By Terry Garchinski, B.A., R.S.W.
Terry is the Co-owner and Therapeutic Counsellor for Life Works Counselling and Training Services Inc., in Millarville, Alberta.
Emotions are like sign posts along the road of life: they let me know where I am at, what to expect ahead, how to get to where I want to go and even where I have been.
How dangerous and confusing it would be to travel down the highway to High River and not read the road signs. During road construction, a bridge may be out requiring me to take a detour. If I don’t follow the signs, I might drive into Sheep River!
What a risk it would be not to slow down and be vigilant when I see signs of moose droppings on the highway to Bragg Creek. I could end up with a moose on my lap and a major bill to replace the window on my truck.
As obvious as these examples may be, many of us take similar risks by not paying attention to our emotions. This happens when I tell myself that my emotions are not important or pretend that they do not exist. I believe it is especially dangerous if I bury my emotions and not let them out by expressing them.
Boys and men, girls and woman cry if they want to remain emotionally healthy and balanced. Those of us who want to remain emotionally healthy and balanced also laugh, get angry, express fear, frustration, loneliness, and joy. It is important to let my emotions out by naming them and expressing them.
If I don’t let my emotions out, they can build up over time and become unmanageable.
I like to compare emotional management to household garbage management. If I don’t take out my household garbage every day, it will eventually build up and take up space in my home and start to stink. I may even have to cook my pancakes outside of my kitchen because it is too messy with garbage.
The same can be true with my emotions. If I don’t express my emotions, they can start taking up a lot of space inside of me and start to push me outside my own self. When this happens, I may find myself uncomfortable or unsafe being alone. I may seek comfort and escape in the use of drugs or alcohol. I may tune out by watching TV for hours on end. I may find myself attempting to control others and feeling totally out of control myself. Gambling may become more important than feeding my family. I may lose interest in my relationships. I may be constantly irritable and angry. I may find myself doing things that are against my own values. I may sense that there is something missing in my life. I may feel that my life has no purpose or direction.
Healthy emotional management can be especially difficult for boys and men who have not been taught basic emotional literacy. Because boys tend to develop slower verbally than girls, boys tend to express their emotions with their bodies through physical movement such as constant activity, rough housing, and sports. This emotional expression is not generally validated or approved of during school class time, around the dinner table or at bed time. Boys learn early that it is not OK to express themselves emotionally. Many are even teased, laughed at, punished or medicated for expressing themselves emotionally through their body movements. All of us need to be emotionally validated and to learn a variety of ways of expressing ourselves emotionally.
When children are stifled emotionally at an early age, they do not learn how to read their own or other people’s emotions, how to acknowledge them, how to name them, how to express them or how to respond to them in appropriate, healthy way. They do not ask themselves, “what are my emotions telling me right now?” Their emotional vocabulary is limited to “happy, sad or mad” or “I don’t know how I am feeling.”
When emotions build up over time they can explode in an angry violent outburst or they can implode in a severe depression. Before either of these things occur, I can choose to take preventative action by developing a healthy emotional management plan. The following are some things a plan can include:
- eat well, sleep well and partake in daily physical activities
- talk about how I am feeling to a healthy, non judgmental friend or partner
- play or listen to music
- choose healthy sex in a committed relationship
- write a daily journal
- meditate and pray
- cry, laugh and get excited
- go on the land: hunting, fishing, camping, golfing
- be creative: write poetry, paint, garden, fix an old vehicle
- ask myself, “what are my emotions telling me right now?”
Emotions are like sign posts along the road of life: they help me to safely reach my life’s destinations.