Cover Emotions

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One of the things that gets in the way of developing core resiliency in emotional regulation is not knowing how in the heck we actually feel. Dysfunctional families generally don’t have room for the whole range of emotions, or at least don’t give the children who grow up in them the whole range of emotions. There are likely some emotions that are safer than others.

Sometimes the cover emotion is one that we inherit by example. If a child grows up in a family where everyone was responsible for caretaking a parents’ depression then they may learn that sadness is an acceptable way to get care. Or they may internalize the idea that parents are sad therefore as a parent their role is to be sad. As an adult they may default to sadness instead of feeling scared or angry. They may feel afraid to feel or admit happiness because it will make them vulnerable to neglect.

Other times the cover emotion is one that we are taught directly. In the same family where one child is learning that sadness is an appropriate, acceptable way to get love and care another child is learning that it’s their job to be happy. That child may take to heart instructions to “not upset mom.” That child may learn to clown or laugh or stay relentlessly positive. As an adult they may dismiss their own difficult feelings, laughing it off. “It’s fine!” they might say. “I’m fine!” even when they are clearly not.

You can see how two siblings in the same family will inherit/learn different cover emotions. One’s role may be to mirror the parent; the other’s may be to react against them or care for them.

Also please note! Cover emotions are REAL emotions; nobody is faking it. It’s that the language of emotion has become truncated; that person’s emotional language has been stunted and they need to develop a larger vocabulary to get to the more complex, more nuanced way of experiencing the world.

In my family anger was generally ok because anger was powerful. Anger was uniting. As a family we’d sit around the kitchen table and get angry about things. We’d get angry about other people mostly (stupid people, people outside the family who looked down on us but also were not good enough for us — this is a typical orientation in traumatized families). My knee-jerk reaction is still anger first. Am I sad? No! I’m angry! Am I worried? No! I’m mad at you! Anger was safe! Anger was acceptable! My brain got very good at going straight to anger first. It took awhile to recognize that when I’m feeling angry or overly irritable that I need to stop, check in, and see what else is going on.

If you’re reading this and identifying with it you may feel worried about what your own child is inheriting or learning. Well, it’s good to think about this because we want to do things differently than our own parents and to do that we have to recognize when we’re unintentionally doing the same thing. So think about it. Are all emotions welcomed in your family? How do you handle the ones that are hard for you? How do you handle it in yourself and in your child?

We can ask ourselves: Am I able to separate myself from my child? Am I able to tolerate when they’re hurting or do I rush to quiet their difficult feelings? Am I able to tolerate their happiness when I’m sad or do I expect them to help cheer me up? Do I know how to care for myself so I can demonstrate this for my child? Can I set an example of someone who is learning to regulate if this is a struggle for me? (It’s valuable to demonstrate growing and growth — you don’t have to be great or even good at all the things.)

Which reminds me, I’m working on a free training about imperfect parenting and why it’s exactly what your child needs. If you’d like to know when I launch it, please subscribe to my newsletter by filling out the form below.

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