Acknowledge the emotions you have, and accept them all as normal and universal
Adults still need all of their emotions to be seen, recognized, reflected, and validated, just like toddlers, kindergartners, school-age children, and adolescents. Adults still act in less-than-ideal ways (to put it mildly) because of overwhelming emotions. Most adults could use some more education about how emotions operate in the mind, the nervous system, and the body.
Because of what we were taught about emotion as children, many of us adults are very hard on ourselves about feeling and showing emotions. But that is unfair. It would make just as little sense to judge oneself harshly for breathing. A man I know, who is quite anxious, told me he wished he could be like his father, who told him, “There is no point to being anxious, so I never feel that way.” However, if this man’s father was hooked up to machines that measure galvanic skin response and other physical signs of anxiety, most likely he would score high sometimes, even if he wasn’t aware of it. Emotions don’t care if they are reasonable or helpful; they arise within us and they need to be noticed, acknowledged, named, and accepted. Not every emotion has to be acted on, unless it is the right thing to do. But people suffer inside if they pretend the feelings aren’t there.
Recognize generational patterns of emotional expression (or suppression)
Every adult was once a child, raised by the previous generation of adults, who were raised by the generation before. Emotional patterns pass down through the generations, for better or worse. I come from a long line of worriers. It has taken a great effort for me to support and encourage my children’s and granddaughters’ explorations, instead of anxiously waving my arms and saying, “Be careful, be careful.”
Some families show a lot of anger or always hide their anger. My father was often sad as a boy because his father died when he was very young. But my father broke the pattern and found happiness, and he passed that capacity of joy to me. That is something I am glad to pass on to my children, and now to my granddaughter.
When children spend a lot of time in survival mode, they can grow up and pass down patterns of fear and anxiety to the next generation, and the generation after, even if those later generations are not living in constant danger. That’s why I often feel that I have to eat fast before the food disappears, even though I have been lucky enough never to be hungry. My ancestors were hungry, and the pattern remains.
In many families, the traumas of the older generations are unspoken. Perhaps the elders don’t want to burden the younger ones with the pain of what they experienced, or perhaps they don’t think the younger generation will understand or take it seriously. Perhaps the younger generation is afraid to ask the questions, not wanting to open an old wound. But Fred Rogers, the wise TV personality and every child’s friendly neighbor, often said that “anything that is mentionable is manageable.” I think it is worth the risk to open these doors and bring old traumas out into the open, so that they can heal, and any unwelcome emotional patterns don’t have to keep being handed down.
For example, a friend of mine lost her father recently. Her own grief was complicated by the fact that she felt responsible for her nephew, who was very close to his grandfather. This young man was not allowed by his mother or his grandmother to grieve—they told him to be strong, focus on his studies, and not cry about or even talk about his beloved grandfather. For the grandmother, sadness was a luxury she did not have time for when she was growing up. She lost so much as a child but had to ignore that and focus all of her energy on survival. Now the grandson was completely unable to focus, and risked failing out of school. He also began to feel suicidal and could not be left alone. It wasn’t the grief, in my opinion, that led to these dire circumstances. It was the denial of grief, across the generations. If grief is treated as a treasured friend, instead of a dangerous enemy, it is able to complete more effectively. We could also say that it is not the child in this story who has the emotional problem, but it is the adults who are unable to face their own grief, and they reject the boy who is unable to hide his.