Did you know that emotions are real? No, really. They are. Emotions are chemicals you can actually measure in the body.
Most people think emotions are like unicorns, something of an urban legend, “just a feeling”, something someone made up, not real. But emotions are chemicals released by the body. Think for a moment about how you know you are angry. You can feel anger because your heart rate goes up, you might feel tension in your muscles, your face might turn red, or your thoughts start to race. All those changes in your body are from an emotion. That’s why we call it a “feeling”, because you can feel it in your body.
But why? Why does something like anger or sadness have a physical presence in our bodies and not just remain invisible in our minds?
The word emotion comes from the root word “emovere”, which means, “to move out”. We experience a physical feeling in our bodies when we have an emotion because each emotion is designed to “move” us. Our best function in our bodies, brains and relationships occurs when we feel joy and peace. Our bodies are wired to work best in these emotional states. Yet many of our emotions are uncomfortable or unpleasant, like sadness or anger. We aren’t supposed to just be tense or sad or frustrated and just sit there though. Emotions create a sense of motion in us so that we will change what is bothering us. Sometimes when we feel angry, we want to run or punch something. When we are sad, we want to shrink and be small. When we feel scared, we want to run away or fight back. These instinctual physical responses to emotions are part of how we meet our own needs, protect ourselves and move back into joy and peace.
Simply put, emotions, or feelings, are expressions of needs. We don’t judge ourselves for having purely physical feelings like sleepiness or hunger, but we often judge ourselves or others for feeling angry, scared or sad. If you feel tired after a long day of work or school, you don’t tell yourself you’re stupid for being worn out. Yet we often tell ourselves we should not feel angry at someone we love or we feel dumb or embarrassed for being sad when something goes differently than we hoped.
But what if we treated our mental emotions like we did our physical emotions, like hunger? What if instead of judging our feeling, we “fed” ourselves? What if we met our own needs?
Let’s pause for a moment. Maybe you’re thinking, What does this have to do with parenting? Well, we can’t manage or address our children’s emotions and the behaviors that go with them if we can’t validate, understand and address our own emotions. It’s important that we as parents and caregivers can learn to listen to the expression of our own needs that show up in the form of emotions.
What needs do these emotions express then? If hunger is an expression of the body telling us we need food, then if we feed ourselves, the hunger goes away. When we feel sad or worried, we can meet the corresponding needs and the emotion or feeling will often go away. That might sound strange or surprising but it’s true. It’s just that no one taught us this so most of us learned to “suck it up” or “push it down” when it came to feelings. No one around us was equipped to help us navigate this internal world. But what if you could help your children navigate their emotions by modeling it and guiding them?
Let’s talk about emotions and needs. Emotions express a need that will resolve itself, like hunger, when the need is met. We can learn to ask for these needs to be met from loved ones in our lives or we can quietly attend to our own emotions and often meet our own needs through gentle and compassionate self-talk.
Emotions and corresponding needs:
- Sadness needs comfort, presence, not trying to “fix the problem”, possibly giving a hug to the sad person
- Anger needs respect and help setting and defending emotional, physical, sexual, time, financial and other boundaries the angry person needs to have respected
- Anxiety needs reassurance, the reminder that “It’s going to be okay” and reiterating love and support to the anxious person
When we see our child feeling an uncomfortable emotion like sadness, anger or anxiety, we often want to rush in and make it better, fix the problem, so to speak. But usually a “fix” or solution isn’t actually the way the need gets met. It’s counterintuitive for most of us, but once we know what the need of each expressed emotion is, we can be intentional to meet it. We can also gain compassion and patience for ourselves when we feel these emotions, and we can gain courage to ask for help in meeting the needs each emotion expresses.
Here are three tips for shifting out of an emotional need back into joy and peace:
- Notice and name the emotion. Let the child or adult know you notice they are feeling a certain way. Just make the observation without judgment. “It looks like you’re feeling sad.”
- Show compassion. Validating our loved ones starts with honoring their feelings, even if it doesn’t make sense to us. You can say, “I’m sorry you’re feeling sad.”
- Meet the need. Sadness needs comfort, anxiety needs reassurance and anger needs respect and boundaries upheld. What emotion do you see? Now that you know what the emotion needs, you can offer to meet the need for a child or close loved one. If you’re not comfortable offering a hug or meeting the need directly, you can ask, “What do you need from me right now?” This helps the other person clarify what they want from you.
Try watching for these feelings in yourself first, then do your best to show compassion, name your feeling without judgment and pay attention to what you need in that moment. Then meet your need. The better you get at doing this for yourself, the more tuned in, patient and confident you will be in guiding your children through their own emotions.
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Thanks for reading and here’s to parenting with joy and confidence! You got this.