One of my therapist colleagues just shared this awesome cartoon with me. It really captures the hilarious (and relatable!) gap between our aspirations of Zen-like chill and our frazzled, real-world execution when it comes to emotion regulation. Most of us strive to be good people, and sometimes our big emotions can just sweep in and thwart our best intentions.
As humbling as that message is, it's also so normalizing of those big feelings and of anger specifically. Anger is a necessary emotion that helps us protect ourselves from the dangers in our world and it also provides important data about our needs and gives us the oomph we need to advocate for those needs.
To make our anger most effective for us, we often work in therapy on owning and expressing our angry feelings while working not to lash out from our anger, i.e., to talk about feeling angry without using an intimidating tone or critical language with others. You know, unless they're walking too slowly in front of you…
I came across this quote today and I wanted to share it. We have for so long been told sharing our vulnerability with others is a sign of weakness, but many of us would prefer to do just about anything than share something really vulnerable. One of my firefighter clients once told me he'd literally rather go into a burning building than tell his partner how scared he feels inside when they fight!
Being vulnerable is not only a sign of being brave and authentic, but it's also a necessary part of creating real intimacy and security. Vulnerability fuels connection. Sharing something real and tender is a big part of how we build and sustain close bonds. As those of you in EFT therapy know, we get out of the negative cycle by sharing our vulnerable feelings of loneliness, inadequacy and fear rather than hiding them behind protective walls of criticism or defensiveness.
This principle works in any close relationship. If I share something vulnerable with you, and you respond with care and understanding, I decide that you can be safe for me, which makes me more likely to open up to you in the future. "Wow — he was really kind and listened to me. I felt good sharing that with him. Maybe I can tell him more!" I learn that my sharing this part of me with you doesn't make you reject me, which helps change how I view myself. "You know the real me — even this part of me I'm not so sure about — and you still seem to like me? Maybe I'm OK after all…" Also, my sharing invites you to share something personal about yourself with me. "Wow! She really shared something vulnerable with me — maybe I can open up about this thing I've been worried about, too!" All of this creates an atmosphere of safety, acceptance, and closeness between us, a positive feedback loop where the more you share, the more I share, and we keep feeling safer and closer.
Happy MLK day! In the spirit of honoring this American hero, I'd like to encourage you all today to do two things:
One, to take a moment to reflect and be grateful for the many privileges and protections we enjoy today thanks to the moral clarity, eloquence, and courage of our human rights heroes. We talk a lot in therapy about practicing gratitude — research tells us it's one of the best ways to improve our felt sense of well-being and reduce depression and anxiety — and as Americans, we have much to be grateful for. The right to free speech, freedom of religion, representative government, ending slavery and segregation, extending voting rights to women, same-sex marriage, etc. These freedoms are a precious inheritance, a gift that, as with Dr. King, often came at the cost of human lives. Let's take a moment to thank the many men and women who labored and sacrificed for us to enjoy these freedoms today.
Two, take a moment to reflect on how we can continue Dr. King's work and leave an even more just and kind world behind for our children and grandchildren. In EFT, we talk so much about attachment and security. And as our love and safety grows within our couple bond, we naturally find ourselves wanting to widen the scope of our love — thinking of ways to repair with family members, grow closer with friends, and nurture our world as a whole. As we continue on our journey toward equality and civil rights in this beautiful, diverse, raucous nation of ours, please think today about what we can do for our fellow citizens so that, in this American family, we all feel safe, accepted, and know we are not alone. In our country, as in our relationships, let's work toward "a more perfect union." With all our many differences, let's strive to hold each other tight.
And with all that said, I'd like to share with you this beautiful video on this couple's journey together. Enjoy!
"To function effectively in our job, you must annihilate, smother, and suppress normal emotions like fear, anger, revulsion, and even compassion. To do so otherwise is to invite overwhelming doubt or hesitancy when decisive action is required. The penalty for your achieved competence is a mindset that might as well be a foreign language to your social contemporaries. We are…victims of our own success. When these same normal and appropriate emotions…surface in personal relationships, we automatically shut down and wonder why, over time, that the people we care about the most complain that we are aloof, cold, and uncommunicative." — Lt. Al Benner, San Francisco Police
One of my clients in law enforcement shared this powerful quote with me, and I wanted to share it with you, too, because it really touched me. Firstly, it really allows us to get inside the world of the police officer, the soldier, the first-responder, to empathize with what they see, what they carry, and how they might need to shut down to carry out their duties. What a powerful thing to keep in mind, too, as we have more conversations as a society about the relationships between police officers and the communities they serve.
But this also touched me more generally, as this quote is thoughtfully addressing the toll that trauma takes on us. How living through (or growing up in) traumatic circumstances so often requires we come up with strategies that aid us in our survival, but become a hindrance as we move past our trauma and try to live and thrive in the world.
Thirdly, this is a story that many men know all too well, given the often toxic attitudes about masculinity we have in our culture. So many men are raised with the attitude that you must always be invulnerable (rub some dirt in it, toughen up, don't be a wuss, boys don't cry), you must shut down feeling to be acceptable and valued as a man…and so, at great cost to themselves, men often do that. Only to find their intimate partners, children, and other loved ones frustrated with them for becoming exactly what they've been told they're supposed to be.