The other day I overheard someone say “this whole emotional self-awareness thing is overrated!” I was trying to be self-aware” she continued with a touch of dramatic overstatement, “and so I was paying attention to my feelings …and I just got myself all stirred up and angry. By the time my husband woke up I was like a pot boiling over. How is that helpful?? It’s not. So I went back to just accepting my situation and carrying on.” Everyone laughed and agreed that emotional self-awareness was of limited usefulness. Sometimes you just had to set aside your feelings and get on with life.
What is emotional health really?
I was not really part of the conversation so it wasn’t really my place to comment, but it made me think about how easy it is to be confused about authentic emotional health. There are so many ‘knock offs’ available. It’s so easy for us to indulge in ‘rumination’ and believe that we are attending to our feelings. It’s so easy for us to feed our anger or hurt and think that we are validating our emotions. We sometimes ‘bury’ an injustice, and think that we are forgiving someone. Instead of gracious acceptance, we settle into passive resignation and believe we have done it right. But after we have tried it a few times, and there is no helpful or positive outcome, we say “See? This emotional navel gazing stuff does not work at all!”
It’s because this ‘knock off’… this unhelpful deviation from authentic emotional awareness looks quite a bit the same from the outside. It’s like the difference between a slice of processed wonder bread and organic sprouted whole grain bread. Or like the difference between doing a gym workout carelessly or with proper form. They look similar and both offer initial satisfaction, but over time, one actually does harm and the other nourishes health.
Setting aside our feelings in order to get on with life never works over time
We have an amazing adaptive capacity for survival and there are certainly times when our ability to set aside feelings is required. It was just never intended to be a long term way of life. It works to help get us through some situations in our childhood but it definitely does not work in our adult intimate relationships. In fact it wreaks havoc in a marriage.
When we are not emotionally aware, we lose the capability for intimacy because we fear vulnerability. We leak out anger/ hurt in covert ways that damages our integrity and upsets people. We dismiss, blame or invalidate other people in the same way that we have done with ourselves. We get headaches, stomach aches, digestive issues, back/shoulder pain that doesn’t go away. We end up empty and lonely and have no idea why. It is not difficult to see how obstructive this is in a relationship.
If you are wondering if this ‘lack of emotional self-awareness’ applies to you, ask yourself the following questions:
1. Are you irritated or fearful when people display emotion?
2. Are you a perfectionist and do you use your high standards to dismiss people?
3. Are you super hard on yourself when you fail?
4. Are you lacking lifelong intimate, invested friendships?
5. Are you a different person depending on who you are with?
6. Do you find it difficult to commit to a career, a relationship or a goal?
7. Is it important to you that you never appear weak or exposed?
If you answer yes to 5 or more, you might want to consider how much damage is being done to you and your intimate relationship. You might want to consider the possibility that what you have tried so far might look or sound like being emotionally self-aware but is really just a deviant, detrimental ‘knock off’. You might want to consider seeing a psychotherapist to find your way back to an authentic healthy state of emotional self-awareness.
It’s hard work, but it’s worth it. The genuine thing always is.