There is a lot troubling us right now. We may feel crushed under the weight of world events, the ongoing pandemic, and awakening personal responsibility. We are like a lit fuse ready to explode, or spread so thin that we’ve gone numb. Though they look different, these are all feelings of upset. We are either unleashing our upset onto our families or trying to hide it from them (and even ourselves).
But we are social beings, and we read each other’s signals. Children, especially, can tell when something is wrong. And the longer our upset goes unexpressed, or is misdirected, the more we isolate ourselves from the very people who can help us.
Feeling upset is not a sign of weakness, it’s a powerful signal that we need to connect to each other. Only through connection — mutually expressing our deep feelings — will we find tangible, visceral relief.
In this blog series, we’re sharing the Nurture Science Program’s findings about the benefits of emotional connection, and the seven connecting activities that our research shows help us build and sustain it. In this post, we focus on connecting through upset.
As a society, rather than prioritizing patience and compassion, we tend to focus on fixing problems, or telling each other (often based on gender, race, age, etc.) what is “appropriate” emotional expression. And since we lack the tools to talk deeply and openly, without defensiveness and minimizing, our experience tells us that sharing will only make things worse.
NSP conducts research in the neonatal intensive care unit, where prematurely born babies are kept alive in isolettes, attached to tubes and wires and loud beeping machines. It’s a terrifying, upsetting and unstable time, and many mothers feel such deep and palpable fear, responsibility, and regret. However, they are reluctant to express these feelings of upset around their fragile babies for fear it will make things worse.
But in our research, we find again and again that when the mothers talk to their children about how scared they are, and open up about their feelings, the babies’ bodies respond in remarkable and unexpectedly positive ways. Often, this interaction leads to the baby looking in the mother’s eyes, usually for the very first time, and health improvements in both infant and mother. Mom’s depression and anxiety decrease, and baby’s respiratory and cardiac function improve.
It is important to remember that some people may withdraw when they’re upset, while others get angry and display sudden outbursts. Some people cry easily and often, while others don’t. It is easy to take offense at these signals, or try to reason someone out of them; it is equally easy to ignore these signals in ourselves. This isn’t about winning an argument or making a point; it’s a practice that strengthens connection and helps us weather the storms of life, together.
Today’s tip: Connect by sharing and receiving upset
- Make time to be together, whether in person or on a video call. Turn off your notifications and be present. This isn’t about sitting next to each other and turning on the TV, it’s about turning to each other, without distraction.
- If you can, hold or sit close to your children, partners, parents and friends.
- Be open about your fears and feelings, and listen to each other’s; let yourselves cry together if tears come up.
- It can feel vulnerable to open up. Thank each other for sharing feelings.
- While talking, leave long gaps of silence to give each person a chance to feel and then find the words to express themselves.
- Stay with each other until the flood of emotions naturally ebbs, and you both feel calm.
At first, it can feel uncomfortable or even scary to try to connect this way. In time, it will get easier. Even if you’re not sure how you feel, taking the time to sit with someone you love and trust can unearth hidden emotions, and expressing those emotions together can help you both find connection and relief. Next, we’ll talk more about crying, an aspect of upset that’s often misunderstood.
Let’s take care of each other,
Martha G. Welch, MD, DFAPA
Director, Columbia Nurture Science Program