Allowing your emotions to show is often looked upon as weakness – I don’t see it as weakness, I see it as the doorway to the most important experiences in life.
I am working on a textbook and this is a snippet of the work I try to convey as a psychotherapist – I would love your thoughts and feed back!
We live in a world that is mostly frightened of emotions. In our day, emotions are often something we hide from one another as we try to stay “strong” or “brave” – like a tin soldier. We fear that others will not like us if we show emotions – we fear rejection and to protect ourselves we create layers or walls of defenses.
Defenses are not created on purpose and not because we are weak – it happens unconsciously, as a way to survive.
We were born with emotions and we need emotions to navigate in life.
We learn to contain emotions from parents/significant others who react to us in healthy ways, without fear, when we express emotions. As children we need to be valued, understood and mirrored so that we can learn to contain emotions ourselves. By being seen, acknowledged and understood, a child learns to contain his or her own emotions and those of others. Of course this we can only dream of, it is of course not possible to provide all the time, even if we want to and know the importance of it, but if the child experiences healthy respect for emotions most of the time, they will develop a healthy sense of self.
The Swedish psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Clarence Crafoord talks about “containment” and his diagram (see below) gives us a way of understanding this important and edifying concept.
When something happens in the outer world (see the * in “outer world”) it activates an emotion in the child. From this, the child experiences a tension (” T “) and not knowing what it is, the child asks (back in the outer world): “Mom, is this okay?, what is this?, will I survive?, Do you still love me when I feel like this?”
The diagram then shows how the parent/significant other refers to their own inner reference (” IR “) system. Inner Reference (IR) systems have been built from the experiences we have had as a child, how we were met or not met, when we showed emotions.
The parent either answers back to the child. “I see you are angry. It is okay to feel anger. Tell me more, what made you angry? I understand that you got very angry when that happens ….. Anger is a natural feeling and I, of course, still love you when you are angry.” Or – like many of us have tried: ” Hey, you stop that right now, go to your room, without your dinner and stay there till you can behave yourself! We don’t like you when you are angry.”
The response is then stored and builds the child’s Inner Reference system (IR) and becomes the way they relate to themselves and the world.
From the healthy response, a child will learn to contain emotions and react adequately on them. But if we as parents have a poor Inner Reference system , i.e., did not have good experiences and responses from our caregivers when we showed emotions as children, our responses to our children may not be good and they learn anxiety when they feel emotions and do not get good feedback. If the emotions are not acceptable for us or significant others because we did not learn to contain emotions, we may show anger, resentment and rejection towards the child – based on our own childhood experiences.
A child is 100% dependent on her/his caregivers; without them, the child cannot survive – so the anxiety from being rejected is high. To the child it means life or death! It is here that defense mechanisms are developed – in order to survive and be loved the child learns ways to appease. However, this costs and we pay a price, we suppress ourselves, our emotions and our needs.
Defense mechanisms can stay with us and create problems for us throughout our life. And when the defense mechanisms are too strong, we no longer feel our emotions and needs and we cannot navigate in life and feel what is good for us to do. We miss out on intimacy and authentic connection with others.
If we did not experience a healthy response to our emotions when we were children, it is as in Crafood’s diagram – our IR system gets built of these inadequate responses.
I was one of the people who did not get healthy responses to my emotions as a child and my IR system was not supportive of good emotional health. I needed many defense mechanisms to survive.
Looking at Crafood’s diagram helps to understand: Moving back a generation, I can put my mom in as the child and my grandparents on the parent side. My mother’s emotions were not met sufficiently by her parents when she was a child. Thus, she did not learn healthy ways to respond to emotions. I could also put my grandparents and my great-grandparents into the model. Crafood’s model shows the way that we inherit behaviours. There is always a reason to the way we respond and it is not about blaming, it is about understanding.
By understanding why my mom did what she did and at the same time feeling the emotions that comes with that, brings me into a place of empathy, love and forgiveness. Feeling the emotions was the most crucial part – by feeling the emotions I healed and was able to break the circle of emotional “unhealth” and then I was able to give my children more of the good responses that build on to their emotional health.
Clarence Crafoord’s containment diagram has no age frame or limitations – we can change our Inner Reference system (IR) by sharing emotions with people who are able to be present with us. And assist others in having great experiences when they share emotions too. It is never too late to do that – awareness, understanding and feeling is key to all change in life.
Emotions are the doorway to strength, joy, love, creativity – to the most important things in life!
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