Many people were raised being taught that good people are supposed to have only good thoughts and feelings. Children who received this kind of feedback quickly got the idea that there was something seriously wrong with them if they had unacceptable thoughts or feelings. Many of us learned to suppress any feelings that parents would not like. That was our way of trying to become the kind of nice child that a parent could love.
But the cost is high of making inner knowledge forbidden. Our honest feelings and thoughts give us accurate perceptions about the world around us. Feelings are sensing devices, just like your eyes or the tips of your fingers. Your feelings and spontaneous thoughts are involuntary, just like flinching or being startled when scared. They are there to give you instant information about reality. The more you know about reality, the better prepared you can be to deal with it. If you cannot accept your feelings, you are missing valuable information.
Feelings and involuntary thoughts are like the weather. Most feelings and thoughts are momentary and fleeting, giving us useful information about an immediate situation then receding until we have another reaction. They are not good or bad as such, except as you put that meaning on them.
Many parents, however, are horrified when their children express feelings or thoughts that are considered not socially acceptable. Instead of talking with their kids about their experiences, they simply shut the child down by telling them they are bad to feel or think certain ways. A common warning to children is, “Don’t you even think about it!”
If a child blurts out an honest emotional reaction, the parent might criticize and shame (“That’s a terrible thing to say”) or try to talk the child out of it (“You don’t really hate your brother.”) This sows confusion and self-doubt because having a strong feeling about someone is pretty unmistakable. At the very least, the child learns that it is not a good idea to say these things to anyone. At the very worst, the child learns to try to pretend that he or she does not feel that way.
But the more you know about your true thoughts and feelings, the better you are able to navigate situations in life. Your spontaneous thoughts and feelings are sources of internal guidance that are meant to protect you. It is true that we must control our actions, but we have to be able to experience our feelings if we are to know how to get along in the world, especially when it comes to knowing whom to trust.
However, if you were taught to judge your thoughts and feelings, they become unwanted occurrences instead of gifts of knowledge. If we try to repress them, we create internal conflict within ourselves. People get exhausted from trying to deny natural feelings and thoughts they cannot possible control. It is so much more productive if you are taught to make sense of your feelings, rather than trying not to have them.
It is amazing the improvement in mood that occurs when people finally feel safe enough to admit their “bad” feelings and negative thoughts. They experience a physical lightness and relief. They have the sense of a burden being lifted and are able to breathe more freely. That is because it was taking a huge amount of psychological energy for them to deny their inner knowledge of feelings.
Human beings are integrated beings, meant to be aware of their feelings to perceive important things about situations. Having your thoughts and feelings gives you insight about how to respond. When we become conscious of our feelings and think about what they mean, they become more manageable. They can be used to guide us in our actions, which is what we mean by being emotionally intelligent. By understanding your feelings and the feelings of others, you are much more likely to get along well and be successful in life.
Try to make friends with the knowledge that your feelings bring you. You can analyze your feelings by using inner dialogue, talking with another trusted person, or keeping a private journal. Whatever feelings or thoughts come up, keep asking yourself what made you feel or think that way. This rational, open approach to feelings and thoughts lets you discover and work with your inner emotional truth in a new way. Just remember, it is never bad to feel or think something. You can be aware of your feelings and thoughts, and still control how you act. Knowing how you really feel allows you to steer your life consciously. Once you turn forbidden feelings into conscious knowledge, it puts you back in the driver’s seat of your own life.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, call 757-490-7811.