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  • Jacqueline Siempelkamp

Taking the taboo out of expressing emotions

As a culture, we have certainly come a long way in how we view and accept mental health. We know that mental health is part of us as human beings, and we also know that sometimes we struggle. However, there are still lingering parts of our mental health that we may feel hesitant to share or even admit to ourselves at times. We often feel pressure to put on a happy face to the outside world when in reality, it’s possible that we’re struggling internally. We’re worried about making other people feel uncomfortable if we’re experiencing negative emotions, and as a society we tend to feel concerned if what we’re going through is too much to share with someone else.

Instead of showing our authentic selves, societally we lock up the messy parts and judge ourselves for how we’re feeling. Messages run through our heads; “I shouldn’t be feeling this way,” “No one else is stressed about this,” “They’re handling it so much better than me.” These messages push our emotions further down, until we either internalize them and make ourselves feel worse or take them out on someone else. Generationally, we may have been taught that there isn’t room to discuss how we feel unless it’s celebrating achievements, milestones, or other happy moments in life. Even the positive moments we experience can contribute to less comfortable emotions like anxiety, sadness, and anger. It can be uncomfortable to reveal that while we “should” be doing well mentally, there are mixed feelings that aren’t being fully expressed.

We need to figure out how to make room for all emotions and feel secure that we won’t be judged for being honest about what we’re going through—and this includes ourselves, too. Here are some places to start:

· Identify and name: The first place to start is to learn to identify how we’re feeling at all. Oftentimes we’re caught up in the events of what’s taken place and emotions get left behind. Spend time reflecting on how you feel and name the emotions that come forward after that. You might be surprised that you’re not only sad but also scared, for example.

· Make space: There isn’t automatically room for emotions to show themselves in daily life. We can be more mindful to make space for emotions and take them as they come. If there isn’t the mental space to feel our emotions, they can’t be fully expressed. It’s so much healthier to allow emotions the space they deserve to improve our overall functioning. Emotions won’t just go away—they’re going to stick around whether we make space to acknowledge them or not.

· Ride it out: So much of modern life is avoidance. It’s focused on moving on quickly, chasing after the next thing, staying busy, and so on. Our emotions don’t necessarily get time to be felt. If we feel anxious or angry, we figure out ways to get rid of those feelings as fast as we can. Give yourself time to process your emotions and really feel them. They can be big and overwhelming, but the more we can get used to sitting with our emotions the more comfortable we are going to be, no matter how we are feeling.

· Incorporate language: If you think about the age-old question, “How was your day?” most people automatically spit off what they did and what took place, completely leaving out how they felt and how they are really doing. Consider adding in feeling words to describe how your day went. “I was late to work today, and I felt really worried my boss was going to get upset.” “I got an A on my test. I feel proud of myself and relieved that I did better than I thought.” “My friend was having a bad day and I feel disappointed I couldn’t help her.” We can describe any situation while adding emotions to the story. With practice it will become second nature.

· Model behavior: We might be really good at giving advice without practicing that same thing ourselves. While it’s important to encourage others to share emotions more, we can also help by modeling that same behavior to them. Plus, once you get more comfortable in sharing your own emotions, it will be even easier to show someone else how to do it, too.

· Remember boundaries: It might be difficult to know where to start and what’s appropriate in sharing emotions. For example, we want to model to our kids that sharing emotions is a healthy and normal part of the human experience. This is a reminder that all emotions can be appropriate to share, but maybe sharing all of the details or even relying on our kids as emotional support is not. We can still appropriately share emotions, while keeping good boundaries at the same time in any relationship.

· Validate experiences: One of the largest hurdles in sharing emotions is perceived judgment or misunderstanding. If a friend is sharing about an experience, be sure to validate how they are feeling and use empathy to understand where they are coming from. You may not agree with how they handled the situation, but it’s still possible to make them feel heard and understood even if you share a different opinion.

The defining factor in being human is experiencing emotion. Societally, we feel comfortable in clinging to the happy times and ignoring the bad. It seems impractical to feel the need to cover up our emotions or push them away, especially since we all can relate on one level or another. It’s time to make emotions less taboo, and that starts with all of us. We can all work together to continue pushing our culture towards accepting emotions and mental health as simply, part of our existence.

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