It’s a wonder we are as emotionally healthy as we are when you consider that the primary way that most of us learned about emotions was from our parents. Some of the things our parents taught us about emotions or modeled for us were just plain wrong and unhealthy. While I think my own case was perhaps extreme, I have talked to enough people to believe that MOST of our parents unwittingly taught us things that were worthless and in some cases counter to what would be healthy. Just like the rule about waiting an hour after you eat before swimming, our parents simply taught us what they thought was right. Or they modeled what they had learned from their parents.
Here is a list of some of the things I heard growing up as well as some things that others have told me they heard.
Common Parental Messages about Emotions
- I’ll give you something to cry about
- There is no crying in baseball
- Don’t cry, everything is going to be OK
- Big boys don’t cry
- Don’t be sad, everything is going to be OK
- Stop it you big crybaby
- Don’t brag
- Don’t be too cocky
- Who died and put you in charge?
- You better be scared!
- I’ll give you something to be scared about
- I am going to send you to a juvenile home / call the police
- If you don’t do this, I am going to beat you!
- Come on, don’t be a scaredy cat.
Happy / Excited
- Why are you all happy?
- Calm down / quiet down / quiet down right now or else
- Take it easy
- Don’t get angry
- Don’t let anyone get to you
- Don’t let them get your goat
- If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
- Children should be seen and not heard.
- Don’t say that or you will upset your father/mother
So learning about emotional intelligence often starts with unlearning what we were taught, and breaking unhealthy bad habits. It is not easy work. Sometimes these patterns and reactions are so deeply ingrained in us that we don’t even recognize them. In their book Promoting Emotional Intelligence in Organizations, Gary Cherniss and Mitchel Adler contrast emotional with cognitive learning and the challenges of emotional learning.
“Emotional incompetence often stems from habits learned early in life. These automatic habits are set in place as a normal part of living, as experience shapes the brain…When habits are strong, the underlying neural connections become the brain’s default option- what a person does automatically and spontaneously often with little or no awareness that a menu of possible responses is available.”
-Gary Cherniss and Mitchel Adler
The only way to break these patterns and improve our emotional intelligence is with the help of someone else; a friend, spouse, classmate or coach. I learned through a mentor and a group of 10 men and women that I met with every week for four and a half years! Though I consider my case an extreme one, we all need feedback to see that we are acting in unhealthy ways and support to make the necessary changes.
I’d love to hear what you think. What did you learn from your parents? What are you teaching and modelling for your children?