When my good friend passed away last year, something struck me, related to my mental health journey. Whenever any of my colleagues, and family have approached me to express their condolences, and support, my response was, “I feel sad, because I miss her, but I’m glad she is no longer suffering.”
And that is what I realized the day after she passed. I’d been feeling sad. And I’ve been able to acknowledge that. And as I was walking into the office on that Monday, I was thinking about it. People will often say, “I feel so depressed…” but what you’re actually feeling is sadness. And while yes, I was going through a depressive episode at the same time, but, regarding my friend’s passing, I felt sad. And I was able to differentiate between the two emotions.
And while that may seem so minor, for someone who struggles to express emotion because for her entire life she was told that nice girls don’t get angry, and good girls don’t feel bad emotions, it’s a massive step to tease out sadness from depression. To be able to say that yes, I am depressed, but what depression feels like is a weight on my body, resulting in me not being able to get out of bed, or wash my hair, or eat. Whereas sadness, is a feeling of sorrow, of wanting to be around my friend, or wishing to hear her jokes, or spend time dancing with her, or looking at old photos, and realizing we will never have another photo together, nor share a birthday together again. It’s a feeling of longing.
Yes, this is a small win, but if this is you, give yourself a pat on the back. A lot of us have grown up being told things like, “Do not throw a temper tantrum” (when you did not have enough words to express your anger as a toddler), or “Oh come on, it’s just high school, it will be over soon” (when something made you sad as a teenager). And of course, “Nice girls don’t get angry” and “You would be much prettier if you smiled”. Let’s not forget, “Man up” and “Boys don’t cry”.
We’ve been taught, especially as women, that we always need to be happy, and that nice girls don’t get angry, so we never learn how to express anger in an appropriate way. And boys are taught that you need to man up, and that the best way to resolve a conflict is to fight it out, so they never learn the appropriate way to express anger either. And the same goes for other emotions. “Boys don’t cry”, but also, women shouldn’t be “too emotional”. How do I know what too emotional is? If I never learnt what the correct amount of emotion to express is?
And then as adults, we don’t even understand what is going on in our bodies when we feel emotion. And we have to re-learn how emotions feel, and how to express them, and the words for the different emotions, and also, how emotions feel in our bodies.
Last year, I learnt about expressing different emotions, and how to differentiate them from thoughts. So I may be mentally exhausted from working too hard, so it feels like tired, but instead of taking a nap, maybe I need to watch a silly show on TV to rest my brain. Or, know that I think that you your actions are unfair, but the emotion I am feeling is rejection.
The next step that I’m currently learning, is how my emotions feel in my body. We feel anger long before it erupts in shouting, for example. I have acknowledged that my anxiety is in my gut, and in the tension in my jaw and in my shoulders. But what I am learning is to pick up on the building of the anxiety before it’s a full-blown panic attack and then I have to take a lot more drastic measures to return to normal functioning, rather than picking it up while it’s still manageable. And maybe all I need to do is roll my shoulders or breathe deeply three times.
Another example, is knowing that when your partner starts making a statement that is a trigger for you and before he’s completed the sentence, your stomach is already in knots, and reading that feeling in your body, and being able to say to yourself that you are feeling anger, and frustration. So that instead of responding in anger, you respond by expressing the emotion that you are feeling, and stating that you cannot respond to the content of what he is saying, until you have a moment to calm down and think rationally again.
What’s also important to know, is that we don’t just experience emotions in our heads. Emotions are felt throughout our bodies, and we can pick up the signs in our bodies first sometimes. A small tingling in your fingertips, to suggest that you don’t feel comfortable somewhere. Before it becomes panic in your mind, and a sinking sensation in your gut, before you are in full-blown fight or flight mode. So start paying attention to your body, it’s more intone than you think. And it alerts you to your emotional state before you recognize the emotion.
It’s so important to be able to express emotions, and that means being able to name them, and to know the difference between sadness, and anger. And to know that expressing emotion is not bad, if done correctly. What we’ve convoluted, as a society, is expressing emotion with how that emotion is expressed. And that is where the problem lies.
It’s acknowledging that your partner, for example, is allowed to be angry with you for something you said or did, but not allowing them to degrade you, or violate you because of their anger. And then for you to depersonalize the anger, by saying to yourself that they are angry with something you did as it upsets them, and it has nothing to do with who you are as a person. It’s feeling anger yourself, but not allowing the anger to forever colour your feelings towards another person.
All feelings are ok. It’s what we do with them that matters.
The emotions wheel (useful for identifying emotions):