How would you describe your relationship with your sister-in-law? What kind of a relationship do you have with your dog, or your car, or your garden? Even without thinking very deeply, you can probably come up with some answers that would begin to paint a picture of the nature of those relationships. Maybe you love your sister-in-law, hate your car, have a love-hate relationship with your dog and don’t care much at all about your garden. In describing these relationships, you are saying something about the way you feel about your sister-in-law, dog, car or garden and the way you treat them. 

Feelings? What feelings?

Now, how would you describe the nature of your relationship with your feelings? This might be more challenging to answer. We all know what a sister-in-law is and whether or not we have one, but we don’t all know what feelings are and that we have them. And even if we do, we don’t always know how to identify our feelings by name. Only by acknowledging that our feelings exist can we begin to examine how we relate to these feelings.

First day of school

Imagine a classroom of kindergarten children on their first day of school. The teacher is calling attendance, carefully pronouncing the children’s names one at a time, then placing a colorful name tag on the child’s shoulder. Each child waits, eyes wide open, fluttering heart, to hear her name and raise his hand for the very first time. The teacher gets about halfway through, closes the book and walks away from the desk and starts the day’s activities. The children whose names were called skip happily to the other side of the room. The others sit, some stare, some hang their heads and whimper, hurt and confused. “What about me? Where’s my name?”

The teacher called only the names of the children she likes—the pleasant ones, the ones that seemed happy and cooperative, easy to understand, easy to manage and pleasing to be with. The teacher did not want to deal with the children who seemed unhappy, irritable, anxious, complicated or in any way difficult. Fortunately the principal caught wind of this and had a talk with the teacher. In a calm, respectful and non-punitive way, the principal explained the school policy of tolerance and inclusion and that the teacher needed to work on her relationship with her students. The teacher needed to understand that, above all, the children need to be identified by name and fully accepted into the classroom. No exceptions.

Three in one

In the story, you are all three—the children, the teacher and the principal. You are the collection of feelings, some pleasant and easy, some unpleasant and difficult. You are the one relating to these feelings, some of which you may love and accept, and others you may deny, shun, avoid, repress, fear, shame, even hate and oppress. And you are also the one in charge of coaching yourself to have a better relationship with your feelings.

Feelings are to be accepted, not indulged

Feelings need to be identified and accepted. Acceptance means that they are allowed to   be, and treated with respect, without judging them as good or bad, right or wrong. Just like people, feelings that are not identified and accepted are more likely to become agitated and unruly as they fight for recognition and expression. This does not mean that feelings are to be indulged. This does not mean that feelings alone get to make the decisions and direct the behaviors. The goal is to know, accept and value all the children in the classroom, not to let them drive the school bus.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Photo by Yannis A on Unsplash