paid any attention to her. Crying, she told me he had been obsessed with another girl. Then she told me how bad this made her feel about herself, and how she would never have a boyfriend.
It was the perfect opportunity for me to be a good, loving, understanding father to a teen-age daughter who just needed me to be there for her. It was a chance to hear her, validate her feelings, and relate to her that I had been rejected and ignored at her age too, and I understood how bad that could feel. I wish I had been that father.
Instead, I told her how silly it was to be upset. I explained that at her age nothing was going to come of this crush. And I told her that the boy was probably not ”godly” anyway and that she was much better off not getting any more involved with him. I told her to be thankful and to feel good that that was over. I can vaguely remember her looking at me incredulously with a tear-streaked face in the dark car. And I thought I had done so well trying to make her feel better.
When we got home, I went about my normal routine and thought nothing more about it. After a while, I overheard her talking with her mom. She was crying and clearly upset. I got up and came into the kitchen where they were. My daughter was sitting on a barstool, her face in her hands. More teen-aged female drama, I thought. Hadn't I already dealt with this and helped her get over it on the way home?
The Turning Point
I said, ”You didn’t feel this way on the way home, and we get home and you fall to pieces?”
”I cried all the way home, Dad,” she said.
”What? Now, you’re just lying.” I said in return.
She jerked her head up, tears streaming, and I had the flashback of her face in the dark car. My emotional blindness astonished and floored me. After apologizing profusely to her, I retreated into my mind to try to understand how I had tuned out her emotions and her crying on the way home.
Though I had failed at getting her to ignore her bad feelings, I had succeeded in ignoring them myself. My patterned response to her crying had been to erase it from reality. So much that, to me, it didn’t even exist. I had marched into that kitchen in righteous indignation, clouded by emotional self-delusion, as if she was making up the whole dramatic scene just to curry compassion from her mother. I was stunned…in the best possible way.
The next day, I searched for the words ”Emotional Connection” and discovered John Gottman.
Do yourself a favor and watch a video, or read a book. Don’t be like me. Er, don’t be like I was!
I’m not that same detached, emotionally unavailable man anymore. It has taken work. Some of the time it has felt very artificial because my ingrained tendencies to deny, deflect, and distract were so deep. I'm no longer afraid to feel bad, quite the contrary. And, I have the distinct pleasure and honor of hearing my girlfriend tell that I’m the most emotionally intelligent person she’s ever known.
I have the unspeakable satisfaction to be there for my kids when things are bad, knowing that now, I’m in it with them. I’m able to relate to their emotions, and validate them, and they know it. I'm much more the Emotion Coach now, even to my adult children. I teach and model for them that all emotions are valid, even if all responses are not. I’ve stopped telling them how to feel, or how they shouldn’t feel. I let them feel how they feel. They were always going to anyway.
And I have the chance to share these things with you, dear Reader. I hope you’ll find how affirming and strengthening it is when you allow the people in your life to feel how they feel without judging them, or trying to change their feelings, or ”make them feel better.”
One of life’s greatest gifts is a kind soul who will help us shoulder the burdens of times when we feel down. A friend and partner with whom we can share our hurts without fear of judgement. One who will hear us, hold us, be there through it with us, allowing us the space to feel all we need to feel, and who will help us respond appropriately. You can be that gift.
There are times you’ll be in a position to validate and affirm someone’s emotions, when you believe the reasons for their emotional state may not be sound. That can happen. When it does, I encourage you to connect emotionally. Tell the person you understand how they feel. You may even say something like, ”It’s understandable you feel that way since that’s how you see ____________.” The time to discuss the reasons for the feelings will come after you affirm the existence of the feelings.