Modern life asks a lot of us. To make our way in the world we are frequently asked to put aside how we feel and focus instead on getting things done.
The repression of emotional life begins quite early for most of us, requiring vibrant young children to “settle down”, "focus", and “pull it together”. Though parents and educators understandably want to manage the expression of children to serve practical ends, all too often there is a failure to appreciate or respect the function of emotions. The disruption of emotional experience leads to many of the psychological and social challenges people bring into therapy.
Much like the soundtrack in a film, emotions set the tone for experiences, weighting them with specific expectations. The function of emotions is to guide our responses as we navigate our lives; they function as our primary relational guidance system. But when emotions are repressed they become disorganized and dysfunctional, compromising our ability to respond – to be responsible. As a result of emotional disruption our relational guidance system will give us (and those around us) mixed signals, leading to increased anxiety and insecurity. We become reactive and overwhelmed, a victim of circumstances both internally and externally. As modern neuroscience tells us, once we're emotionally overwhelmed we are in our nervous system's "survival network", a state of reactivity that is incapable of making intelligent responses beyond the instinctual drive to fight, to flee, or to freeze.
What is emotional health? Essentially it is the ability to respond effectively to the present moment, maintaining a felt and embodied awareness of what is happening now. This differs from emotional dysfunction, which distorts present experience due to the influence of repressed and unresolved emotions from the past. When we speak of “emotional baggage” we are referring to the accumulated weight of past emotional experiences that have not been adequately expressed and received. This point is very important, so let me say it again: To complete and be resolved emotional realities need to be expressed and received. This is because we are social and relational beings. Just expressing feelings is not enough - we need to have our inner experience meaningfully reflected by the world around us.
Whatever stage of life you are in, consider yourself to be in the middle: between what's already happened, and what's still to come; between who you have been, and who you are becoming. This much is clear: If you are alive then your fundamental task is to keep growing, and all growth happens at the edge of what is familiar and what is unfamiliar. Emotional health means being able to ride that edge of aliveness.
We adults have important lessons to teach our children about how to be in the world. Yet we do well to remember what they cannot forget: that life is lived entirely here and now, moment to moment. What's more, life is inherently playful and exciting. Children, with their raw intensity and emotional honesty, can remind us adults about how to courageously lean into life and live it fully each day.