Are You Too Emotional?

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You’ve heard it before — “You are too emotional!” Surely you heard it as a child, at least once. But, what does it mean? How do you know if it is true? What is the proper place of emotions in any life? And, if you are “too emotional,” what should you do about it?

First let us establish some ground rules. Emotion is necessary. Imagine a life without it. No  love, no families based on that love, no compassion, no empathy, no righteous anger. What would be left? A life of relating to others as objects, like chairs or tables, their only value in utility — the function that they perform; only reason would be left — cold computation of what to do and how to do it. No laughter, no tears, no gratitude, no passion.

If you agree with what I’ve just said, then it is clear that emotion has a place. It binds us to others, plays a part in letting us know when we have been injured, allows for the possibility of good relationships and a joy in living. It also creates an energy that is necessary for self-defense and for the pursuit of causes. Emotion motivates us and permits the creation of communities.

But, when you are called “too emotional,” the accuser usually isn’t referring to love or happiness or even anger. No, usually he means that you are too easily hurt. And, when you are young, especially if you are male, you are encouraged to “be a man” and live by the “athlete’s creed;” if you are hurt, in other words, rub some dirt on the injury and get back into the game. Don’t complain; that is for whiners and wimps and little kids.

Well, if you are an athlete, that is what you have to do. Think too much about the injury and you won’t be able  to perform. Moreover, if you even think too much about your past failure in the game, you won’t have the confidence and focus to be able to succeed in the remainder of the contest. So, under those circumstances, being “emotional” does, indeed, get in the way. Similarly, emotion interferes with necessary behavior in war-time or in other crises that require focus, indifference to pain, and steadfast action.

But how about situations that are less demanding and fraught with danger or competition?

For me at least, emotion has become, for the most part, a friend. I can be moved by the sadness of my patients and those in my life who I love. I do not consider it a weakness. It is simply a part of being the responsive, sensitive person I aspire to be. And I can be moved by music or drama, again to the point of a tear. Life seems richer, warmer, more eventful and worthwhile that way. I don’t feel the need to keep up a brave front, an appearance of having tamed my emotions.

No, I’m not often whipsawed by my feelings, but, in part, that is because I give them their place in things and don’t keep them all bottled-up, looking for a way to burst out of the container that I would otherwise have put them in. And, when it is required, I am prepared to seek solace from a few of those closest to me, just as I give solace to my patients and those I love.

True, being emotionally vulnerable means that you can be injured. But, don’t fool yourself, life will have its way with you whether you are deadened to feelings or not. By killing your emotions, you are probably only succeeding in limiting the fullness of your life while attempting to create an illusion of strength.

Put another way, it is only human to have emotions and best if you are comfortable with that fact almost all the time.

But, beware when the emotions have you!

At the extreme is a condition called Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, states that “the essential feature of BPD is a pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects (emotions), and marked impulsivity that begins by early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts.” These folks are, unfortunately prone to “frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment,” instability, recklessness, suicidal behavior, rapid and intense mood changes, emptiness, and anger. They are the flesh-and-blood definition of what it means to be “too emotional.” And, not surprisingly, they are difficult to treat, although Dialectical Behavior Therapy is a treatment specifically designed to do so, and has demonstrated great promise with this patient group.

For those who are not categorized with this diagnostic label, how do you know if you are too emotional? Here are a few questions you might ask yourself:

1. Do people, not only family members, often tell you that you are too emotional?

2. In an over-heated moment do you tend to make impulsive decisions that you later regret?

3. Do you have many arguments and blow up easily?

4. Do friends and relatives have to handle you with kid gloves?

5. Do your emotions suck the life out of you, change easily and quickly, and generally whip you around?

6. Do you weep easily and often in the absence of major set-backs or great losses (I’m not talking about having a tear come to your eye here, but something more gut-wrenching)?

7. If you are in mid-life, are you no less emotional than you were in your teens? (Most of us become less volatile, more in-balance, over time).

If you’ve answered too many of these in the affirmative, you may want to seek counseling.

A last word or two. Life is challenging. We need to permit ourselves feelings and we need to express them, within limits, and to have a sympathetic soul there to bear witness and listen to us. Balance is the key most of the time. It may help to remember a portion of the “serenity prayer:”

God grant me the serenity

to accept things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference.

If you do not “know the difference,” often enough and go to emotional extremes over the routine ups and downs of life, if even the small things seem too big, then it might be time to seek professional help. Not to kill your feelings, but to make sure that they don’t destroy your ability to have a good life.

You may find the following post of related interest: Vampires and Buried Feelings: The Therapy of Getting Over Your Hurt.

The above scene, Frenchman Weeps 1940, was used in the 1943 US Army propaganda film Divide and Conquer (Why We Fight #3) directed by Frank Capra. The photo shows “French people staring and waving at remaining troops of the French Army leaving metropolitan France at Toulon Harbour, 1940, to reach the French colonies in Africa where they will be organized as Free French Forces fighting on the Allied side, while France is taken over by the Nazis and the Petain regime collaborating with them.”

Wikimedia Source: Records of the Office of War Information, NARA. *Date: June 14, 1940 *L.

Surely, under the circumstances, this man’s emotions were quite appropriate.

What Happens in Psychotherapy?

What does psychotherapy do and how does it do that? Good questions, and even some therapists might have a hard time answering them. Of course, some of the goals are obvious: reduce depression, have better relationships, eliminate anxiety, enjoy your life more, and stop worrying. But what are the elements that get you there? I’ll give you a sense of some of the factors that permit those goals to be achieved.

1. Trust. Many people entering treatment have trust issues: they trust too easily or not at all, usually the latter. Trust will start with the relationship between you and the therapist. Simple things: does he listen? Does he understand? Does he seem interested and dedicated? Is he dependable? Does he care? If the answers to these questions are “yes,” then it will be a bit easier to begin to trust others. The experience of a benign relationship with one person can open you to the possibility that this experience can be achieved elsewhere in your life.

2. Validation. Many people coming into psychotherapy having been told that they should “get over it,” that they “shouldn’t feel that way,” that they shouldn’t complain or “whine;” or having been ignored, dismissed, or criticized too often when trying to express themselves. Some folks believe feelings are unimportant; others might state that it is not “masculine” to feel too much, and so forth. As a result, many new patients have so buried their feelings that they are alienated from themselves and don’t know whether it is appropriate to think or feel as they do. A good therapist creates a safe place for talking about such things (trust again), and gives the person a sense that there is value in what they feel and think. Over time, this action, by itself, can help improve self esteem and reduce sadness and alienation.

3. Grieving. If one has not had supportive relationships (with people who are both trustworthy and validating), the sense of loss or absence contributes to sadness, and sometimes to depression. The relationship with the therapist allows you to express the emotions related to loss (both sadness and anger) to someone who listens patiently and shows concern. As you process those feelings of loss, your sadness should gradually diminish. The therapist serves as a witness and again, as someone who validates your pain. Grieving in isolation too often contributes to the feeling of disconnection and alienation from the world. Grieving with someone who cares reconnects you to one of the things that can be good in life: human contact.

4. Learning new things. Any good therapist needs to provide some guidance and tools that enable change. This might come in the form of helping you learn and practice new social skills (including acting these skills out with the therapist), assisting you in changing how you think (cognitive restructuring) that helps you reduce self-defeating thoughts, training in how to be assertive (again with role playing in the therapy session), or meditation.

5. A change in perspective. A good therapist will provide you with new ways of thinking about the world and about your life. Since he can see you from the outside, he is more likely to see you in a way that you cannot see yourself.

6. Facing things, not avoiding things. We all practice avoidance some of the time, and some of the time it is a useful thing. Unfortunately, many of us practice it all too much. We distract ourselves from pain and avoid challenging situations. We can use food, TV, shopping, sex, drugs, alcohol, the internet, and computer games to get us away from whatever it is we can’t handle. We worry about problems rather than coming up with a plan of action and taking them on. We don’t ask out the pretty girl for fear of rejection, or say “no” to people who want to befriend us for the same reason. We stay at a “dead-end” job because of our insecurities. And, of course, unhappiness is the result.

A therapist can assist you in identifying the patterns of avoidance, help you to gradually become able to tolerate anxiety (by use of such things as cognitive restructuring, role playing or meditation) and give you tasks that gradually increase in difficulty so that you reduce avoidance and begin to take action that works.

7. Acceptance. By acceptance I am referring to acceptance of the nature of life and the discomfort that comes with living; acceptance of the fact that being open to life allows you to experience satisfaction and joy, but also opens you to pain; and awareness of the temporary nature of most of that discomfort. The more that you take life on its terms, the less you will be trapped by it.

Remember playing with the Chinese Finger Puzzle as a kid, the cylindrical woven structure made of bamboo, open at both ends? You put your two index fingers into it, but when you pulled hard to get your fingers out, you became more stuck. Only by releasing the tension and moving your fingers toward the center of the device, did it collapse and no longer held you tight. Life is a lot like that to the extent that we must stop engaging in behaviors that only make us more “stuck.”Acceptance allows you to free yourself, at least somewhat, from what is distressing about life.

8. Valued Action. If you are caught in the struggle with your emotions, or focused on avoidance of pain, what is good in life will be hard to achieve. Therapy can help you to think about the life you would like to lead, the life that is consistent with your values, and help to relieve you of the habits that keep you so wound-up that you don’t have time to think about what it is you would really like to do, and what it is that would lead you to a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. What is your true self? Therapy can help you find out and encourage that person to exist in the world.

The description I’ve given you is based, in part, on my experience in life and training, especially training in such therapeutic approaches as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based behavior therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and psychodynamic psychotherapy. Other therapists may have a different view of what is important and how to help you get to the point that your life is more satisfying and less fraught with depression, anxiety, or chronic relationship problems. But here, at least, I hope that I have given you some sense of direction and some reason to be hopeful about the possibility of change in your life.

Signs of Maturity: What Does It Mean to “Grow Up?”

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“Oh, grow up!” Is there anyone who didn’t hear some version of this humiliating admonition as a kid? Often voiced by another kid, or some chronologically mature person who probably needed to “grow up” himself.

Still, it does raise an important question: what does it mean to grow up? What qualities are present in those people we respect for their maturity?

Although it may not be very humble to do so, let’s start with the quality of humility. And its important to remember that humility is not identical to a lack confidence. Rather, it involves the recognition that in the big picture of the universe, you are a very, very small part. That is to say, unless your name is one that ranks with Einstein or Beethoven, virtually no one will know your name in a hundred years.

As Goethe put it, “Names are like sound and smoke.” They disappear that easily. Humbling indeed. You probably aren’t as important as you think you are.

Which means, of course, that your problems, at least most of them, aren’t that important either. The ability to recognize that most problems are transitory and only temporarily bothersome is another sign of maturity. Now, I’m not talking about brain cancer here, but the more garden-variety ups and downs of life. It sometimes helps weather them to realize that you will care little if anything about those difficulties in five years or even five months.

No, as the saying goes, “Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s all small stuff.” Or, at least most of it.

Another important quality of being a grown-up, I think, is to have a balance between your head and your heart. We all know people who are way out of balance — those who claim to be imperturbably logical like the Mr. Spock-type Vulcans from Star Trek and others who come apart at the smallest disappointment or frustration, letting their emotions whip them around like a passenger on a “tilt-a-whirl” amusement park ride.

Emotions are there for a reason; the pain of them needs to be attended to, lest you leave your hand on the stove’s burner because nature didn’t inform you to remove that hand. Equally, your head is required to have good judgment and learn from experience, to be cool under fire, and to forge ahead in spite of fear.

In other words, balance is a sign of maturity. Balance of head and heart, work and play, action and contemplation, passion and repose. Socrates said that one should be grateful to old-age that the passions rule us less. But do not live a life without passion, especially when you are young enough to enjoy it! He also said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” And so maturity requires some thought about your life, where you’ve been and where you are going, why you have done what you’ve done, what worked and what didn’t, and what lies ahead. It requires an unflinching look in the mirror and the intention to improve.

That means, of course, that being a “grown-up” demands that one has learned something from experience and continues to learn more as experience unfolds. My friend Henry Fogel has said, “I like to make new mistakes!” Meaning, naturally, that there is no point in repeating the same old ones.

Another friend, Rich Adelstein, once told me that he thought that if he were able to figure out the solutions to his then-current problems (he was 50 at the time), he believed that he could simply keep living in the same fashion, using the same solutions to confront whatever was ahead of him. But, he rightly realized, that there would be new problems requiring new solutions, and that the version of himself that faced those new problems would be older and different, and therefore might see things quite a bit differently than the 50-year-old version.

This is an example of maturity, along with a signpost to some of its characteristics, including the need to change, the ability and willingness to be flexible, and the awareness that learning along the way is required. Rich was able to change, and to change his mind about the need to change.

What other qualities might be present in the mature, “grown-up” person? Confidence and the capacity for self-assertion, certainly; the ability to laugh, and to laugh at yourself, not at the expense of others; to take risks and do things that might be hard or embarrassing or scary or frustrating until you master them; to be independent in thought and deed, not to follow the crowd or require a caretaker or someone to make decisions for you; and of course, the capacity for intimacy and love, knowing all the while that embracing others makes you vulnerable to loss.

An additional aspect of wisdom that is usually related to age is having a sense of what is worth fighting for and what is not. There are more than enough battles worth joining in this imperfect world, but one cannot take on all of them without battling 24 hours a day, an exhausting and impossible prospect. And so, maturity requires sufficient knowledge of oneself and the world to make decisions about standing fast or standing aside; holding to principle or being willing to compromise. And accepting that sometimes we will be defeated.

So, yes, being a grown-up means accepting the world on its terms: that loss and disappointment, in causes and in people, are an inevitable part of  life, and that to defend too strongly against them deprives you of the most important and precious things that life has to offer: the thrill and camaraderie of fighting the good fight; and at a more personal level, love, closeness, tenderness, and the acceptance and affection that can only come from unguardedness. To live as if your heart has never been broken and never can be, then, shows both maturity and courage.

Responsibility-taking is another part of being mature, admitting that “yes, it was I who made the mistake.” We all heard the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree a long time ago, and it is entirely about responsibility-taking and honesty. And, as that reference might suggest, honesty is no small part of the “grown-up” life. As the sages say, it simplifies life enormously to be honest. Too many people justify their dishonesty by claiming that they are trying to spare someone else’s feelings. Don’t be deceived. Usually it is much more self-serving than that.

Back to humility, where we started. Part of being mature is having the humility to realize that you too might, “but for the grace of God,” be in someone else’s less advantageous spot, and that therefore they should be judged less harshly for whatever they have done or whatever has happened to them, or perhaps not judged at all.

Maturity means cherishing the quiet moments as much as the thrills. And, most definitely, it means living in the moment, mindful of everything, trying not to get caught up in hoping it were different (even though you might well be justified in doing so); allowing yourself to stay centered where you are in time, rather than to be looking back or forward while the irreplaceable, unrepeatable instant of your life passes by.

Look back too much and you will be caught in the sadness of  time-past and unfulfilled longings and regrets, while missing what is possible in the present. Similarly, living in the future tends to generate anxiety in anticipation of what may come, and deprives you of the same present moment that passes by those who are looking back at yesterday.

Accepting and liking oneself is a part of being a grown-up. Not that you don’t need to or want to change, but to appreciate what is good about yourself and to accept some of the inevitable limitations to which all of us are prone. Not to avoid self-improvement, but to avoid self-denigration.

To be a grown-up means living a principled life, one with a commitment to certain values, and to put those values to work, not just in words, but in deeds. As the AA crowd likes to say, “Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.” And those principles, those values, must be informed by the fact that we are all mortal, all in-transit, but that the planet and the human race are here (we hope) for the long haul. We are “just visiting” as the Monopoly board reminds us when we land on a certain space. The game will outlast us and so will life on this planet, if we don’t mess it up.

In putting those commitments to work, we must actually do work. Freud was right when he pointed to love and work as the essential organizing forces in any life. If you are mature, unless you are aged or infirm, there is work to be done. Life is made more interesting and engaging by doing it, too. The mature person is not simply a spectator in the game of life.

At least one other quality should be mentioned in this pantheon of qualities in the house of maturity: gratitude. Appreciation of what you do have and appreciation of simple things: a beautiful day, the affection of your children, the ability to do things, a touching song or story, and good friends — all the stuff of life that is too easily dismissed.

Let the last words on the subject of being a grown-up (and much more) go to Adlai Stevenson II, in his 1954 speech at the senior class dinner of his Alma Mater, Princeton University. These 55-year-old words spoken by the 54-year-old Stevenson are as appropriate now as then:

…What a man knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty is, for the most part, incommunicable. The laws, the aphorisms, the generalizations, the universal truths, the parables and the old saws — all of the observations about life which can be communicated handily in ready, verbal packages — are as well-known to a man at twenty who has been attentive as to a man at fifty. He has been told them all, he has read them all, and he has probably repeated them all before he graduates from college; but he has not lived them all.

What he knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty boils down to something like this: The knowledge he has acquired with age is not the knowledge of formulas, or forms of words, but of people, places, actions — a knowledge not gained by words but by touch, sight, sound, victories, failures, sleeplessness, devotion, love — the human experiences and emotions of this earth and of oneself and other men; and perhaps, too, a little faith, and a little reverence for things you cannot see…

To my way of thinking it is not the years in your life but the life in your years that count in the long run. You’ll have more fun, you’ll do more and you’ll get more, you’ll give more satisfaction the more you know, the more you have worked, and the more you have lived. For yours is a great adventure at a stirring time in the annals of men.

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On the subject of maturity, you may find this of related interest: Youth vs. Experience and Maturity: Who Has the Edge?

You may be interested in this topic, as well: Maturity: Ten Steps To Get You There.

The top image is Mevlevi Dervishes Perform, created by K?vanc and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. According to the Wikimedia site, the Mevlevi Order is a Sufi order founded in 1273 in Konya, Turkey. “They are also known as the Whirling Dervishes due to their famous practice of whirling as a form of dhikr (remembrance of Allah).”

“Dervish is a term for an initiate of the Sufi Path… The Dervishes perform their dhikr in the form of a dance and music ceremony called the sema. The sema represents a mystical journey of man’s spiritual ascent through mind and love to ‘Perfect(ion).’ Turning towards the truth, the follower grows through love, deserts his ego, finds the truth and arrives at the ‘Perfect.’ He then returns from this spiritual journey as a man who has reached maturity (hence my use of the picture for this essay) and a greater perfection, so as to love and be of service to the whole of creation.”

The bottom photo is the work of shioshvilli and apparently depicts Whirling Dervishes performing the sema ceremony at the Sirkeci Railway Station in Istanbul, Turkey on June 10, 2006. It is also sourced from Wikimedia Commons.