There are many emotions that come up this time of year. There are some like simcha, gratitude, and devekus that are wonderful to experience. I see from my children who are “millennials” that they are fine with that. However, they seem to be rejecting or suppressing some of the more uncomfortable emotions that can come up like anxiety, guilt, and regret. It got me thinking about how psychologically speaking are all these feelings so terrible? Can they not be tolerated at all? Isn’t there a purpose to painful feelings as well? Are they missing something by trying to attach themselves to only the pleasant part of the experience without the challenging ones? I’d also appreciate if you had some thought on how to balance those different feelings?
An integral aspect of maturity—in fact a part of life—relates to both acknowledging negative emotions and to learning how to be comfortable with discomfort (if you’ll allow me poetic license). Naturally, recognizing an uncomfortable thought or feeling is a prerequisite to the ability to become more comfortable with it.
Over the past few generations, we have become constantly more aware of the interplay of our thoughts and our emotions. We are more willing to acknowledge our emotions, and to discuss them with others. The stigma of therapy has been largely depleted. Psychotherapeutic terms like, “How does that make you feel” (no; I never use that term), diagnoses like anxiety, and modalities like CBT have become part of the common lexicon. As with most things in life, these changes can be both positive and negative.
Increased focus on our emotions has helped many of us to identify feelings that were previously difficult for us to characterize. This has led to the increased ability to work these feelings through. As you alluded to, this has also allowed us to simply consciously acknowledge these feelings and to be okay with their existence. This is more significant than it may sound. When an emotion is unconscious, it often feels significantly more problematic than once it is clearly recognized and explored.
Unfortunately, a negative effect of both generalized emotion recognition and the proliferation of therapeutic terms relates to their overuse. In therapy, the goal is often viewed theoretically as the elimination of problematic emotions. For instance, if anxiety is the issue, the goal is to have no anxiety. Of course this is impossible. We are not automatons; nor should we wish to be. Negative emotions are a part of the human experience.
I have had clients who complain about continuing emotions like anxiety. When we discuss the circumstances, it often turns out that their anxiety is perfectly normal. However, their exposure to the therapy process has given them the sense that any degree of anxiety is problematic, regardless of the situation.
You mentioned the fact that your children appear to reject or suppress negative emotions. There is a difference between the two. From my perspective, rejecting a negative emotion means that they are acknowledging it, perhaps dealing with it, but then deciding not to allow it to affect them. Suppressing an emotion, however, would mean that they refuse to acknowledge it at all. Using these descriptions, “rejection” of an emotion would be less maladaptive. It would also leave the door open for them to further address it at a future time.
Emotional suppression can be a problem, but we all do this to one degree or another. As children, we all develop defense mechanisms to help us deal with emotions that we are not yet mature enough to appropriately resolve. These defenses—like repression—follow us into adulthood. This does not necessarily mean that it makes sense to continue using them, but we all do. If we use them in ways that significantly affect our proper adjustment and happiness, this is something that should be addressed.
I don’t know what it is that leads you to believe that your children are rejecting or suppressing certain emotions. I don’t know whether the rejection and suppression to which you refer match my descriptions. I wonder whether your concern about this may relate to your need for your children to completely eliminate what you view as a problematic issue.
As parents, we all want our children to be happy and fulfilled. There is often a fine line between assisting them and enabling them. We want to help them, but we also need to know when we should leave things in their hands, so that they can learn to work through things on their own.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
adjunct professor at Touro College
Graduate School of Social Work
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 516-218-4200
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