Dear Rachel,

I grew up in a very emotionally cold environment. My parents were very involved in their careers, and found little time to relate to us kids. Most of their interactions with us were devoid of emotion, usually critical, and I understand now, they themselves were very depressed. They showed very little love or affection, and they couldn’t tolerate when either I or my siblings showed emotion. The result being that I have a hard time now dealing with my emotions.

Sadly, my siblings have turned out like my parents. I, on the other hand, am trying to figure out how to allow my emotions to flow in a healthy manner without being afraid of expressing them. Sometimes I bottle them up, and at times I feel like I have little or no control over them, and I fear that I am overemotional. I see that this is affecting my relationship with my spouse, and I am afraid of how it is affecting my other relationships. How do I figure out where the balance is?

Emotionally Perplexed

Dear Emotionally Perplexed,

You are at a greater disadvantage, as you were not given proper modelingFirst, I want to thank you for having the courage to write such an important letter. So many people out there are either unaware or afraid of facing the demons from their childhood, resulting in personal unhappiness for years. By facing your fear and understanding what your challenges are, you are already well on the road to making great progress in achieving your goal of healthy emotional expression.

Since parents are the guidelines by which we learn appropriate behavior, you are at a greater disadvantage, as you were not given proper modeling. In many ways, you are living out your childhood years again, as you are trying to figure out the “right” way to express yourself. Figuring out appropriate emotional expression is easier as children, as others are more understanding of childhood outbursts (either happy or sad ones). And, in a “normal” environment, parents, teachers and other authority figures tend to act as a regulating force (i.e.“It’s okay to cry,” or, “Please don’t scream, use your words when you are angry”).

Being an adult, you have to look for other sources to help you regulate and understand healthy emotion expression. First, you should take the time to think about when you tend to bottle up your emotions, and when you tend to let them flow too freely. What type of situation triggers what? Do you tend to bottle your joy or your anger more? Does anything/anyone tend to make you feel like you have lost control? Try to take the time at the end of each day and evaluate your interactions and how you responded to them.

In Jewish philosophy, this is called a chesbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. Great sages would spend time doing this everyday to ensure that they had not wronged anyone, or transgressed any area of Jewish Law over the course of the day. We even has a section that is recited in the bedtime recitation of the Shema prayer where we focus on any wrongdoing that we may have done, intentionally or unintentionally during the day.

I encourage you to find some quiet moments at the end of the day. You can use this time to see the “cause and effect” of how your interactions, relationships and even time of day affect how you feel and your response about different situations. It will help if you are able to write down different snippets (i.e. “I got unexplainably angry at so-and-so today, then, I realized that I was also starving.")

Take the time to think about when you tend to bottle up your emotions, and when you tend to let them flow too freelyTalk to your spouse, share your struggle with him. Let him understand what you are working on, and ask for his help. Check in with him when you feel that your emotions are out of control. You may have a skewed perception of what is “too much” or “not enough” emotion. By asking someone whom you trust what he is feeling about the situation will help you gauge yourself.

Finally, and, perhaps most importantly, there is also the option of entering into therapy. Working with a competent therapist will help you understand all of the triggers that you may not be able to identify, as well as guide you as you face them. By creating a safe environment, the therapist will help you explore your feelings in a deeper way, and how it affects your present day relationships. You have aclear general understanding of the impact of your childhood on your current emotional health. A good therapist will be able to take it further, and help you make real, positive and lasting change and positively help your personal growth.

I want to wish you good luck as you go on your journey.