It was late at night, and my husband and I were having an argument about the same subject we’d been arguing about for two decades—cooking and cleaning.
The argument came out of the blue. The kids were sleeping, and we were enjoying an evening together. We watched a film while chatting. The conversation suddenly went on a tangent and I felt as if the ground beneath us had split. A dark, deep cavern appeared between us.
Now we stood on opposite sides of the ravine, with anger, disappointment, and pain hurled at us. We tried to convince one another of our rightness.
For the whole of our marriage, the patterns have been that I cook and organize the kids, he cleans and takes instructions about the kids—which, on paper, might seem reasonable, but we were both holding deep amounts of resentment, bitterness, and anger about this arrangement.
The arrangement was not discussed. The arrangement was something that developed spontaneously, and it caused us to both explode in anger.
After these arguments we would withdraw inside ourselves, like wounded animals caring for the emotional injuries we had sustained. After we both emerged, we wouldn’t discuss the argument; it felt like it had taken so much out of our lives that we just wanted to skip onto the next thing. If I am honest, I knew I didn’t have the tools to discuss it in a way in that wouldn’t ignite the argument again.
Why bother to open the wound if it feels like it has healed?
But, of course, it wouldn’t have healed, and it would just come up again a few weeks or months down the line.
Cut to five years later and the arrangements haven’t actually changed much, but these arguments have disappeared. These arguments are no longer happening, and with them the old bitterness and resentment. The discussions are mostly about cooking, cleaning and organizing the kids. how can I help you with what’s on your plate today?
How did it happen? How did this happen?
I’ve learned a lot about the way my brain processes and perceives emotion in these past five years. That has given me a new perspective on my relationship.
It was a radical change for me when I discovered a new way to deal with my emotions. This changed the way my husband and my children began to handle their emotions.
I didn’t need to explain or discuss anything with them. But by showing up differently, I changed the emotional patterns of my family, and that was the most empowering thing I’ve experienced in my whole life.
Five of my biggest realizations have shifted the way I think.
1. Most of the information we have about emotions has been wrong.
Humans are meant to have emotions, and to have the whole range of emotions—anger and fear, sadness and despair, love and joy. All of these emotions are natural. But many of us learned that some (or even all) emotions are somehow wrong and we shouldn’t have them.
Emotions shouldn’t be suppressed. They should never be avoided.
Emotions can be seen, heard, and felt. Like clouds, I imagine emotions. We feel them when they arrive and then drift away.
What causes so many problems for us is that most of us didn’t learn to feel them in this way. We didn’t grow up with the sense that emotions are manageable, and that it’s possible to hold them gently in our bodies, allowing them to drift in and then drift out.
We struggle because our parents, caregivers and their caregivers struggled to manage their emotions.
As an example, anger. What did your parents say to you when you were young and angry? We would all have been sent to our rooms if we had said something in anger. Maybe our parents made fun of us or tried to make us laugh to get us to stop feeling angry. Or our anger was met with our parents’ anger, and we were punished.
This teaches the brain that anger is not right. We shouldn’t feel anger. So, when anger comes up and we don’t know how to hold it, we can end up throwing it at other people by arguing or shouting, or keep it locked inside where it might feel totally uncomfortable and painful. Or we end up having endless angry looping obsessive thoughts that we just can’t stop.
Anger can be a very destructive force for our lives. It is uncontrollable, difficult to feel in your body, and frightening to see in other people.
Emotions want to be seen, felt and heard. They want their feelings, to be felt and heard.
Not to throw the anger at others or keep it inside to feel like it’s destroying our being, but to learn how to feel safe with it. Knowing that we can experience anger more comfortably, so it can rise up in our bodies before releasing.
2. When emotions are high and logic is not present, the situation can be dangerous.
When emotions activate, it’s like a giant lens comes up and we start to see the world through the lens of that emotion. When we are angry, we view the world with anger. This makes the world seem full of upsetting events.
Or fear—we see the world through the lens of fear and it seems like so many things are scary or terrifying.
But the thing to know here is that it’s simply the emotion that is coloring our vision. When we can work with our emotions, we will stop seeing all the scary and terrifying things. Instead, we will start to see life as a nuanced experience.
So if I am seeing anger activate in my husband, or fear or sadness or any emotion, I know that he is seeing the world through this lens and there are no ‘facts’ or ‘logic’ that will change that.
When he is emotional, I won’t engage in a conversation about cleaning and cooking. Or any other topic that I find important. I will wait to talk about things that feel important to me when he isn’t emotional.
3. We shouldn’t listen to our thoughts when we are emotional.
Instead of accusing him of being the reason for my anger, I will recognize when I feel angry and work with it instead of attacking him.
I feel my feelings and he feels his feelings. My brain is trying to tell me, “He’s the reason I am feeling angry! He’s to blame!”, My anger is much older than he. Most of our emotions arrived way before our current situation, experience, or relationship—even though it doesn’t feel that way.
Most of our feelings are old because we never got to process them—to see, feel, and hear them—so they stay trapped inside of us. So maybe we feel some new anger about a situation, but it gets added to the decades-old pile of anger that we haven’t processed, and that’s why it feels so very big, so very significant. And it’s so painful.
Emotions want to integrate. They want to leave our bodies. So they seek out things that will bring them up in hopes we’ll finally let them be here, fully allow them be felt and heard.
4. My emotions are mine; your emotions, your emotions.
When we accept responsibility for our feelings, we can overcome them faster than if they were shared. It’s time to move on. And if we want to have discussions with our partners—say about cleaning and cooking and kids and arrangements—it’s on the other side of our feelings that we want to do it.
When the anger has subsided, and the lens has been cleaned. Once we have moved past that feeling. When we are done with that feeling, we will have more empathy, better understanding and a wider view of our lives.
As soon as I was able to work through the piles of anger, rage, sadness, and disappointment that I had felt over the years but had run from, I started to view my relationship completely differently.
My husband and I were able to talk about how we saw things in our relationship when I was calm. When I wasn’t throwing resentment and anger at him, and not having conversations when he was emotional as well, our communication totally changed its texture. We began to discuss our needs, and found the space to support one another from a place that was based on empathy.
5. What are the needs of emotions? What do emotions need?
These three simple things are what emotions want. The first is to be seen, to be acknowledged—not blamed or judged (or blaming other people for having emotions). It is easy to start by simply seeing them.
There’s anger in the air!
I’m feeling a little fear.
What am feeling? Gosh, I think it’s some disappointment, and some sadness.
What emotions crave is empathy, understanding and compassion.
Gosh, I’m feeling a lot of anger right now! It’s uncomfortable and hard to stay with this feeling, but I understand why anger is here. It’s always been difficult for me to feel anger.
Fear is an awful lot! As I sit in this fear and feel it, I will offer myself compassion.
I find disappointment a difficult emotion to deal with! Can I show myself some empathy? To acknowledge it’s not easy for me as I learn how to be with this emotion with more kindness and gentleness?
We need to step away from our thoughts in this process, to see that the emotions we experience are actually held in our body, and it’s in our body that we get to fully feel them.
It’s by fully feeling our feelings, rather than getting lost in our thoughts, that we get the chance to release the intensity of our feelings.
Do not blame or judge others.
Listening to them is the last step. The emotions we feel and let go of are our greatest guides. Always accompanied by guidance about our unmet need. They aren’t here to punish us, but instead show us where we can become more authentic, more in line with our values, and stronger in our boundaries.
When we decide to give ourselves space and support through our emotional reactions, this is what changes the texture of our relationships.
What kind of relationship could you have if you had the ability to overcome those strong, tense feelings that you may experience, which can lead to conflict or force you to react in a different way than what you would like to?
It’s not just the case of intimate relationships with our partners, but also true of our relationships with anyone we love. If we are able to work through our difficult feelings when we talk to our parents, siblings, extended family or friends and have big feelings towards them, then our relationship will change.
If we can remove our shame, anger, fear or loneliness from our relationships, we will be able to move into a space of deeper intimacy, empathy and support.
It’s a wildly beautiful place to live, in trust and connection, knowing that we can still have feelings, we can still have conflict—but when we can work with our emotions, we don’t stay stuck in a place of raw, untended pain that arises and derails our lives and our relationships.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Is your relationship in constant turmoil? If you’d like to create a richer, calmer, more intimate relationship, Diana’s Transform Your Relationship workshop series can help—even if your partner has zero interest.
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Diana Bird is a neuro emotional coach and writer, helping people release unhealthy emotional patterns and deep overwhelm. To receive her free workshop on building emotional resilience, sign up for her newsletter here. You’ll also receive invites to her free webinars on subjects like releasing shame and soothing overwhelm. Diana works with clients in her coaching practice and in online workshops and lives on the beach in southern Spain, with her children and photographer husband.
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