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Emotions and Actions


People who grow up in dysfunctional families often are highly reactive in situations. How can children learn what to feel and how to react appropriately in relationships if parents and family are emotionally unhealthy? We need healthy role models for that to happen.

For example, my client Mona was insulted by something a co-worker drew on a “community” board in the lunch room at work. Mona thought they’d had a decent relationship, so she was hurt and angry that this woman would make fun of her publicly. The back story is that Mona and her co-worker had a brief interaction previously which had, unbeknownst to Mona, bothered the co-worker. 

Mona was hurt by the drawing. Who wouldn’t be? With her history of emotional abuse in childhood and adulthood, her reactions ran unsurprisingly in two directions—either she felt full of rage and wanted to hurt someone back or she wanted to isolate and have nothing to do with someone who’d hurt her feelings.

Let’s examine her feelings. Note, we’re talking emotions, not actions in response to them; emotions are internal, whereas actions are external and we need to consider them separately. Most of us would feel hurt (at least at first) if someone publicly tried to humiliate us. This seems a normal, emotionally healthy response. 

Moreover, sometimes an emotion emerges in reaction to another and takes over, such as anger flaring up to decrease vulnerability when we’re hurt emotionally. Mona was dealing with both her initial hurt and subsequent anger. Hurt made her close off feelings the way she did as a child, while anger made her want to lash out which wasn’t allowed. 

However, neither is an appropriate or healthy action to what happened. In order to act in a healthy manner, we need to move away from emotions and use the problem-solving part of our brains, to detach from the unconscious immersion into memories of similar historical situations and, instead, consider only our current situation.

Acting from the present, Mona could have asked why her colleague drew what she did, told her that the drawing had hurt her feelings, felt compassion considering what happened in her co-worker’s childhood that would make her humiliate another person, decided that her co-worker was immature and not give the drawing a second thought, or asked if her co-worker meant to draw something to hurt her. 

Note the difference between the function of emotions and rational thinking. Knowing what you feel and knowing what to do with your feelings are two different animals.