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In this episode of The Optimized Mom Podcast, I chat about my own tendency to:
try to suppress my feelings (especially any “negative” ones)
to apologize for showing emotion around others
to ruminate on certain emotion-provoking situations (which makes feelings last longer than they need to)
to try to squash emotional outbursts in my kids
Note: This transcript was produced using speech-recognition software and has received minimal edits. If possible, I encourage you to listen to the audio version.
Welcome to the Optimized Mom podcast where we explore strategies for trading burnout, overwhelm and exhaustion for simplicity, efficiency and joy. Why? Because I want you to have the time and energy to care for yourself, have fun with your family and share your sparkle with the world.
Well, hey there, Anisa here chatting with you today about feelings, as I have said before, I often feel like the Universe is trying to bonk me over the head with a particular lesson. And lately, that lesson seems to be: ‘feel your feelings’. Of course, it could be the Universe talking to me or it could be my confirmation bias. I’ve decided that I want to work on processing my emotions a little better and therefore I’m hyper-aware of anything I come across that might help me do that. Maybe it’s both. I’m trying to accept a little more woo-woo into my life. So we’ll just call it the Universe for today.
Anyways, let’s talk about feelings. I have been noticing lately my own tendency and the tendency of my friends to suppress our feelings or, if they happen to leak out, to apologize for them. And at first when I was noticing this, I sort of thought it was just the feelings that I would describe as quote-unquote negative ones like anger or envy, or fear.
This makes sense to me because I’d call myself a cheerful person. I try to be an optimist. I look on the bright side. I have a lot invested in this particular concept of myself. So it makes sense that I’d be resistant to letting negative emotions bubble up. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how often I squash big emotions that I would consider to be positive too, like euphoria or excitement or pride, especially if I’m around other people.
I think that this probably started out decades ago in the interest of not seeming like too much, but the problem is it gets to be a habit. I feel something and I squash it. So at the root of all, this is a tiny bit of wanting to control myself to live up to my own picture of who I am, the cheerful one, and also a big pile of wanting to be sure that the picture I show to the world is the image of the way that I’ve learned that girls should look. So yes, I should be cheerful but not too loud, not too boisterous. I should be confident, but not too proud. I should be friendly, but not too talkative. Sometimes I might like to be quiet and mysterious, but not too shy.
And so I’ve realized that I go through life with sort of a low-grade governor on all my emotions, governor, by the way, is the thing that goes on an engine and helps to keep it from going too fast. After decades of practice. I notice that a lot of the time. I’m not even sure I’m feeling the big emotions at all. I’ve just got a sort of general “fine” with a vague bit of tension in my shoulders, queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Like I know I’m not fine, but it’s hard for me to even describe what I am a lot of the time and when real emotions do bubble up, I can’t wait to squash them.
So I, swallow big and bite my lip so that the tears don’t come, or head to another room and take a bunch of deep breaths so that I don’t show how angry I am. I jot off a list of all the reasons I’m grateful for my life if I notice I’m feeling envious about something that somebody else has. And I don’t think I’m alone in this.
I’ve been on a campaign recently to tell all of my friends and acquaintances to stop apologizing for crying around me. Not like people are constantly crying around me or anything, but, you know, sometimes it’s a friend that’s going through a hard time. Or I’ve said before, I teach singing lessons, I might have a student who’s nervous to open her mouth and sing and sometimes tears will bubble up. And inevitably the response is, “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m crying like this” to which I will always say, “you are always safe to cry around me. No apologies allowed.”
But sometimes the problem is not that we’re not feeling an emotion fully. It could be that we’re getting stuck in an emotion that we felt a while ago. I was chatting with a friend recently who said that if we allow them, emotions only take about 90 seconds to move through us, which is crazy. 90 seconds. This friend is a smart cookie. And so I knew she probably knew what she was talking about. So after I hung up with her, I went looking online for the research study.
Turns out the research comes from a Harvard brain scientist by the name of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. And she says that 90 seconds is all it takes to identify an emotion and allow it to dissipate while you simply notice it. And they’ve proven this with MRI studies that show that your brain flares up with anger or fear or envy or whatever. But if you sit with that feeling, name it and notice it, it actually fades away in a minute and a half. So I found a quote from her.
She says, “there’s a 90-second chemical process that happens in the body. After that, any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop. If you continue to feel fear, anger and so on, you need to look at the thoughts that you’re thinking that are restimulating the circuitry that is resulting in you having this physiological reaction over and over again.”
And I feel a little, a little seen and called out here because how many of us have had, I don’t know, an argument with our spouses first thing in the morning and then just kind of chewed on it all day and maybe something distracts you from it for a second. But then you can get yourself all more riled up and angry again. And according to what Dr. Taylor is telling us, it was probably because we didn’t process the emotion enough the first time, number one, and number two, we just kept leaning into those, uh, those thoughts that made us keep going there.
So, as a mom, as I was thinking about this, my thoughts immediately went to my kids actually to everybody’s kids when they are toddlers and they have tantrums, right? Because that’s a huge emotion like kicking and screaming. And then it’s just over, incidentally, my oldest didn’t have the kicking, screaming kind of tantrums. He used to get all red in his little face and he’d start kind of breathing heavily and he’d go, “I’m so frustrated, right now”, it was really cute. But the point is, when we were little, we knew how to process these feelings. You know, we went really big and then we were done, we knew how to truly feel these things and move on.
My kids are nine and 11 and I don’t think they’ve lost this ability yet because they can be absolutely furious with each other for probably about 90 seconds now that I think about it and then they are absolutely best buds again. They’ve processed the emotion and they can move on and confession time: I feel like I am in danger of messing this magical ability up for them because 90 seconds of big feelings feels super uncomfortable to me, whether it’s in me or whether it’s watching somebody I love go through it. So I don’t want to go there. I feel nervous to feel big things and even more afraid to get stuck in big feelings.
And so my impulse is to kind of pass this emotional ‘squash’ on to my kids. I have really been trying. We have lots of talks about how it’s ok to feel angry. That seems to be the one they go to really quickly. Brothers are best friends are worst enemies, but we’ll talk about how it’s ok to feel angry. But we need to be careful to keep our hands to ourselves. But I will say that when everyone is calm and then in the moment when they’re screaming at each other, I will give them the dreaded “calm down”. Or if one of them is muttering angry things under his breath, I’ll tell him to stop because I’m uncomfortable even witnessing their anger. I want them to be nice and cheerful too.
But the more I think about it, the more I don’t want this for any of us, I don’t want the chronic tension of holding on to emotions. I’m trying to pretend I don’t have and I don’t want the rumination and the drawing out of emotions I could have moved through in 90 seconds. Most importantly, I want to live authentically as a person who’s honest about her thoughts and her feelings.
So what can we do about all this feeling mess? I think first we want to recognize that as the Portuguese neuroscientist, Antonio de Maio said we are ‘feeling machines that think’. Feelings will come up even in those of us who are trying really hard to squash them, they are hardwired. They’re a part of our ancient brains and we are not going to be able to stop them. I watched Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart on HBO Max recently, which was awesome. By the way, if you have HBO Max, you should catch it. I have not read the book yet which is what this little five-part sort of docuseries was based on. But it is all about getting more in touch with our emotions and the premise that as we’re more connected to ourselves, we’re better able to connect with others.
Interestingly, she said that when she surveyed people and asked them to make a list of emotions that they could recognize and name while they were experiencing them, the average person came up with three emotions which were happy, sad, and pissed off, which is awesome. So I guess I’m not the only person in the world who is a little bit emotionally stunted, which is good in that it makes me feel less alone, but also we all have work to do, right?
So, Brené talked a lot about how important it is to be accurate when we’re naming emotions. Because what we call an emotion affects the way that we experience it, which is wild when you think about it, that calling something something different could actually change the way that you feel. I already understood this a little bit because of some research that came out of Harvard regarding fear and excitement that I use with my singing students all the time. So this woman Alison Wood Brooks from Harvard Business School did a study where she made people give an impromptu speech. And since most people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death, they kind of freaked out. They started having the physical feelings that pop up when we feel nervous, or afraid–that increased heart rate, the shallow breathing, the butterflies in your stomachs, all those sorts of things, we know how that goes.
The thing is this increased sort of arousal, this physical response is really similar to the way that we feel when we’re excited about something positive, we just give it a different name. And so Alison had half the group tried to calm themselves down and half the group lean into that physical arousal. And instead of saying, “oh my gosh, I’m freaking out, I’m so scared.” They were to say “I’m excited.” And what’s so cool about this is that the I’m excited group performed way better. So by just feeling the sensations, leaning into them, and choosing a more helpful name for the emotion, they performed better than the people who were taking the deep breaths and telling themselves they were calm. So whenever my students are nervous about singing, I always try to remind them that maybe what they’re feeling instead is excitement.
Brené talked about this in a different way about the difference between stress and overwhelm. So first of all, we feel stress when we label it as stress, when we suspect a task is beyond us. So you don’t necessarily, situations are not inherently stressful. We decide that they’re stressful, we tell ourselves we’re stressed out and then we feel stress. But overwhelm is when we get stressed to the point of being unable to function. She suggested not creating any self-fulfilling prophecies for ourselves. You know, saying, like “I’m having an anxiety attack, I’m overwhelmed.” when what you really have is a high level of stress because according to Brené, we can work through a high level of stress, you can, you know, make it to-do list or get help or, you know, come up with a plan. But if you have legitimate overwhelm, you basically have to stop and do nothing. So she said, if, if you get to the point where you truly are overwhelmed, she recommended taking 10 minutes to just sit there and that, that’s often enough to reset things and help you get back from the brink um to, you know, just being sort of generally stressed out. So I thought that was a pretty good tip.
If you have been in my world for any length of time, you know, that I usually like to end any of my posts or podcasts with a Do It Now, a series of tasks for all of us that we can use to put the stuff we’re thinking about into practice. And as I said, this feeling my feelings is something I’m really working on. So, here is how I am approaching it. I think first we want to remember that as Brené Brown said, there are two parts to any emotion, the physical feeling and what we call it and both of them are important. So the first step, I think is to identify the physical response. Remembering that if we just sit and notice it, any feeling, no matter how uncomfortable it is won’t likely last more than 90 seconds unless you start to ruminate on it and feed into it and turn it into a loop. I would actually be super curious to set a stopwatch while this was happening. Although I’m not sure if I would have the presence of mind. It’d be super cool though.
So as this 90 seconds is going, we’re labeling the physical traits, you know, the ‘my heart is pounding, my shoulders are tense, my stomach feels sick. There, there are tears in my eyes’, that sort of thing and just sit with it rather than trying to resist it rather than trying to quickly change it into something else just sitting and noticing it.
And then as you’re sitting and noticing this next, we try to name the emotion as best as we can remembering that most of us are super stunted in this. We’re either happy, sad or pissed off. I thought it was really cool that Brene Brown on her website has a list of 87 human emotions which were more then I guess I would come up with right away. Although I remember when there used to be a poster that hung in my German classroom that had all different facial expressions and it had a bunch of emotions on it. Sometimes when I’m working with my singers. I have a wheel of emotions that I will spin and it has different emotions and they have to sing, giving me those emotions on their faces. So I, I guess I did know that there were at least 87 but she has 87. I will link to those in the show notes to help all of us think of ways that we can expand our vocabulary.
So once we’ve identified the physical response, paid attention, named it, then tried to name the emotion as best as we could. Now we’re just gonna let both of them kind of wash over us. Try not to judge them, try not to blame ourselves. You know, this is sort of the, the feeling that I get into is there are certain emotions that are, that are worthwhile or appropriate and certain others that are sort of ugly or bad or shameful for whatever reason, I think um envy is one for me that I just, I, I’d like to move through that right away. I feel like it’s, it’s ugly. Anger. I tend to squash pretty quickly because I get scared a little bit by expressions of anger in myself and other people. So I think I really try to, to keep a lid on it. So yeah, allowing them to be there, letting it come and go, not judging it.
And also if we can help it without continuing to perpetuate it and make it last longer. Remembering what Dr. Taylor said about the fact that we have to be thinking thoughts that are restimulating the circuitry to make that angry or fearful part of your brain blow up for one 90-second cycle after another. We get to choose our thoughts. It doesn’t always feel like it, but we do get to choose our thoughts. And so once we have, you know, processed this emotion, felt ourselves move through it, experienced for it for about 90 seconds, and gotten to a place where our heads are a little bit clearer. Let’s try to choose thoughts that will help us move through our emotions rather than ones that keep us stuck.
And finally, let’s encourage other people to feel their feelings too. I think we’re all hungry to be authentic to have others really see us. I have been experimenting recently with really talking with other people and sharing the times that I feel nervous or embarrassed or disappointed. And what’s really cool is that they often respond with their own kind of vulnerable emotions and it’s helping us to connect on a deeper level, which is awesome.
And we are listening to a podcast called the Optimized Mom podcast. I think most of you listeners are moms. Let’s do our best to help the next generation be better at processing, identifying, moving through emotions without judgment, et cetera than we were. And for that, we are gonna get need to get comfortable with lots of 90-second displays of big feelings both from ourselves and the little ones who we love. And as I said, I’m gonna be working on this right along with you. Thanks so much for listening.