Why are strong emotions so darn scary?

Erasing FearMany of us had shaming or even frightening experiences around our emotions as children. Perhaps when we cried other children, even our siblings, made fun of us or beat us up. Maybe our anger was met with punishment as we were made to sit in the corner or go to our rooms so the rest of the family wasn’t subjected to our “outbursts.” Or, we may have been told to stop embarrassing our parents by acting out our feelings in public.

As a result, many of us internalized the message that feelings are something to be hidden, kept out of sight, and not shared with others. Having learned to bury our feelings, as adults it can be hard to identify our feelings. Worse, many of us have no experience in appropriately expressing or managing our emotions. 

The problem for relationships? Conflict is a natural part of all relationships and conflict creates strong feelings.

This can be downright frightening for those of us who have learned to suppress feelings. This is probably why many of us simply try to run away and hide when faced with conflict. Conversely, we might just “blow up.”

Neither option tends to lead to a successful resolution of the issues. Hiding means our needs are never shared and therefore can’t be met, leaving us feeling frustrated. Exploding means nothing can be discussed, so nothing gets resolved, and this reinforces the idea that feelings are bad because we can’t control them.

While it can be really scary for those of us who struggle to bring up a situation we are certain will cause conflict, real connection with those we care about only comes through honesty. If we want to have healthy relationships based on real intimacy, we need to learn to identify our feelings and share them with those we love. If we can’t share our feelings and needs with those closest to us, we are missing the chance for truly fulfilling relationships.

Feelings have no real power to destroy us. They are not good or bad. They just are. All humans experience a wide range of emotions.

Emotions are like a gage–they simply tell us that we are feeling a certain way. It’s like a clue to a larger picture. An air gage for a tire lets us know if we need more or less air to operate the tire at top efficiency. So to, our emotions are clues as to what is happening to us in the environment we are in and what adjustments we may need to make.

The trick is to learn to sit with the feelings as they arise, do our best to name them, and then let them crash over us and calm, just like a wave. The more comfortable we become just sitting with our feelings and accepting them without action, the more gifts they bring.

When you hear someone say that they were following their “gut” you can be sure they were following their feelings. Gut instincts are a natural part of who we are. The better we become at understanding and identifying our feelings the more we can rely on them as an additional source of information to guide us in our decision-making, including what to share with whom, when, and how.

This is really important because we can then approach conflict, or those difficult conversations we fear will lead to conflict, more prepared to respond than to react. We can observe how we feel, rather than acting out of it. We can choose if we will share with the other person how we feel in that moment. We may want to wait, think about our feelings, and then come back and talk about the issues later. Or, if we are doubting the safety of sharing our feelings with this person at all, we may realize at a deeper level how we really feel about the relationship itself.

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Bobbie Dillon