Emotional Happiness

Sifting Through Emotions/Childhood

By Laura Niver

What’s the big deal about emotions? We’ve all heard people tell us, “Be more aware of your emotions” or “Tune into how you feel right now.” So what’s the point? It turns out emotions are actually at the center of how we make sense of everything around us—our experiences, our relationships, ourselves. When we feel ecstatic, dejected, dismissed, joyful, content, angry, or happy, this orients how we organize our worlds. They are at the core of how we understand ourselves, our pasts, and our futures.

In the field of relational psychology, we know that having caregivers (parents) who are emotionally attuned to us at a young age is pivotal in helping us to form a coherent sense of who we are—a sense of self that is stable yet adaptable. So what does it mean for a parent or caregiver to be emotionally attuned to a child? It means recognizing the child’s emotions and articulating them for the child. It also means providing a sense of protection and comfort to the child. A boy’s parents are divorced, and he is shuffled between his mom’s and dad’s houses. Emotionally attuned parents consistently recognize the confusion, fear, guilt, and bewilderment their son feels, articulate it for him, and provide him with a sense that they can hold his emotions. They do not shame him or ignore his feelings, instead they convey that his feelings are real and important. Those feelings are things he can share with his parents, and they will help him to navigate them safely.

When you feel like someone is emotionally attuned to you, you feel accepted, validated, protected, and safe. It is the feeling of being known, understood, and loved. It’s by this solid and safe foundation that you begin to make=sense of who you are and organize your experiences in the world.

So what if you didn’t have a parent who was there for you, a parent who didn’t notice when you were sad, excited, happy, afraid? Maybe they relied on you to be there for them in a way that made you feel that you had to push your own feelings away? We all experienced that to some extent. No parent is perfect, right? It’s not easy to see how our early relationships with our parents impacted us. But here are some ways to begin exploring your emotions and how you organize and make sense of the world.

Notice how you feel. Stop and take inventory. (TAKE 5!) Maybe you feel angry, sad, or content. Just notice those emotions when you can identify them. Dig deeper into the feeling. Sometimes anger turns out to really be a feeling of resentment or hurt. Perhaps that hurt is because you felt invisible or deficient. Continue to explore those feelings and articulate for yourself what you feel.

Talk about it. Whether you see a therapist or are talking to a friend, explore your emotions and your assumptions about the world. Having another perspective can be invaluable in this process. Becoming more aware of your emotions is empowering. It gives a sense of control over feelings by being able to name them. By being aware of emotions and naming them, you can begin to understand yourself better.

Identifying how we emotionally experienced something is the gateway to understanding and reorganizing how we make sense of ourselves, our histories, and the future. And hopefully this inner work leads to greater Happiness.

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About the Author: Laura Niver, currently a doctoral student of clinical psychology at the University of Denver, is fascinated by the way childhood continues to affect us throughout our lives. Prior to moving to Denver for graduate school, she lived in Washington, DC and worked in Congress and at a public policy research institute. She loves living in Denver where, for her, happiness is a lot easier to pursue with 300 days of sunshine a year!

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