Our culture has done a poor job of teaching people how to be emotionally honest. We have divided emotions into two different groups–positive emotions and negative emotions. What is it that qualifies one emotion as positive and another as negative?
Positive emotions are ones we feel safe showing others because we know they will be accepted. On the other hand, negative emotions are ones we feel will not be accepted. Because of this fear of rejection, we have learned to be fake with what we feel. Why is anger (typically categorized as a negative emotion) any less valid than happiness?
We would never dream of telling someone to stop being so happy, but we constantly tell others to stop being angry. Why? When we don’t know what to do with their anger, it makes us uncomfortable, so we look to others to change their behavior so we can feel comfortable. Ironically, we do this because we don’t know how to feel our own emotions of being uncomfortable with their anger.
However, no matter how we try to categorize them, there are no good or bad feelings; there are only feelings. How can a person develop emotional honesty? It is a process of listening to your own feelings, identifying them, and then accepting them as messages that can help you negotiate relationships, problems, or even trauma and pain that may occur in life.
Emotional honesty is an important concept in healthy living as it relates to our ability to be emotionally honest with others as well as ourselves. To be honest with our feelings, we may need to explore the reasons why we tend to deceive ourselves.
We are born whole or complete. However, through the socialization process, we may lose aspects of ourselves due to emotional responses and feelings we have not yet learned how to manage. Sometimes we repress, deny, and rationalize to protect ourselves from some of the deeper, harder feelings that we have not yet learned to manage in a healthy way.
Many people have no model to help them learn healthy coping strategies. We do not teach “emotional intelligence” (Daniel Goleman, Ph.D.) in school or most religions.
Emotions and thoughts are like the chicken and the egg. Which comes first? They can both trigger responses, or develop, from each other. By nature, feelings are not logical. They are feelings–however irrational they might be. In a culture that honors logic and thought, some people are becoming less in touch with their emotions.
They have no ability to recognize their own feelings, let alone act on them appropriately. Emotional intelligence is a term that refers to the ability of a person to recognize emotions, get the message from them that is intended, and then act intelligently on the emotion in an empowered, healthy way.
Accept Your Feelings
In my work with trauma victims, I have seen many people who have developed unhealthy coping strategies. The strategies might have worked when they were younger and being abused or traumatized, but they are not working now. As they learn healthy coping strategies to develop emotional honesty, they learn to trust their emotions as those feelings were intended–messages that something is wrong or things are going well.
I have seen people learn to accept long-lost feelings that have haunted them for years. For example, I saw a client I’ll call Susan. When she was very young, she wished her abusive father was dead just before he died. She felt that it was her fault because her thoughts killed him. She had been carrying the feelings of guilt for years.
When I confronted her and suggested that her thoughts could have never killed her father, she learned to let go of the feelings of guilt and shame. When they are accepted, feelings come and go instead of getting trapped due to repression or denial. While this may sound simple, it is actually quite difficult as people say their feelings are bigger than themselves; and if they start to feel them, they will be sucked down a deep, dark hole.
It is best to consider this journey into our feelings as a path where we are explorers trying to discover deeper levels of ourselves. It is a journey of healing, and we need to be gentle with ourselves and accept that we may have unresolved feelings that may be difficult but not impossible to work through.
“There is a purpose for every challenge and every situation in which we find ourselves. THE PURPOSE IS FOR LEARNING AND GROWTH-and FOR GETTING TO KNOW WHO WE REALLY ARE.” (Karol Kuhn Truman). We can learn to be mindful of our emotional honesty with ourselves and with others as we go through our daily activities.
At first, it will take some reminders to help you get in touch with the goal of emotional honesty; but over time, you can learn that you can choose how you react to your feelings and how to communicate your feelings in a healthy way.
Anger is an example of a complex emotion that has an underlying cause. If you look deeply at your anger, you will see there is usually an underlying hurt or pain associated with it.
To make my daughter the butt of a joke in front of her friends causes her to get angry at me, but her anger is secondary to the humiliation and hurt she first felt. When my wife can’t find her purse and gets angry, it is only after she first feels the fear of possibly having lost money that she has worked hard to earn.
Anger can be felt from injustice either to others or to yourself. If a person recognizes the hurt and accepts the pain, there is a chance to see anger as a secondary emotion. It is curious that anger is, in some ways, a more accepted emotion than feeling hurt, so people act out in anger or rage against someone else, and then justify themselves by saying that the person deserved it.
This usually goes against their own value system and causes an underlying anxiety and stress in people who act this way. It is important to recognize that acting with emotional intelligence will not necessarily change anyone else’s behavior, but emotionally intelligent people are truly empowered because they have not acted out against their own value systems.
If they nurture their own pain or hurt, possibly get support and seek healing, and learn that causing more pain in others will not heal their own pain, they will likely feel better about themselves and they will soon gravitate away from those who continually cause them pain.
Accepting your emotions takes practice
Being emotionally honest takes practice. We need to be able to step back and look at ourselves when we are feeling intense emotions.
One example of working through difficult emotions is when a person experiences Post-Traumatic Stress. This is when a feeling is triggered by an event, sound, smell or any other stimulus that may look, feel, and seem like a threat and acts as a reminder of a time when they have had trauma. This post-traumatic reaction is actually a natural response to a stimulus that could pose a threat.
I once got in an accident by the Dairy Queen Drive-In with my daughter in the car. I looked down as I pulled into the drive through lane because I dropped something on the floor. I smashed into the back of a van that had just pulled in the lane and stopped. No one was injured, but it certainly traumatized my daughter and me.
After that, for many months, I had a gut-wrenching feeling whenever I passed that Dairy Queen. The natural response was to have some fear and adrenaline even though there was no immediate danger. Having worked with PTSD victims for many years, I immediately recognized my reaction for what it was and worked with it by taking ownership of the feelings and accepting them. I was honest with how I felt.
After several months, the feelings slowly went away. Now when I go to the Dairy Queen, I might remember what happened, which is probably a wise thing to do so I don’t repeat the accident, but I don’t feel the stress or anxiety I experienced before.
It took practice, but I finally navigated through the feelings and came out with a healthy respect for the danger without carrying the feelings because I accepted them and was emotionally honest with myself.
We can practice being emotionally honest by asking ourselves how we feel. Naming the feeling gives us power to work with it. This is an interesting experience, and it helps us to connect to the emotional parts of ourselves that we may have disowned.
In the book Feelings Buried Alive Never Die, Karol Truman makes a great point about the process of exploring your own emotional world: “The fun and enlightening part about working on yourself is that you forget about helping or wanting others to change. Because you are having such a good time and are being rewarded in this new endeavor of discovering your own thoughts and feelings, it’s easier to ‘live and let live.’ After all is said and done, YOU are NOT responsible for changing anyone but yourself, anyway!”
Freedom from the burden of changing others or fixing their problem gives you energy to be a better friend, a good listener, and someone others see as emotionally healthy. Being emotionally honest can not only benefit you but those around you as they see your example. It is a genuine quality of healthy living.
Of all the languages in the world, the most difficult language to communicate is the language of feelings. One of our greatest challenges as human beings is to effectively communicate with other people what we truly feel. Perhaps the most significant and consequential challenge we face, however, is acquiring the ability to communicate congruently with ourselves.