The Most Important Relationship of All
“Although many of us think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think”
— Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, Neuroscientist and author of My Stroke of Insight.
What is the most important relationship in your life? Your spouse? Your child? Your mother or father?
If you answered yes to any of those, that’s nice. But you actually have another relationship that is more important than any of them. It’s one you probably never thought about before.
It’s your relationship with your own emotions.
How we treat our own feelings has a tremendous impact on how we treat others. Your relationship with your emotions is the foundation for all other relationships in your life.
Emotions are complex and can be mysterious. Sometimes they do what we tell them. Other times they refuse to obey. We may fall in love with someone we don’t like, or stop liking someone we love. We can lose our tempers unexpectedly, or surprise ourselves by staying calm in a stressful situation.
Just as you have to listen to the people in your life, you also have to listen to your emotions. Your emotions are your body’s way of speaking to you. Indeed your emotions provide an invaluable feedback system that can anchor, inform and direct you through life.
Our emotions tell us when something is wrong. They connect us, enrich us, and give our lives meaning. Nevertheless, many of us either over-indulge our emotions, or treat them as if they are a nuisance.
If you have a healthy relationship with your emotions:
- You pay attention to what you are feeling and why.
- You accept your feelings without judging them.
- You manage your feeling instead of unleashing them upon others.
- You determine what that emotion is telling you to do, and take action if needed.
- You are able to express your emotions to others.
If you have a problem relationship with your emotions:
- You are generally unaware of what you are feeling.
- You doubt that your feelings are real or justified.
- You ignore your feelings.
- You overindulge your feelings.
- You view your feelings as a sign of weakness.
- You get angry at yourself for having feelings.
- You are generally unable to express your feelings.
Brenda, Jerry and Joanna all have problem relationships with their emotions:
Brenda feels stupid for feeling sad when her abusive husband moves out.
Jerry has been treating his wife badly for several weeks, often yelling at her for seemingly nothing. When she tries to ask him what’s wrong, he seems truly baffled and insists there’s nothing.
Joanna feels embarrassed for feeling hurt by her friend Trish’s recent lack of time for her.
Each of these three people is missing a valuable message from his body which could help him grow, heal and move forward:
Brenda is judging herself for having feelings (sadness). This will prevent her from getting perspective on her marriage, the complexities of the relationship, and her own needs. She is setting herself up to repeat the pattern by getting into another abusive relationship.
Jerry is unaware of his feelings and is letting them run rampant. Inadvertently he is giving them too much power in his life. If he tuned into his feelings, he would see that he feels distant from his wife for traveling for work so much; he could talk to her about it and they could potentially work it out.
Joanna views her emotional needs as weak. If she accepted her needs as normal and listened to her hurt feelings, they would tell her to talk to Trish and find out what’s going on.
We learn how to relate to our emotions in childhood. We learn this from our parents; from how they treated their own emotions, and how they treated our emotions. If you grew up in a household flooded with emotion (as perhaps Jerry did), you learned that your feelings are all-powerful. In contrast, if your parents squelched or ignored your emotions (as perhaps Brenda’s or Joanna’s did), you learned that your feelings are irrelevant or negative, and how to squelch them. Either way, flooded or squelched, you did not learn how to interpret or manage them.
This is the foundation for Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
To improve your relationship with your emotions, make friends with them by keeping these simple steps in mind as you go about your daily life. (Adapted from Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.)
The IAAA Steps:
Identify your feelings.
Accept your feelings without judgment. Judge yourself for your actions, not your feelings.
Attribute your emotions to a cause whenever possible. Ask yourself, “Why am I feeling this?”
Act With Care if the emotion is telling you to do something. Listen and take thoughtful action.
Your emotions are the most deeply personal, biological part of who you are. When you discount what you feel, you discount yourself. When you get angry at yourself for having a feeling, you are angry at yourself for being human. When you deny your own feelings you deny yourself, and you deny people the opportunity to truly know you.
If all of the people in the world knew how to listen to their emotions, express and manage them, the world would be a very different place: more connected, more alive, more enriched, and more real.
And so would you.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty.
I am reading your books again. At 63 it would have helped to hear and understand this decades ago. Therapy rarely helped until I read your books. I lost decades. Thank you for your work.