Today’s post is the fourth in a series that I call “The 10 Most Useful Facts about Emotions”. I wrote this for a forthcoming book about parenting. I was trying to find a way to help parents appreciate what I call the emotional hazards of parenting. So, the 10 most useful emotion facts are applied to parenting but they can be used to better understand the emotional hazards of any relationship.

Fact #4: We Can Act Out an Emotion and Not Feel It

Humans are great imitators and one of things we can imitate is an emotional reaction—even if there’s no real underlying emotional experience.

Professional actors get paid to do this, often drawing on their past emotional experiences to portray the “present” emotional reactions of their character. But actors aren’t the only ones rewarded for acting out an emotion that is not fully felt. Some children learn early in life that certain emotional displays will produce a reliable payoff, at least among family members or friends. Some children learn an “I’m falling apart and can’t stand it, so you better rescue me” hysteria. Others learn an “I’m really mad and liable to hurt somebody so you better do what I say” tirade.

But let’s be clear about something: Kids aren’t the only ones who use instrumental emotions to influence others. Parents do this too. Also, these are not “faked” emotions. There’s no intent to deceive. These are instrumental emotions, behaviors that began as a way to deal with strong feelings or blocked goals but evolved into tools for influencing others. Over time, it becomes harder to tell the difference between instrumental emotions and authentic emotions. Others can tell more easily than we can, which is why instrumental emotions often “work” with family members but not with folks outside the home.

Families can really suffer when unreasonable demands are packaged in strong emotions. It’s bad enough when kids do it; it’s particularly toxic when parents do it.

Imagine a mom who is inconvenienced by her daughter’s plan to go to her friend’s house. In the face of plans made and consent given, inconvenienced mom might show anger, which could scare her daughter into staying; or mom might show hurt, which could lead her daughter to feel guilty about leaving. Either way it won’t be easy for the daughter to separate mom’s emotions from the unreasonable demand to stay home. How many children can say, “Mom, I know that you don’t like that I’m going out with my friends. I realize it’s an inconvenience for you. I see that you’re hurt and angry. I know it’s hard for you. But you’ll be fine, and we agreed earlier that what I’m doing is reasonable.” A co-parent might have some success delivering that kind of message, but even then it will be difficult because the co-parent could be seen as undermining the partner’s parental authority.

If you think you’re a parent who might be misusing instrumental emotions, here are a couple of tips.

First, talk to another parent with whom you feel safe and ask their opinion. Tell them you need their honest opinion and their constructive, caring feedback. You might say it this way, “Do you ever see me using my emotions to get my way, maybe by looking sad and making my children feel guilty or by scaring them with my anger?”

Second, think about times when you felt anger or fear or sadness around your children. Look for any patterns in how you manage those feelings around your children. You can even ask them what it’s like for them to see you angry, or scared, or sad. Decide if there are more adaptive ways to manage those feelings. Are there better “scripts” you can use to express what you’re feeling?

Wise parents try to live in this world: I felt _____ (angry, sad, etc.), but I did ________ (some healthy act).

Unwise parents settle for this kind of world: I did ________ (some unhealthy act) because I felt ________ (angry, sad, etc.).

Wise parents teach their children: Just because you feel ________ (angry, sad, etc.), doesn’t mean you can do ________ (some unhealthy act).

Unwise parents teach their children, often without meaning to: If you feel ________ (angry, sad, etc.), then you’re free to do ________ (some unhealthy act).

When I discuss this with my patients, I ask them to picture two electrical cords that are plugged together. Now imagine that one cord is your emotions and one cord is your behavior. I suggest that this type of connection can be unhealthy and is needlessly constricting.

I then have them imagine pulling the two plugs apart, separating how they feel from how they act. I say, “You’re now free to feel and free to act; no longer do your feelings dictate your behavior. Your actions can be informed by your emotions but not caused by your emotions.”

As parents, you have the ability to feel your feelings and act wisely; you aren’t slave to your emotions.