Whose Emotions Did You Learn to Manage When You Were Growing Up?

Your own? Congratulations, I am jealous.

As evidenced by yesterday’s blog post, this is something that’s been buzzing around my head lately. 

I don’t think I ever learned how to manage my own emotions. 

I mean, yeah, I had them. Of course I had them.

I had BIG emotions. Big, huge happies and also big angries and sads. But people rarely knew. 

Like many folks in my generation, I was taught to hide them. Hide the emotions so no one knows you have them.

Because they are shameful, you see? Or, at least, that’s what I was taught. 

Here’s what else I learned about my emotions: 

Not much. 

And I think I recently figured out why that is. 

I was too busy managing other people’s emotions to learn how to manage my own. 

I don’t know if this sounds familiar to you at all, but something I heard a lot growing up were variations on this theme:

“Don’t tell ____ that we did this/bought this/ate this/watched this. I don’t want them to get mad.”

At the time, it felt sneaky and like we’re on the same page, doing something we shouldn’t be doing together. You know, a secret sort of joy, like a heist or something. 

It made me feel like we were all in this, whatever this was, together. 

But then, the person I was told to “hide something” from would come home and I would feel like they could 100% see every tiny bit of the lie I was being forced to conspire on. 

In? On? With? All of the prepositions sound wrong, but that’s how I’m finishing the sentence, okay? ok. 

Can't

And of course, I couldn’t share those conflicting emotions, because then we would be “found out” and I’d get in trouble on many different levels. 

  • In trouble because of whatever it is that we did was “wrong”
  • In trouble for actually experiencing an emotion and sharing it
  • In trouble at an indeterminate time in the future that my co-conspirator feels its time to reprimand me for giving away the secret

The list goes on and on and on and on. And those are just the ones that you can see on the outside! My brain is way harder on me than anyone else could possibly be. 

I understand now that my brain does this because of it swirling through all the possible outcomes to protect me from outside hurt. While it’s swirling though, my brain makes me body feel all the things. It happens as fast as I think and it’s a lot. 

And for a long time it was pretty much constant.

And I never learned to deal with it. I never understood that it wasn’t a typical response to things. 

I never learned how to experience, feel, and move on from my own emotions, because the lessons I learned when growing up were: put your emotions on ice in order to manage the emotions of someone else. 

So that’s what I did. 

Other people just let things happen to them and dealt with the results and resulting feelings as they happened. 

I did not get that luxury. 

I learned how to stifle my feelings and lie to manage other people’s feelings. 

The message I got from all the hiding I had to do when growing up is so simple for me to see now:

“Your feelings don’t matter. Everyone else’s do, though, so fuck your feelings and do whatever you possibly can to make sure those around you never have a negative reaction to you or anything you do.”

No wonder I spent most of my home time holed up in my room with a book, or a show, or a movie, or a musical interlude. All with the volume turned way down, because, of course, I had rules about what was acceptable for me to listen to. 

I always tried to make myself as small as possible. Still do. 

This is what that sounded like for me (and my grown up Jacki translation of how that was teaching me to manage someone else’s emotions instead of my own):

“Here! Have a cookie. We don’t have to tell anyone else! Just enjoy it!”

(this is me learning to manage someone else’s guilt over what they are eating. I still have a very black and white list of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods in my brain. And I feel guilt about eating all the ‘bad’ ones constantly. That guilt I feel isn’t my own, though. It’s inherited. It’s taught.)

“Don’t tell your dad how much money we spent tonight. I don’t want him to get mad.”

(this is me learning to manage my dad’s anger via my mom. I still feel guilty about spending money. All the time. Especially when I spend it on myself. Also, I do want to note that I’d seen my dad scary angry only once and it had nothing to do with money and everything to do with dog poop on a bed. So I do wonder what purpose this served. Also, as an adult… I’m not great with money and never have been.)

Let’s make a fake appendix scar so no one knows you had a baby when you go back to school!”

(this is me learning to manage my mom’s embarrassment at people judging me. An extreme situation, yes, but the perfect example to see just how deep this goes.)

Now, in all fairness, the argument could be made that all of this hiding or suppressing I was taught to do existed to protect me. 

I don’t think hiding is protecting. And I wish this is something I had realized earlier in my life. 

Oftentimes, when I feel compelled to write about big ideas like this one, I don’t feel like I am doing a good job of saying what I want to say. I talk around it, but I don’t get it exactly. 

I’m trying though. Talking about feelings is so foreign to me. 

Feeling them has been an adjustment too. 

My brain’s first reaction is to shove whatever emotion comes up naturally, and move as fast as possible through all possible outcomes and related emotions. 

You know, so I react as expected. 

“Expected”.

That’s another thing that I got “in trouble for” pretty frequently- (I was a good kid so I put that in quotes for a reason) not reacting like normal people. 

I remember getting reprimanded for not reacting to things ‘correctly’ all the time. To the point where I’d hear certain things so often it made me just stop doing things. 

“Why do you make such funny faces when you sing?” 

“Your art doesn’t look like art. What even is that?!”

“Who would want to read such nonsense?”

“What are you wearing? Women don’t wear suspenders!” (this one really hurt, cause I was very proud of this lewk: black turtleneck, black mini skirt, purple tights, purple suspenders, black socks and some sort of shoe situation. It was ADORABLE, but I only wore it once.)

Look, I know a lot of this was undiagnosed autism and I can’t really blame anyone for that. But I can share my experience in the hopes that other people learn from it. 

I guess my point is this… the things you ask your children to hide makes an impact. As do the emotions you ask them to suppress in order to make other people feel comfortable. 

Ask yourself instead, “why do I feel the to hide this?” 

Pick at it until you have an answer. 

That’s the issue. 

Not the way whatever it is makes you feel. 

Fix the issue. Don’t hide the emotion. 

It’s there for a reason. Listen to it. 

I will if you will. 

Highly Sensitive Person

p.s. if the managing other people’s emotions instead of your own resonates with you, I recommend this book. It has blown my brain wide open. Also, if you bristle at the implication that getting something out of this book means you might be ‘sensitive’, then you should definitely read it. Hit me up privately if you’d like me to gush to you about it first. 

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