Once upon a time, a young girl named Goldilocks went food tasting. She tried Papa Bear’s porridge but it was too hot, and Mama Bear’s which was too cold. When she tasted a spoonful from Baby Bear’s tiny little bowl she cried “YUMMY!” “THIS IS JUST RIGHT!”
And so it is with families. The expression of feelings—the “just right” amount—happens to a moderate degree in healthy families. Not too hot, not too cold. It is best to strike a balance between expressing feelings too much or in uncontrolled ways, versus expressing them too little or stuffing them down.
There are a wide range of feelings: positive ones such as love, joy and appreciation, as well as those considered negative such as anger, sadness, fear, grief or embarrassment. They all play an important role. Expressing feelings in constructive ways helps and heals our bodies, relationships, and families.
Here are some principles and tips:
Become the master of your feelings.
There are three components to consider with feelings:
- Communicating to others
The first step is to become more aware of what we are feeling moment to moment. Children as young as three years old can learn to recognize and put words to feelings.
Listen to your body.
For example, angry feelings are often stored as tension in the jaw, back, shoulders and/or neck. Sad feelings can settle in our stomach and chest areas. When we are unaware of what we are feeling, when can ask others to give feedback about what they think we might be feeling by how we look.
Perhaps one of the best metaphors for holding onto feelings is to think about kitchen garbage. If you let a bunch of chicken bones and soup cans sit around too long without taking the garbage out, things start to stink up a bit. The same can be true with feelings. They need to be attended to.
Studies suggest that we heal more rapidly from physical injury and pain when we express ourselves. When people hold feelings inside, they can develop symptoms of depression and low self-esteem. There is also a greater tendency to develop psychosomatic symptoms such as stomachaches, bed-wetting, gastrointestinal problems, rashes, headaches, etc.
Help your relationships.
When communicated in non-blaming ways, both positive and negative feelings can build greater understanding and intimacy. Holding feelings inside also can lead to passive-aggressive, indirect expressions of those feelings somewhere down the line. Examples of such behavior include withdrawing from others, becoming stubborn, or using teasing or sarcasm.
Don’t lose control with negative feelings.
Some families lose control of emotions or place too much weight on their meaning or importance. Negative feelings in such families are typically expressed in a destructive fashion rather than resolved by good listening or channeled constructively. Not much gets accomplished when there’s emotional chaos and feelings flying all over the place.
Handle anger with care.
Anger can be like fire. When properly contained, fire can cook a meal or warm a room. When out of control, it can burn the house down. Use anger in constructive ways to speak up about your wants and needs, but without !
Be careful with words.
There’s a common myth that the more feelings you share, the better your marriage or family will be, or the closer you’ll feel. That’s true for positive feelings, but not necessarily for negative ones. Some people insist “I’m just being honest and saying what I feel—he’s a jerk.” Dumping honest but uncensored feelings on others does not build trust or intimacy.
Express on your own.
When we can release some of our anger when we are alone, its power is usually reduced. Sometimes it even goes away. With less charge it can then be channeled into constructive conversation.
Exercise upset away.
Regular physical exercise also helps reduce anger levels, especially when using the following procedure: Think about an upsetting situation as you exercise aerobically, screaming the words in your head that express what you are feeling and wanting. After that, release the remaining tension with heavy exhalations.
Explore the whole range of feelings.
Sadness, anger, hurt, fear and guilt are some of the primary negative feelings. Do any of these dominate your emotional landscape to the neglect of the others? For example, men can tend to feel too much anger without attending to some of the softer emotions. Conversely, women can get stuck in sadness. Expand your repertoire.
Help others to heal.
Take time to listen to the feelings of your loved ones. When people feel listened to and understood by others, their negative feelings dissipate and can go away. Their brains settle down and now they are ready for clearer connection and decision-making. Tip for parents: Songs and activities to facilitate this process with kids can be found from the link in the closing bio for this article.
Express in a safe place with a safe person.
A useful metaphor is to have your hand on the faucet of your feelings. You want to be able to open the faucet when you choose with a safe person who can support you in your release of feelings. You also want to be able to keep the faucet from flowing with anger or tears when it isn’t the right time or place, such as at work.
Finally, don’t get lost in your emotions.
Feelings shouldn’t be given huge importance or demand our attention all the time. If constructive expression doesn’t work and you find yourself stuck in negative feelings, examine the “story” you are telling yourself. Might it help to think about your upset in a different way?
Remember to laugh.
All feelings—good or bad—can be expressed through laughter. Have you ever laughed so hard you began to cry? Life is serious enough. Lighten up with a laugh.