No, It's Not Bad {On Shame and Big Feelings}

by Andrea Kolber


I sat in the very last row of our 1989 suburban and I could feel my cheeks growing pink and warm. We drove around another curve after I had just unloaded my perspective about what felt like an urgent issue. A moment later, I remember my dad’s dismissive words so clearly: “She’s having another one of her adolescent moments.” And then came the sarcastic chuckle and my emotional shrinking. I remember the sinking feeling that came next along with my own internal critic: “There it is again. My passion is too big. I care too much.”

I didn’t want to be an inconvenience. I just had something to say.

**

My moment in time as an adolescent in the back of a noisy suburban isn’t unique. And now that I’m a mom, I have much empathy for my parents who raised five kiddos.

What I see though, albeit from a different lens, is that as a deep feeler my entire life—I had begun to recognize how inconvenient my passion and big emotions were for others. I attached those things to shame and to value. I saw them not through a healthy lens of understanding emotions as part of the human experience, but rather as something to hide or criticize or believe was weak.

It’s incredibly common for people to feel shame around their emotions. Our culture on the whole is quite uncomfortable with them. Unlike many societies who hold open displays of grief and celebration, American culture likes to keep things a bit more contained. 

To some extent I get it, it's not easy to know how to “be with feelings.”

However, I think there is a middle ground; a way to honor the need to feel our feelings while also respecting everyone may do it a touch differently. In our house, we use this particular phrase: “We are the boss of our feelings.”

This phrase means we get to have whatever feelings we're experiencing. Whether they are anger, joy, sadness, hope, fear, or anxiety—they all count. But, it also means those feelings do not have consent to make our whole decisions for us. Those feelings don’t have permission to allow us to hurt others or ourselves. Those feelings can be with us as long as they need to be, however; they must remain respectful.  

Creating this type of environment for emotions isn’t easy. Sometimes it feels like it would be better to simply shut down our feelings permanently.

“Go away!” I would shout.

“I’m too busy to be with you right now!”

And there are appropriate times to practice healthy containment for complex and big feelings (understanding healthy containment may need to be a different post). But I’ve learned from my own experience and watching countless clients, friends, family, and peers—our feelings don’t simply disappear. Our body and soul and mind hold those unresolved feelings until we give them space to move. God gives us our emotions for a reason. Not to tell us exactly what to do in any situation, but as our own unique system of helping us detect our experience, motives, and ultimately movement toward healing.

And so I write this as a person who has learned and is learning to be the boss of my own feelings, as well as a parent who is teaching this concept. This work is hard, certainly. But it is rich, life giving, and I believe the type of life Jesus hoped for each of us. It’s as though we are each prisms with many facets to who we are. God caused us all to have our own unique way of feeling and being.

This is why we don’t simply shame our feelings into submission. This is why it matters that we raise emotionally intelligent kids. And this is why we can learn how to honor our feelings, giving them space to move and still know they aren’t the boss of us—but instead, an integral piece of the whole.