emotion coaching

Another one inpsired by John Gottman’s excellent Science of Trust:

I am an emotionally intense person. I am, moreover, an emotionally intense WOMAN, and I was an emotionally intense girl, growing up in the 80s. Therefore I spent a lot of my first two decades hearing, “Cork it” and, “Put a lid on it.”

And then I spent a lot of my third decade saying, “I’m ALLOWED TO FEEL MY FEELINGS!!!!!!!”

To this day it’s (what Gottman calls) an enduring vulnerability for me, this fear that someone I care about will assert that my emotions are invalid, disproportionate, or, worst, actively toxic to those around me.

Because my feelings are NOT any of those things, no matter what you say or what you think, and if you disagree with me you can FUCK RIGHT THE HELL OFF because you’re WRONG, and I mean wrong not just in a factual sense but in a moral sense. Your false belief hurts people and you can shove it up your ass.

As you might be able to tell, there is no more tender trigger for me than the suggestion that maybe I’m overreacting or otherwise shouldn’t feel the way I do. As an articulate and intelligent adult, highly trained in effective communication skills, I know how to behave responsibly and use gentle language even when I’m emotionally flooded (the above verbal abuse being a joking example of what I would never say to a partner); if you feel responsible for my feelings despite the absence of any hint from me that you’re responsible for my feelings, I officially declare myself uninterested in committing with you. It’s not my job to be calm so that you can feel safe and comfortable, and it’s not my job to teach you that you’re not responsible for my feelings.

And it turns out that is precisely where the difficulty arises, according to Gottman’s research: when a person believes they’re responsible for fixing their partner’s negative affect (depression, anxiety, anger, etc) AND that person has “emotion dismissing” meta-emotions, bad things happen.

To clarify: meta-emotions are how you feel about your feelings. Gottman spends a great deal of time distinguishing between “emotion dismissing” and “emotion coaching.” Guess which kind of family of origin I had:

+-------------------------------+-----------------------------------+
|                               |                                   |
| Emotion Dismissing            | Emotion Coaching                  |
+-------------------------------+---------------------------------+
| Just ignore subtle or         | Pay attention to lower-intensity  |
| lower-intensity negative      | emotions to prevent escalation.   |
| emotions.                     |                                   |
|                               | Negative emotions are natural     |
| Negative emotions are toxic.  | and healthy.                          |
|                               |                                   |
| Negative emotions are         | Negative emotions are discussed,  |
| punished- even if there       | given names, and empathized with. |
| is no misbehavior.            |                                   |
|                               | "Negative emotions happen         |
| "You can have any emotion     | sometimes because bad things      |
| you want, and if you choose   | happen sometimes."                |
| to have a negative one,       |                                   |
| it's your own fault."         | Introspection to understand what  |
|                               | one feels helps you have a sense  |
| Introspection to understand   | optimism, control, and effective  |
| what one feels is a waste, or | coping.                           |
| of time or even dangerous.    |                                   |
|                               |                                   |
| Feel bad about feeling bad.   | Feel accepting of feeling bad.    |
|                               |                                   |
| "Get over it."                | "Move through it."                |
|                               |                                   |
| "You cry all you need to,     | "C'mon, give me a smile,          |                                                   
| honey."                       | honey."                           |
|                               |                                   |
+-------------------------------+-----------------------------------+

The skill of taking your partner’s feelings seriously without taking them personally does not come easily to everyone, which just makes it all the more important to TEACH people. I WANT to teach people about it. And yet I have such a BIG personal reaction to the subject that I find it difficult to teach about in a neutral way.

But you know what? I’m 100% responsible for my feelings, and I accept that this is a big trigger for me. I want very much to be able to teach effectively about this topic, and I’m willing to ask for what I need in order to move through the unfinished past, learn from it, and release it. Because you CAN unlearn an emotion dismissing pattern and learn an emotion coaching pattern. I’m not afraid of my feelings.

And finally, finally, I have a partner who isn’t either.