Whether we are talking about relationships with friends, parents or significant others, there is a disturbing communication trend I’ve been seeing in my office and in the world lately. I call it….”taking away people’s pain”
This trend typically starts when we are young. Our parents unknowingly interact with us this way and we learn to be afraid of our feelings and pain from a young age. For example, the most common responses to a child when they scrape their knee or fall on the playground are “Shhhh, you’re okay, don’t cry.” Although the parent has the best motives and is simply trying to calm the child down and assure her, the subliminal message is don’t express your emotions. This is further reinforced in our society as we praise people for “being strong” when going through hardships and are a culture obsessed with positivity and looking at the bright side. Feeling sad is now looked at as self-indulgent.
I see this all the time in my office. Not only in sessions with families and couples, where people are so uncomfortable with other people’s pain, they switch subjects, offer solutions or shift uncomfortably in their seats but also in individual therapy. Women on my couch shush themselves and are ashamed at their own emotions. Somewhere along the way, our society has begun to teach people that emotions and tears are shameful. What’s the result? We disconnect from our emotions, hide from them or engage in other activities to cover them up, which leads to many addictions and eating disorders. In addition, we experience reactions to our reactions, such as being angry or disgusted by our emotions.
This reaction to our emotions is a phenomenon known as secondary emotions. It’s one of the most important things I teach my clients, within in the first 1-2 sessions of meeting me. Primary emotions are our primal reaction to an event or situation. There are 8 primary emotions: Anger, Sadness, Fear, Joy, Interest, Surprise, Disgust and Shame. These primary emotions are hardwired into our brain upon birth. These emotions cause your body to react in a certain way and for you to feel a certain urge upon feeling this emotion.
All other emotions are secondary emotions, and they are created out our own emotional response to a primary emotion. Unsurprisingly, most people’s problems and issues they come to discuss in counseling are not primary emotions. They are secondary emotions. For example, a woman comes to my office and is angry at herself about how sad she is about her boyfriend cheating on her. We cannot even begin to process the pain of her boyfriend’s betrayal until we process and release her own anger at herself.
Since many people are unable to be present with their own emotions and often suppress them, its not surprise that people are equally intolerable of other people’s emotions. This leads us to “take away other people’s pain” and its one of the most costly things you can do in any relationship, whether it is with your child, your partner or yourself.
Common examples of this are:
- Giving people solutions to their problems rather than sitting and listening
- Immediately upon seeing someone tear up/ become emotional, hug them, shush them, tell them “don’t cry”, or try to calm them down
- Walk away or refuse to engage with someone who is crying or being “too emotional”
- Telling someone to excuse themselves if they have an emotional reaction
- Shaming yourself for having an emotional reaction, forbidding yourself from crying or feeling your emotions
- Telling someone how they should feel in a given situation, or trying to help them “be positive” or “see the silver lining” in a situation
In closing, emotions are normal, natural responses in human beings and it is important to treat them as such. The more we try to hide from, cover up or pretend over our emotions, the more emotionally unhealthy we will feel and the more difficult it will be to support others in our life. It’s time we stop shaming ourselves for our natural human experience because to be human is to have the capacity to feel emotions.