“Unexpressed emotions never die.
They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”
Sigmund Freud

There is a trap those of us who do a lot of self-work tend to fall into. After a few years we start to expect a lot from ourselves, and become impatient if old patterns come up or we have strong emotions in response to seemingly small events.

I’ve seen it in myself and over and over with my clients. Commonly people will say, “I know I shouldn’t take this personally”, “I’m too old to still care about these things”, or “I know I’m being foolish.” All of these are efforts to call on logic and reason to handle the situation, and they can even work in certain circumstances.

However, emotions don’t speak the language of logic and they don’t understand reason. In order to shift the actual emotions we have to speak at their level. A good guide for this comes from my 11-month old daughter.

She is an expert at having emotions and very expressive. Common causes of distress are I (mom) went out of the room, it’s time for a diaper change, or she’s tired. To all of these I found myself responding in a way that is not only helpful for calming her down, but also for addressing my own emotions as they come up. I’ve started sharing it with my clients and it’s provided a nice bridge from the idea of accepting emotions into the reality of it.

When my daughter cries, I name what she is feeling and why she is feeling it. Examples include, “I know, it’s scary when mom goes out of the room”, “it’s so frustrating to have to stay still and lay on your back for a diaper”, and “you want to stay up and play but now you’re tired and it doesn’t feel good”. My tone is always sympathetic and validates that it is okay to be upset.

This speaks at a baby’s level so as adults we might think it doesn’t apply to us, however our emotions don’t know how old we are and they don’t care. They’ll hear it if you speak to them like children, because they remain cognitively very young.

For example, a client had received a long angry e-mail from someone who used to be a close friend. She knew he had certain mental issues and not to take it personally, but it still hurt. I advised rather than telling herself to be a mature adult and convince herself that his words were a reflection of him and not her, to take a moment and acknowledge the pain. “It’s very upsetting when people say mean things to me, especially people I care about.” She could go further and name the specific emotions that are coming up, acknowledging they’re okay.

This might sound like indulging an unhealthy emotional state, but it’s effect is the opposite. When we tell ourselves to be mature adults without first addressing the emotions that are present, we usually feel shame or guilt when the emotions persist. We’ve told ourselves to be adults, and our adult brain is totally on board, but emotions don’t hear or respond to “don’t take it personally”. Then we fail in our mission to be enlightened sages who are no longer rattled by petty human matters.

If as a first step toward maturity we hang out with the emotion and name it in a way a child could hear it, we instantly feel better. Emotions – like everything else on Earth – want to be seen for what they are and allowed to be as they are. Once that happens, they will soften in intensity and even disappear. However, if they are never allowed they will only get worse, the same way children suffer when locked in a closet.

For myself, whenever an inconvenient emotion arises I now imagine I am talking to my daughter. I break down the situation and my feelings in a way a baby could understand, and this both calms me and allows a natural evolution into the mature awareness that I am okay and my feelings are okay. After this process I can then choose different emotions and be the adult I most want to be.