“The truth is that there is no such thing as a negative emotion. Emotions only become ‘bad’ and have a negative effect on us when they are suppressed, denied, or unexpressed.” ~Colin Tipping
Emotions are constantly and powerfully guiding our lives, even when we are not aware of them, even when we do not feel them or are convinced that we can exclude them from our experiences.
Emotions give us precious, sometimes indispensable information about what is best for us, about the best choices we can make, about how to behave. They give us information that we often do not listen to because we devalue them or simply because we have not learned to identify or understand them.
In many families, however, some emotions are forbidden.
Without even realizing it, some parents naturally teach their children not to feel certain emotions. Growing up, were you told “Don’t be angry!”, “Don’t cry!”, or “You are just a child, you shouldn’t feel sad”? Or you were criticized after expressing a certain emotion?
If so, you learned from your childhood that the specific emotion—the forbidden emotion—was dangerous, inappropriate, and disapproved of.
As you grew up, you perfected the art of excluding it from your emotional repertoire to the extent that today you might be referred to, for example, as someone who never gets angry or never cries, and so on. Parents can massively influence their children’s mindset, and if trauma from childhood is not healed, we carry it with us into adulthood. We are like children wearing adult suits.
If you think about how you feel when you get triggered, do you recognize that your reactions might be similar to how you used to react when you were a child? I recognized it in myself, especially since making the decision to finally listen to my emotions years ago.
I grew up having my emotions dismissed on a daily basis. Feeling sad, anxious, or angry was forbidden in my family life. But those feelings didn’t go away, they kept piling up until I couldn’t take it anymore.
I remember one time when I was a child, I had a difficult day at school because my usual bully was mean to me. When I went home, I wanted to vent about what had happened to my parents, as I was feeling sad and anxious. I wanted to be heard and understood, but most of all I wanted to be able to express my feelings freely so that I could find some level of comfort.
The words I was told in that very moment were “Don’t worry about it, it’s not that bad,” “Stop feeling anxious,” and ‘You will be fine.” Not being heard as a child, especially on that occasion, instilled the belief in me that I wasn’t worthy of being listened to, and unfortunately the feeling of anxiety stayed with me over the years that followed.
As I got older, I felt guilty every time I felt sad or anxious and tried to suppress those feelings, like I was taught. For example, in my early twenties, one of my dearest friends decided to end her life. She was young, and there had been no apparent signs of her deep unhappiness and the desire to not be in this world anymore.
When I heard the news, I was in shock. Sadness and anxiety came up, but I had this paralyzing feeling telling me that I couldn’t be sad, I couldn’t be anxious, I couldn’t cry, I had to let it go straight away because it was the ‘right’ thing to do. Unfortunately, as a result, I didn’t grieve her death, and it took me many years before I finally accepted her loss.
It was only after I made the decision to consciously embrace and face my emotions and improve my life that I started to feel better.
My parents are lovely people, but they were (and still are) hurt from their own childhood trauma, and they instilled in me their own beliefs, emotions, and behavior, whether it was positive or negative. Whether they did it intentionally or unintentionally, they did the best they could.
I spent years being angry at them until I made the decision to forgive them, also readying myself for when I have children, so that they’ll learn to embrace and manage the forbidden emotions I mentioned earlier.
There is nothing we can do about how our parents raised us, but our well-being is our responsibility to sort out.
Just as there are forbidden emotions or categories of emotions in every family, there are also encouraged ones. Having learned to suppress awareness of certain emotions, a child will find compensation in expressing what has been allowed instead.
In one family, for example, anger might be forbidden but sadness is allowed and encouraged. The child in this family will learn that sadness will receive attention, whereas anger will be punished, criticized, or ignored.
Over time, the child may replace sadness with anger and manifest it indiscriminately, for example, when following a loss, when it is natural to feel sad.
Regaining possession of the forbidden emotions then becomes a necessity. One can finally make sense of confused and apparently inappropriate and misplaced feelings. And they can start making better decisions, since authentic emotions guide authentic choices, providing a sense of fulfilment and reducing the possibility of feeling empty, frustrated, and insecure.
Being free to feel means being free to choose how to act, rather than feeling overwhelmed by others and events and powerless in situations in our work, love, and family lives.
Identify Your Forbidden Emotions
Were you not allowed to experience a certain emotion as a child? What is your forbidden emotion?
I will leave you with two hints that may help you identify it:
What emotion do you struggle to understand or embrace when you see it in others?
What emotion do you tend to criticize or minimize when someone else expresses it?
Reflecting on this can be complicated, but it can also help you make sense of a discomfort that probably depends on a prohibition that you made your own and believed to be true and legitimate for a long time.
A prohibition that you can now, if you wish, transform into permission.