By Brianna Wiest
Most people don’t think they’re obsessed with controlling their emotions because they aren’t consciously thinking about their feelings. Instead, they are thinking about everything else that needs to be “right” so that they don’t have to feel at all.
They imagine their worst nightmares to life. They worry incessantly about how much money they have to make to be “successful,” how much food they must constrict to maintain their size, the minutiae of how other people respond to them so that they may behave in a way that makes them likable. They think about their social media presence, whether or not something is “right” for them, how nice their home appears to be.
They use fear to police themselves into being “good.”
We don’t think of these things as emotional control because they are the physical or mental parts of our lives. Yet, we don’t control the physical things in our lives when we can’t control our emotions, we control the physical things in our lives to control our emotions. We think that if we find a “soul mate,” we can’t get heartbroken, if we’re attractive, we’ll be respected, if other people think of us fondly, we’ll always think of ourselves that way, too.
As anyone who struggles with heightened or irrational emotions can tell you, the root of most anxiety and panic is a fear of experiencing anxiety and panic.
We deny our feelings not by refusing to feel them, but by using other things to try to avoid them. When we are obsessed with trying to control outcomes and reduce risks and ensure that we do not experience anything “bad,” we are not living whole lives. We are fragmented selves, expressing only the parts we are momentarily comfortable with.
We don’t control the physical things in our lives when we can’t control our emotions, we control the physical things in our lives to control our emotions. We think that if we find a “soul mate,” we can’t get heartbroken, if we’re attractive, we’ll be respected, if other people think of us fondly, we’ll always think of ourselves that way, too.
This emotional disassociation begins in childhood, as the product of being punished for “bad” feelings. Children do not know how to self-regulate their emotions. They don’t understand them, and like the way they don’t understand how their bodies work, or what it means to have manners at the dinner table, or treat others with respect, they must be taught, yet, very often, they are not.
Instead, kids are taught that acting out will get them punished, and so begins the cycle of suppression. They learn that their parents will love them more when they are “good,” they shut down the parts of themselves they fear are unacceptable.
What they are responding to is a lack of feeling loved. What they are wired to chase is their parent’s love. If it is not being given naturally, they will try to manipulate how the parent sees them so it is created. Unfortunately, in this process, they disassociate from a crucial part of themselves.
And this is how they evolve into panicked, judgmental, anxious adults who cannot function in relationships. This is how they learn that it’s crucial to control everything around them – if they don’t trigger a feeling, they don’t have to deal with it.
The way we raise adults who don’t struggle with anxiety is by being adults who accept anxiety. We must be the voice of reason that they do not have yet. The voices they hear from us – especially in their most fearful and vulnerable moments – will become the voices in their heads someday. The way we raise adults who don’t struggle with anxiety is by being adults who are loving and kind and non-judgmental. Kids do not do what we tell them, they do what we do. If we want the world to change, we have to change ourselves. If we want to inspire them to cope with their feelings, we must learn to cope with our own.
And right now, we have the very unique privilege of learning how. Without the emotional intelligence to cope with anxiety, we have the opportunity to consciously grow to understand it. We have the potential to give our kids and their kids and the kids after that the gift of self-knowledge, but it can only come from giving it to ourselves first. (Ain’t that how it always goes?)