One thing that can come up as an issue in my couples therapy practice is a meta emotion mismatch. What do we mean by meta emotions? Meta emotion is how we feel about feelings. We all have an emotional heritage, which is a result of our family upbringing and the emotional climate in that home.
Some people grew up in a home where their feelings were encouraged, and validated. Where it was ok to cry and be sad, it was ok to be angry as well as excited. That child was able to talk through the emotion and learn how to handle it. They learned that it wasn't the end of the world if they were sad, or scared. Some people came from homes where emotions weren't supported. Maybe they were told ‘don't be sad’ or ‘you'll get over it’, or ‘boys don’t cry’. This is emotion dismissing and it can lead to an unfortunate emotional legacy. Emotion dismissing doesn't allow the person to connect with emotions in themselves and they might not be able to be able to validate emotions in others.
When someone from an emotion coaching background meets up with a person who is emotionally dismissing, it can wreak havoc on their relationship. Someone who is comfortable with emotion may be able to support and validate their partners emotions, while freely expressing their own sadness, fear, disappointment, and joy. The person who is emotion dismissing may have a bad reaction to the expression of emotion. It could be that emotion feels out of control to them, or that emotion is seen as being used to ‘get your way.’ The world of emotion might feel scary and foreign to that person who came from an emotionally barren environment, while the emotion coach is at ease and confident while expressing and supporting emotion.
Dr. Emily Nagoski has a wonderful way of describing the process of emotional expression. In her book ‘come as you are’ she likens processing emotions to going through a tunnel. It may be dark and scary at times, but know that processing it will help you get through it and see the light again. To someone who is emotion dismissing it can feel like that tunnel is more like a dark alley filled with garbage and rats, which they want to avoid at all costs.
As Dr. John Gottman says in the book ‘what makes love last’ “If you can't get beyond the belief that negative emotions are a waste of time and even dangerous, you will not be able to attune your partner enough to succeed” What he means by attuning is, increasing your understanding of your partner and expressing acceptance and support. In ‘what makes love last’ Dr. Gottman provides and easy path to attunement called ‘The art of intimate conversation’. It helps guide people through the following steps: 1) putting your feelings into words, 2) Ask open ended questions, 3) Follow up statements to deepen connection, and 4) express compassion and empathy.
It is important to explore the legacy that leads to your view on emotions. In ‘what makes love last’ Dr. Gottman describes a couple in which one partner came from a very expressive family that encouraged emotional processing and expression. Her partner comes from a family that was taciturn and anything less than cheerfulness puts him on edge. He is unable to empathize and validate her emotions because he tends to step into problem solving. This is his attempt to rescue her from the emotions that are scary and uncomfortable to him. However, this leaves her feeling worse since he is trying to solve her feelings away before attempting to understand them.
Whether you are single or in a relationship, it is important to decipher what your meta emotion style is. There is a quiz in Dr. John Gottman’s book, ‘the relationship cure’ that will help you discover just that. Then you can decide what you might shift in order to improve all of your relationships.