To Feel or Not Feel - that is the Question

When I was growing up, my dad showed few feelings – he was pretty much neutral with an occasional splash of anger, or even a less frequent bit of laughter. He was a serious, hard-working, blue collar, non-demonstrative, hands-off kind of dad. He provided food and shelter for his family and made sure we never had physical needs unmet, but he did not know much about feelings. My mom was slightly better. They did their best, but they weren't great at emotional connection. I want more for my kids.

Going to graduate school for psychology, I had a lot of learning to do about feelings. Sure, the good feelings were easy to figure out. But for many people, like my parents, the negative one’s are more complicated and along the way we may have developed some distorted thoughts about how we view and address feelings.

What’s your perspective on feelings?

Some people think of feelings as weak and unnecessary, others consider them to be evidence of immaturity or not being in control. Still, others are willing to allow the experience of good feelings, but the negative one’s need to be stuffed away. Hurt and trauma may have led some to close off their feelings while others think of feelings as merely a tool to manipulate others. Then, there are those who think every feeling they have is meant to be shared out loud and all over social media!

Regardless, all of these are distorted approaches to feelings and can lead to problems. Like the volume button in your car, when you turn down the volume to quiet the bad sounds, the good sounds go with it. Not addressing feelings in a healthy way, leads to more difficulty feeling joy, laughter, happiness or other positive feelings. It can also hinder our connections with others and impact how we relate with society. It can even impact our health.

That’s not what I want for my kids. I want them to be connected to other people in meaningful, healthy, rewarding ways!

So, let’s talk about feelings.

My family was conservative, religious, and “old-school” in that they somewhat dismissed feelings and brushed them under the carpet. Whether religious or not, many people have been conditioned to believe emotions and feelings are somehow the opposite of logic or good sense, so they try to repress, ignore, deny, avoid, etc. In reality, feelings and logic aren't opposing forces.


I remember the first time my dad told me he was proud of me. It was the day I graduated from high school. I also remember he once said he loved me. It was the day he dropped me off at graduate school across the country far from home. He rarely expressed his feelings.

As an adult, I can think about how my parents cared for us. I know my dad loved us as best he could. I’m happy to say that during his last decade, my dad began to improve addressing feelings. He began to laugh more, share about his concerns, and express his love. But it sure would have been nice to hear that as a kid.

My childhood wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t what I would hope for my kids to feel as they grow up in my home.  I want my kids to know they are deeply loved, valued, and have significance. I want them to know their emotions and how to use them for their good. 

What is your view on feelings? Are you able to identify, express, and address many different feelings? Do you know when to acknowledge and share vs. when to acknowledge and choose to not share? Do you have trouble with the negative feelings?

Chances are, however you handle feelings, it is leaking all over your kids.

According to Oxford, emotional intelligence is “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judicially and empathetically.” People with higher emotional intelligence have better mental health, better job performance, and more leadership skills. Those are all outcomes I want for my children.

Emotional intelligence starts with being able to address emotions and feelings and use that to better understand yourself and connect better with others. We can all think of leaders in our schools, churches, communities, governments, etc. who were highly intelligent but failed in emotional intelligence and as a result, the impact they could have made was significantly decreased.

So, if you are like me and still a work in progress, we need to think about how we are building emotional intelligence and help our children to do it well. Today, let’s talk about the first part.

First, you need to continue to develop your ability to accept, acknowledge, and name feelings, and model that for your children. Then, you need to help them develop that skill as well.

Realize they are just feelings. Emotions and feelings go together. People often use those interchangeably, but it’s helpful to recognize them as separate but connected. Emotions, are a physiological awareness deep in your mind or body trying to let you know something is going on. This emotional response is triggered for a variety of reasons, both good and bad. Everyone has emotions.

Your mind or body experiences an emotion (anger, disgust, happiness, sadness, surprise and fear) as part of a survival mechanism for well-being mentally and physically. It happens subconsciously. It’s why you can be scared in a haunted house, even though at a conscious level you know it’s not real. It’s why an abused child might shrink back when someone raises a hand.

Your mind and body react to the inputs to signal you that something isn’t right. You might not even be aware of your emotion, but the scowl or smile on your face might be revealing your emotion to others.

Whether you like it or not, you have emotions. It’s how you were made. While emotions are this internal gut level experience, feelings are the subjective conscious expression of them. Many people create a disconnect here. For whatever reason, they detatch from their emotions and don’t allow themselves to feel.

Whether it’s a learned response from parenting, experience, trauma, etc. they try to minimize or wall off certain emotions so they don’t have to feel a negative feeling. They still have the negative emotion, but they try to block the awareness of it. So, it just runs around internally wreaking havoc on their mental and even physical well-being.

But, feelings are neither good nor bad, neither right nor wrong. They are just feelings. They are a response to the emotion in your gut or more accurately, your neuro-biology that’s trying to make you aware of something. We need to learn to accept our emotions and the feelings that come from them. They are real, and they matter.

Your interpretation and response to them might not always be right, or the associations you make to certain experiences that trigger them might not be accurate, but they are your emotions and feelings. The more you are able to feel and connect with your emotions, the more intelligently you can reflect on them and use them to serve you well in your life.

How well have you helped your child connect their feelings to their emotions? Are they able to identify a variety of different feelings and articulate them?

Sometimes, we have an emotion but can’t quite label the feeling until someone points it out to us, and it’s an “aha” moment. Perhaps, you’ve seen your child’s anxiety in their body language, but they aren’t yet really aware of the feeling to name it. Have you helped them connect the two? Maybe you’ve got an adoptive child who has experienced some trauma and they are stuck in the emotion of fear and then subsequent feelings influence much of their behavior. Can you see the influence of the fear emotion that's been triggered?

When it comes to our feelings, acknowledging or validating them does not mean avoid, suppress, or deny them, and conversely, it is not to amplify them as if they were a truth and a directive to express and act on.

There is a middle ground here, a healthy place, where we can recognize the feelings and emotions and become more self-aware, evaluate, and then choose our course of action.

It's a place where we aren’t being led by feelings, and we aren’t avoiding minimizing or suppressing them either. We are just being aware of what they are, accepting them as is, and then using them as tools to help us interact and connect better with ourselves and with others. Feelings are not the problem. It’s what we do with them that can be the issue.

Going through graduate school was refreshing for me. What an experience, when we discussed how we formed our understanding of our emotions and feelings as children and had to reflect on what we now did with emotions and feelings, and why.

I attributed my dismissal and not expressing much of my feelings to my parent’s religiosity and passing that behavior on to me. How startling when my professor wouldn’t let me stop there and challenged me to go deeper to challenge my notion. He asked me to determine if it was their faith or their own distorted view of their faith that limited their expression of feelings and whether or not I agreed or was choosing blindly to continue that response.

He made me do some research, and how eye opening it was to consider that Jesus, the focus of their faith, actually experienced the entire array of emotions and he didn’t stifle the feelings, suppress them, or hide them. He validated them for himself and for others. He also knew what to do with them when he felt them. Wow! Okay, so I learned in that class that I like to blame things on external sources a little too fast rather than realizing my own thinking can get in the way. But I digress….

Somewhere along the road as my dad got older and wiser, he started to grow in emotional awareness. In his last decade of life, he told me frequently he loved me and he hugged me every time he saw me. Did he change from disregarding me to loving me? Probably not. He was just broken and didn’t know it. He had disconnected his feelings from his emotions. But as he grew older and life's burdens became less he started to reconnect with his feelings. I’m still changing too and learning as I go.

Being aware and acknowledging feelings sets us up for the next step which we will talk about more in a future post. But for now, think about your emotions and your feelings.

Think about how you’ve trained your child to respond to their emotion and feelings.

Emotional awareness is the ability to identify and put into words what you are feeling and why. It’s starts with being aware and being able to recognize feelings. Emotions and feelings come and go. They can be mild, intense or somewhere in between.

I mentioned earlier researchers suggest there are core emotions: anger, disgust, happiness, sadness, surprise and fear. There are a continuum of feelings related to explain the intensity of each of these emotions. 

If you want to get better at emotional awareness, start by tuning in to how you feel throughout the day. How do you feel right now? Are you annoyed by this blog? Feeling bored? Intrigued? Discouraged? Encouraged? Your mind and body are having some sort of interaction with it. Are you aware of it? Take a moment and see if you can figure it out. Consider numerous possible feeling words that might be happening vs. just the basics of happy, sad, angry, etc.

Help your children do the same. Help them expand their awareness of how they feel, how their body conveys certain emotions, and the many different possible words to describe the feeling. Let’s get better at this first part and next time we can talk about what to do with those feelings.

If you aren’t already subscribed to my email list, be sure to subscribe below so you can get Part 2… now that we are helping our kids be more aware of their feelings and working on accepting them, what do we do with those feelings?


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