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  Home  > Discipline  > The Price of Denying Feelings

The Price of Denying Feelings

However, just as suppressed feelings are not destroyed, unacknowledged feelings don't just disappear. Regardless of our age or status, unacknowledged feelings fester inside of us, robbing us of our vitality, and motivating many of our actions in ways that belie our capacity to be rational. In Jungian terms, unexpressed thoughts and emotions form our shadow-self, the disowned part of self we project onto others who become the enemy--our spouse, or the country with which we are at war.

Because so few of us have learned to express our emotions constructively, on those occasions that negative emotions are expressed, they are often expressed in an unhealthy manner. The feelings and emotions themselves are considered bad, when what is actually "bad" is our unskillful ways of expressing them. Feelings are natural and normal. Feelings have no morality. They just are. In our attempts to deny them, we turn to food, TV, alcohol, drugs, unhealthy relationships, or compulsive work patterns. We may become depressed, and so weaken our whole immune system; or literally armor ourselves against painful emotions by severely tightening our muscles--a precursor to symptoms of chronic pain and crippling disease.

There is a heavy price to be paid when feelings are denied or repressed. Lethargy, boredom, and a sense of deadness toward life may be the sorry consequence� bigger and stronger forms of stimulation are required to feel happy and alive. Some people drink, others drive recklessly� some get seriously ill as a way to get the attention and still feel alive.

John W. Travis, MD, and Regina Sara Ryan

We can deny, ignore, or invalidate a child's feelings and emotions in a multitude of ways. In a society that admires rational thinking, adults frequently deny a child's feelings by attempting to reason with them. Joseph Chilton Pearce, in Magical Child, terms this "psychological abandonment." Before the age of seven, children are not equipped to accept reasoned argument in the face of emotional crisis. Then too, we can pretend their pain is not real: "You can't really be upset about a little thing like that." We can invalidate their experience: "You can't be hot today." We can code questions as messages to signal the emotional response we want from a child. Sometimes just our facial expressions say "Please tell me you had fun�" We can try to define her feelings for her, or totally disregard them: "Cheer up, it's not that bad. Let's get an ice cream and forget it." We can make her wrong, blame her for her feelings: "It's not nice to feel that way." We can try to make her feelings more palatable: "You don't really hate him, darling." Or, when she is acting out, "She's not herself today."

"She's not herself today." This was the phrase I caught myself using on occasion when Siena was acting out. As I began to ponder why I was not comfortable with her expressing whatever negative emotions she was acting out at that time, two motives came immediately to mind. Firstly, I wanted whomever I was addressing to know what a beautiful and lovable child she is, what a good child she is. The implication here is that in this moment, she is bad, that a good girl would never act destructively, and that she is beautiful and loveable only when displaying positive emotions. This would mean my love for her is conditional. If this is what I am feeling, I am identifying the act with the actress, identifying Siena as this passing behavior rather than as the essentially good child she is. This is not what I want and not what is true. What is true is that she is good, and I love her however she be.

She may be easier, more pleasant to be with in some moments than in others, but this does not invalidate the reality of her innate goodness, and does not mean that I do not love her through these times. I need to remember too, that it is when she is being most difficult, that she most needs my love. The same is true for me, for all of us. When we are most unlovable, we most need to be loved.

I was aware of another motive. I wanted to be seen as a good mother. And I was putting this desire before her need for me to love and accept her. Loving and accepting, even validating her emotional state, is not necessarily condoning or liking it.


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