Understanding & Managing Emotions – What I've Learnt

This blog comes from an ex-secondary Headteacher, trainee therapist and “Education for the Soul” Conference workshop host, Tim Small. 

I believe I have always been fairly sensitive to other people’s feelings.  This was confirmed once by completing the Myers Briggs Temperament Index. 
Though I don’t regret it, this sensitivity made my job as a School Leader more difficult, not easier, especially as I didn’t know as much about emotions then as I do now.
I see now that I was actually quite scared by very strong emotions in others, probably because, deep down, I was scared of some un-felt, un-processed emotions in myself.  I would therefore often take refuge either in rationalising or closing them down altogether.
However, through my TA psychotherapy training, I’ve learned that the purpose of emotions is to elicit understanding and evoke a response.  It’s how babies learn to survive.  How successfully we managed this in our infancy, with the vital involvement of our care-givers, will affect our attachment style (i.e. relationships) for life.
As we grow up, an essential aspect of growing into a healthy adult is learning to regulate our emotions: reflecting on them and expressing our authentic feelings safely and appropriately in the context.  This is not the served by suppressing them.
The four ‘primary emotions’, that we need to understand, regulate and express, are sadness, anger, joy and fear.
Sadness is usually about the past, involving loss of some kind.  Fear is about the future, concerning something about to happen, or something imagined.  (It is quite common knowledge that fear activates a neurological response that effectively ‘shuts down’ the thinking part of the brain.)  Anger and joy are emotions of the present moment, arising and best expressed authentically, here and now.
This helps to explain why ‘mindfulness practices’ can be so helpful in treating depression and anxiety: if we can train ourselves to direct our attention, at will, exclusively to the present moment, sadness and fear are temporarily removed from the equation, freeing us to experience and deal with our anger and joy – and associated thoughts and feelings.
Whether we are sad, angry, joyful or afraid, if we express our feelings spontaneously and freely, we are more likely to receive the response we need from others, to help us achieve the best outcome from whatever gave rise to the feelings.
However, Anger, in particular, is often effectively ‘prohibited’ in polite society – including in many schools!  The trouble is, anger suppressed or repressed is almost always more dangerous than anger expressed and released at the time it is felt.  It can fester and become ‘volcanic’ at a later date; or it can be turned inward, against the self, undermining self-worth.
When young people are traumatised, such as by bullying, or serious abuse, they are usually unable to express their feelings, especially anger, at the time.  Too dangerous!  If this experience is extreme, or repeated over time, it may severely reduce their capacity to feel anything deeply.  This learned defence can then become a barrier to intimacy in later life.
The therapeutic response to this ‘learned defence’ against feelings is to help the person to reconnect their emotions to their intellect, by giving ‘permission to feel’ and then verbalising feelings, validating and making sense of them in their Adult self, sometimes for the first time.  I am thinking how valuable it might be if all schools encouraged and enabled young people to learn this, starting from an early age.
Of course, I understand an obvious objection to what I am suggesting: how can schools operate effectively if everyone is encouraged to express emotions freely and spontaneously all the time?  Wouldn’t there be pandemonium? When one person’s need to express their anger triggers an equal and opposite response in the other…?  A nuclear reaction follows?  Or does it?  How can all this powerful energy be contained, managed, released safely, turned into powerful learning?


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