Why Ignoring Feelings Harms Kids and Adults: Discover the Antidote

Self-ImprovementPsychology

  • Author Elizabeth Dausch
  • Published April 14, 2024
  • Word count 1,458

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article called “Stop Constantly Asking Your Kids How They Feel” by Abigail Shrier. My letter to the editor was published the following week. I thought many of the ideas in the original article (especially on ignoring feelings) deserved further discussion so I decided to write the following piece as a response.

I actually do agree with one of Shrier’s core points, that making happiness the ultimate goal for oneself or one’s children may be a failed enterprise from the start. It’s a wonderful feeling, but it comes and goes like many other emotions. It’s seductively sold in the marketplace every day with the unspoken promise that you’ll really have it once you get that skincare product, iphone upgrade, new subscription, or nicer car.

But suffering is part of the human condition. As many others have proposed, seeking meaning and purpose is a deeper, more realistic project for life. You can’t feel happy all the time, but you can experience more lasting satisfaction, peace, and contentment from using your time in ways you find worthwhile and align with your values.

I also agree that asking kids how they’re feeling all the time could get annoying for them and might serve adults more than children. Constant checking-in could be an attempt to assuage the parent’s anxiety. If children sense this, they may say they’re fine as an unconscious way of taking care of their parent.

What I want to challenge here is the claim: “kids need to learn that feelings are unreliable.” I think there’s great nuance in this statement and a lot of room for misapplication. By context, I understood that the author means feelings are unreliable as the basis for decisions and daily behavior. Sometimes, I think this is wise counsel. But I don’t recommend it as a guiding principle for life.

Yes, giving in to every impulse or acting on every emotion would prevent the cultivation of discipline and could violate your values. You wouldn’t give your child a free pass not to do their homework because they feel dread and boredom. You wouldn’t scream at your irritating co-worker in a meeting at the first flash of anger. You wouldn’t want to make a very important decision in a highly dysregulated and unsettled state. And, of course, suppression is extremely useful to check our aggressive impulses. Most of us don’t want to cause lasting harm or put ourselves behind bars. On the other hand, there are serious costs to ignoring feelings.

For example, a woman is entangled in an escalating domestic violence situation. Her fear is a vital arrow sign toward pursuing safety. A successful lawyer feels empty, exhausted, and frustrated as a result of the long hours and expectations of their firm. Someone may be so focused on pleasing the people around them that they never ask themselves how genuine is their ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to requests from others. Another everyday example comes in the form of a defense known as displacement. Your boss gives you harsh feedback and criticism at work. Without having processed it or attending to the emotional effect it had on you, you come home and find yourself criticizing your partner.

If you grow up believing your "unhappy" feelings are untrustworthy and routinely dismiss them, you’ll miss important information and invitations they contain. You may never leave the abusive relationship. You may never pursue a job with better hours and healthier work culture, which allow you to spend more time with your family. You may find yourself acting superficially in relationships and feeling quietly resentful because you haven’t given credence to your own wants and needs. You can get caught in painful dynamics with your spouse because you haven’t taken time to acknowledge, deal with, and communicate your feelings directly.

If I could revise Shrier’s statement, it would be: your first mental conclusion from an emotion can be unreliable (not the emotion). This might just sound like a matter of semantics, but I believe it’s a significant difference. Someone says something insensitive or rude to you. You think: “This guy! What an asshole.” It’s perfectly natural to be impacted by the interaction, to feel hurt, angry, perhaps ashamed after the encounter. And, when we look beyond the surface at the other person, their regrettable behavior might be more accurately understood as thoughtlessness, an unconscious defense mechanism, preoccupation with or denial of something hard going on in their lives, etc. rather than ill intent toward you. In other words, when we hold our first thought or judgment lightly, we can often find a “why” to empathize with, a more human and 3-dimensional version of the person (whom we initially defined by their worst moment of the week).

Consider another situation. It’s a Saturday morning, and you’re in the thick of a depressive episode. You have so little energy. Doing laundry may be a herculean task. You don’t feel like socializing or doing much of anything, so you decide you won’t. And while you shouldn't hold yourself to the same level of activity you might have on a normal day, taking a bit of ‘opposite action’ is advised to relieve your symptoms: taking a shower, getting outside for a walk in your neighborhood, watching a movie, texting a loved one: “could use a check-in today.” Acknowledge that the feelings and symptoms of depression are here like a weather system. Don’t force yourself to go to the beach when it’s raining, metaphorically speaking. But freezing all activity when you don’t feel like doing anything won’t be medicinal either.

The prescription I'd offer for the everyday is to practice consciously accepting "negative" emotions instead of ignoring them.

I’ve often found the saying “what you resist persists” to be true in my life and for my clients. When you push feelings down, they don’t actually go away. It’s more like whack-a-mole. They just find another way to pop up somewhere else. By accepting your feelings, you’re simply living in sync with reality and what’s happening inside of you. Accepting does not mean fixating, ruminating, or “wallowing.” In fact, accepting difficult feelings and taking a compassionate attitude toward them helps the fleeting ones move through more effectively and helps us discern when action might be needed.

I’d encourage you to check out Dr. Kristin Neff and her research on this resilience building practice of self-compassion. Far from keeping us ill, stuck, or lazy, this stance equips you to ride the rougher waves of life. Conversely, self-criticism keeps us more contracted and risk-averse. Practicing these skills of acceptance and self-compassion, we also build emotional tolerance. You show yourself by experience that you can survive painful emotions. It instills a growing confidence that you can handle future challenges. Not only will a child be better skilled to face the hardships in their own life, but will probably be an invaluable friend to someone who’s grieving, who’s received an unexpected medical diagnosis, or who’s going through a tough time. In those moments, what’s needed most is steady, loving presence and acceptance, not ignoring or putting a positive spin on it.

Lastly, I’d like to challenge a common habit many of us have: placing value judgments on emotions. I would argue that feelings themselves have no moral value. We don’t have much control over when they arise and are felt in our bodies. Instead, it’s what we do in response or reactivity that we can examine through a moral framework. One of my clients came to this realization not long ago. She recognized how she had been conflating anger and her oftentimes reactive behavior. Over time, she had implicitly drawn the conclusion that anger itself is destructive and bad. In creative ways, she began making more internal space for the experience of anger (and in turn, the more vulnerable emotions it typically masks like hurt, overwhelm, shame, and fear). She began differentiating between feeling and action. She started to skillfully work with the vital energies of her feelings and take intelligent next steps when needed: having that uncomfortable conversation leading to more understanding and connectedness, giving herself 5 minutes after a tense work meeting to practice a breathing exercise, or writing in a journal.

When we disown our feelings in favor of productivity, achievement, and social pressures, there’s a predictable deadening effect on our spirits and psyches. Our emotions are essential to who we are as human beings, and I believe they deserve to be handled as the complex phenomena they really are.

Elizabeth Dausch is an integrative therapist in Oakland, CA offering skilled support with anxiety, grief, and relationship issues. Her approach incorporates Internal Family Systems, somatic, and mindfulness practices, and she tailors therapy to each client's unique needs. Learn more about Elizabeth or schedule a free consultation: https://www.elizabethdauschtherapy.com/

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