Today’s post is from a series I call “The 10 Most Useful Facts about Emotions”. I posted an earlier version of this series when I launched DrTimCavell.com (September, 2014). I thought it wise to revisit these facts. I wrote this for a forthcoming book about the emotional hazards of parenting, but these 10 facts can be used to understand the emotional hazards of any relationship.
#2: Emotions Contain Information That Others Can Use
Charles Darwin believed that facial expressions helped early humans (and animals!) survive because they were a way to communicate alarm and other information before there was language. When Joe Caveman spat out a chunk of food and made a face that we would call “disgust”, other cavepersons knew to steer clear of the tainted food. Today we have the gift of spoken and written language, but in some ways we’re not much better at communicating our feelings.
The greeting card industry knows this all too well. Take a look at the cards marketed to men; almost all begin with the card-giver admitting that he is no good at putting feelings into words. Sometimes I think men buy these cards so their romantic partners won’t expect too much on the feelings front (and, by the way, Happy Birthday or Happy Anniversary). Women will tell you that men convey emotional information in other ways—a tight jaw, a strained voice, watery eyes, or a quick bolt out of the room. Of course, it’s not just men who do these things. It’s also women and boys and girls, and yes, parents.
Unfortunately, emotional information that “leaks out” in this way is not clearly conveyed. The receiver gets a message that is garbled, mixed, or incomplete. Instead of learning that Mom felt hurt and taken for granted when her son made a mess of the kitchen, he might hear only anger or rejection from his mom. Instead of learning that Dad is concerned about his daughter’s safety when she resumes dating a questionable ex-boyfriend, she might hear nothing but criticism and unneeded lecturing. If parents are to use their emotions to inform others, including their children, they have to first learn to use emotions to inform themselves (see Useful Fact #1). When parents routinely practice sitting with and sorting through their feelings, they can more easily convey important emotion information (their various nudges) to their children. And they are more likely to do it in ways that are helpful and not hurtful.
With greater emotional clarity, misspoken and emotionally charged messages like “I can’t believe you’re so stupid!” or “Dammit! I told you this would happen!” can be transformed into messages like “I love you, but right now I’m really frustrated” or “I’m very disappointed in what you’ve done. Let me explain….”
Notice what’s different about these “transformed” emotion messages: It’s not just a softer “I-statement” script; it’s an honest delivery about what parents learned from their emotions: “I’m feeling a mix of emotions and I’m being nudged in many different directions. Part of me wants to lash out, but I also feel like crying, or quitting, or giving up, or hurting back.”
Wise parents routinely read from their “emotional register”, paying attention to the shifting mix of feelings that have arrived. Wise parents also use I-statements to describe what they are feeling and explain what they will do next.
Parents who practice these steps and build them into the job of parenting are giving themselves a tremendous gift. They are also gifting their children and the parent-child relationship.
Sharing emotional information won’t eliminate those times when emotions get the best of you or make a mess of your parenting. But it’ll certainly help create options for better managing the damaging effects of strong, emotion-driven parenting.