I grew up in an environment where emotions were often invalidated. At least the “negative” ones like fear, sadness and anger. I was often told to “toughen up”, “shut up or I’ll give you something to cry about”, or teased about my fears. Because of this, I felt a great deal of shame when I experienced emotions and this carried over into my adult life. I learned the unhealthy ways of dealing with emotions by stuffing them, or finding ways to not feel them like substance use. And when I did those things, I felt even more shame. It became a vicious cycle of shame and disgust with myself that I felt trapped in.
Through my therapy work, I’ve come to realize that I don’t need anyone else to validate my emotions anymore. Instead, I’m using the skills I’ve learned from cognitive behavioural therapy to validate myself. Here’s how it works for me:
When I first begin to feel an emotion, I first name it. This takes me using the skill of getting in touch with my emotion, even when it feels uncomfortable. By labelling the emotion, I can then look at the reasons I might be feeling that emotion. For example, we often feel angry because something is unfair, or we have been taken advantage of. Or we may feel sad because we have suffered a loss. Our emotions are our body and mind’s way of communicating to us that something has happened to us.
Once I have labelled the emotion, I ask myself “Is it reasonable to expect that you would feel this emotion?” And I look for the evidence. If it’s anger that I’m feeling, I look to see if someone or something did do something that was wrong or an injustice to me? Did they do something that was against my values? By asking these questions, I’m VALIDATING my feeling. In doing this, I’m justifying to myself that this feeling is normal and healthy and I deserve to feel this way, despite my inner voice shouting at me to not feel it.
The next step involves me assessing how I am going to express that emotion. This has always proven to be a challenge for me, as I was taught to not express what I was really feeling. History had taught me that when I did, people didn’t like me and would punish me. It was during this process that I would remind myself that I have an inherent right to feel and express my emotions. What I have to consider is how much I value the relationship of the person who I feel at conflict with.
For example, if I am feeling upset with how I was treated by a store employee, I’m more likely to be able to express my anger in a direct way because I’m not worried if that person is going to like me at the end of the day. But if I’m angry with my husband, I struggle because I’m scared that he will abandon me or not love me anymore. I have to work really hard to come up with a plan to address my anger with him and still maintain our relationship because I place so much value on that relationship.
When I am able to express my anger in a healthy way and the person accepts my expression without judgement or laying shame on me, it helps break the cycle for me. I no longer feel ashamed that I feel emotions or for expressing them. The more I practice this, the more I am able to let go of the shame.