Nurturing our emotions is a critical component of self-nurture. As Alice Domar explains in her book Self-Nurture: Learning to Care for Yourself as Effectively as You Care for Everyone Else, the answer is not to talk ourselves out of negative feelings, to suppress emotions, or even to discharge them in explosive efforts to 'ventilate.'"
Instead, we must learn to accept our full range of emotions and stop labeling them as "bad" or "negative." After all, these feelings are usually a signal that something is wrong in our present life or that some past trauma is still asserting itself.
The Power of Self-Expression
If we don't have an outlet to express our emotions, they will accumulate in the mind and body, negatively impacting our mental and physical health.
"Depression is unexpressed sadness," says Domar. "Anxiety is unexplored fear; and irritability is unresolved anger." This is a powerful idea. It means that we need a way to express the unexplored and unresolved if we are going to truly care for ourselves.
Domar has found, through her research and work with patients, that one of the best ways to explore, express, and nurture emotions is through journaling. More than a dozen studies have shown that individuals who write down their most painful thoughts and feelings for 20 minutes every day for four days, experience marked improvements in their physical and psychological wellbeing. As Domar explains, they became less anxious and depressed, and were physically healthier for as long as five months after journaling.
Keeping a journal, like the one here on the Allies in Recovery site, is a tool that works. It's one of the best ways to self-nurture. Use the journal exercises we share on the Sanctuary. Watch the video modules and fill out the Key Observation exercises that accompany each AiR module. Read our regular Sanctuary and blog posts. All of these materials provide prompts that allow you to dig deeper and better understand your feelings and how you express them.
While journaling is free, simple, and can be done whenever you have a few moments to yourself, you may also find it helpful to have the support of a close friend, priest, rabbi, pastor, or a skilled therapist when you are working through difficult emotions. Whether you are expressing yourself through writing or intimate conversation with a trusted confidant, it is helpful to find outlets for communicating about your feelings.
The Blueprint of Our Emotional Lives
The path to understanding our emotional self is a journey that begins in childhood. For most of us, our families were the first place we learned about what emotions were acceptable, frightening, or forbidden. Our early lives provide an "interior blueprint for later emotional relating," as Maggie Scarf details in her book Intimate Worlds: Life Inside the Family.
Because these early patterns and wounds profoundly affect our current feelings and worldviews, it is important to understand how our emotions relate to our parents and upbringing.
Here are a few important questions to consider. Are you dissatisfied with your relationship with one or both of your parents? At what times in your life have you felt most angry at your family? How did your family express anger when you were growing up? Were your parents passive or explosive? What kinds of role models were your parents in regards to emotions?
Take time to explore some of these questions in your journal.
The emotion that is most problematic for many of us is anger. Learning to express anger in a healthy way is crucial to self-care. Why? Because as Domar explains, "healthy expression of anger is synonymous with assertiveness, the ability to stand up for yourself in relations with parents, children, friends, employers, or anyone who has some power over you."
In other words, in order to be truly self-nurturing, we must learn to be assertive.
Because so many of us were taught to suppress our anger (especially women), it is common for us to express this emotion through passivity, masochism, or passive-aggressive "acting out."
According to Domar, such responses make it incredibly hard for us to get our needs met and "to be known by loved ones for our authentic selves." Suppressing anger also hurts us physically and can lead to back pain, stomach problems, headaches, and chronic immune disorders.
Expressing Anger in a Healthy Way
As Domar says, "assertiveness is the controlled use of anger, not to punish people we feel have done us wrong, but to get our needs met." To take care of ourselves, we must learn to be assertive, as opposed to aggressive, passive, or passive-aggressive.
When we feel anger, there are four potential responses, according to Domar:
1. Aggressive communication
This is the message an irate, aggressive response sends…
You don't count.
As she explains, it is "off-putting at best and inflammatory at worst." Unless you are being physically assaulted or assertiveness has failed to work in a critical situation, aggressiveness is rarely a viable choice.
Instead, Domar recommends we stop, breathe, reflect, and choose our response, instead of acting out of raw fury.
2. Passive communication
This sends the opposite message of aggression. It says…
I don't count.
Domar argues that this is "the least self-nurturing choice as an ongoing strategy for managing anger, one that is rarely consciously chosen but that we gradually adopt as a psychological path of least resistance."
3. Passive-aggressive communication
Acting out in a passive-aggressive way is no better than passivity, and it sends the message…
You don't count, but I'm not going to tell you this.
It is "a sneaky way of acting out anger without taking responsibility for it."
So if these three approaches don't work, what does? The answer:
Learning to be assertive sends a clear message to your Loved One…
Domar details why assertiveness is so powerful and effective:
'I count' because I take the difficult and often courageous chance of stepping forth with my true emotions, as troubled or unpleasant as they may be. And 'you' (the other) count because I step forth respectfully, taking care not use aggressive tactics of bullying or blame. Rather, I focus on my feelings, not your faults; I state my hurt, disappointment, or anger, and I make clear my desire to be heard and understood. My goal should not be to exact vengeance, but to restore a sense of fairness (especially in work relationships or dealings with people in public) or to reestablish intimacy (especially in close friendships or family relationships).
Reflecting on Anger
Take a moment to reflect on how your own family expressed anger when you were young. Write down your thoughts in your journal.
When you feel anger, what do you do? How do you express this emotion? If your default response is aggression, passivity, or passive aggressiveness, how can you modify your behavior to be more assertive?
Think about a situation with your Loved One that frequently causes you to feel angry. Describe a typical interaction and how it plays out. Is your current approach working?
The next time you feel angry with your Loved One, how could you respond differently? How can you send the message, "I count. You count," and be assertive in the way Domar describes? Record your responses in your journal.
Also, be sure to watch Module 7, "How Do I Care for Myself When Negative Feelings Get in the Way?" and to complete the corresponding Key Observation exercises. Both Module 7 and this Sanctuary series will help you better understand your emotions and what type of responses are most effective when communicating with your Loved One.