Feeling about Feelings. Meta-Emotions and their Origins

It’s quite amazing isn’t? We all have feelings about feelings. Don’t believe me?

How do you feel when someone cries? – expressing a feeling.

How do you feel when you are upset and crying as a result? Can you cry? Can you be angry? Are you allowed to be upset? Or do you feel embarrassed to cry?

How do you feel about feeling overwhelmed? Perhaps you are frustrated with feeling that you can’t stay with your partner at the function or church service too long? (HSPs know about this!)

Amazing isn’t it? We feel about feelings. We have emotional and cognitive responses to the raw emotions of others and ourselves. Psychologists call these meta-emotions.

Guess who trains us in meta-emotions? Primarily our parents and guardians. Basically we are all socialised with a set of beliefs and responses to our raw emotions, and the raw emotions of others.

So, to put it simply, “how we feel about feelings is learnt”. Want some good news? If it’s learnt, it can be deconstructed and rebuilt.

Please remember, there is no such thing, technically speaking, as a bad raw emotion. Emotions are natural, God given and we even read in Scripture Jesus expressing many emotions. Professionals simply label emotions as positive or negative. E.g. Happy or sad.

In 1997, Gottman published papers after researching the formation of meta-emotions and categorised three types of parental approaches (philosophy). You may recognise how you were raised in these three categories. I think you’ll find a dominant category but don’t be surprised if you see a mix when it came to particular emotions or to different parents (mum or dad)

Dismissive Approach
“Don’t feel like that!”
This is when the parents ignore or deny a child’s raw-emotion, generally their child’s negative emotions (sadness or anger). This is because they believe these emotions could be harmful to the child. So, they do their best to quickly alleviate these negative emotions. Gottman discovered parents who do this “are often unable to provide insight into their child’s emotions and do not view negative emotions as an opportunity for growth or intimacy.”

Disapproving Approach
“Don’t feel!”
These parents simply don’t approve of ANY kind of raw emotional expression – positive or negative. “Stop laughing.” “Stop Crying.” “Don’t get angry!” When children grow up in this household, they start viewing emotions as inappropriate and invalid. This makes regulating emotion very difficult. Gottman adds, “For disapproving parents, negative emotions require a disciplinary response. Some disapproving parents may view their child’s negative emotions as a means by which the child is attempting to manipulate or control the parent.”

Emotional Coach Approach
“Let’s connect and examine this feeling.”
These parents are not only aware of their children’s emotions, they are aware of their own and are able to regulate their own. They can talk to their children about their emotions and help them understand and express them appropriately. Safe connection is central to this approach. Children learn to regulate their negative emotions and understand their impact. “You are allowed to be angry, but hitting your brother because you are angry is going to come with consequences.” I love what Gottman says here: “A crucial aspect of the emotion-coaching philosophy is that the parent utilizes the child’s negative emotions to form an emotional connection with their child, primarily for the reasons of intimacy and teaching.”

I would add a 4th to this approach list as some others have done.

Over Permissive Approach
“Feel and express any way you like.”
This parent simply allows the child to express their emotions with little input. If there is input, it may sound like, “Show the world honey! If your teacher is making you angry, tell them off! If that boy teases you, punch them in the face if you like.” This parent doesn’t give words, frame or validation to any emotion. They want their child to ‘be free’ to express themselves. The result is a child who can’t regulate emotions and manage them in a socially healthy way.

Notice your family of origin in that list? Does it shed some light on how you feel about particular emotions? I know it does for me.

If you are a parent with children at home, can you see where you are? Where you want to be? Natalie and I are doing our best to be good emotional coaches for our kids. It means we are having to examine our own personal meta-emotional narratives – deconstruct and reconstruct them. It’s not easy or painless. But, through conversation, inner healing, time and knowledge we are seeing dramatic changes in our lives and our children’s.

Allow me to finish by saying one more thing to any men reading this article. If you have an anger problem, it may be that this anger you feel is actually a mix of raw and meta-emotion. This means there is most likely times you are angry because there is something beneath that you don’t want to feel – or don’t know how to feel. An easy way to examine this if you’re a dad is by noticing how you respond to your child’s emotions. E.g If they are upset and crying do you get angry? If so, this may be a good indicator that this meta-emotion is active in your own life. It’s something worth taking to God and/or a counsellor in prayer and discussion.

You might also like these related articles:

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