Emotions and Super-Feelers

Emotions and Super-Feelers

What if I were to tell you that 5 to 10% of people experience their emotions and feelings more intensely than others and that while this may pose a challenge in terms of learning how to manage these emotions, it can also be a strength; a super-power skill – if you will. A few years ago, I attended a training for a therapeutic modality called Emotionally Focused Family Therapy (EFFT) facilitated by Dr. Adelle Lafrance. At this training, Dr. Lafrance posed the question, who in this room would consider themselves to be a super-feeler – of the approximately 120 nutritionists, social workers and psychologists in attendance, 120 put up their hands. This 100% ratio lent into my already existing perspective that many individuals in caring professions have high levels of empathy and compassion.

In addition to experiencing their own emotions more intensely, many super-feelers have high levels of empathy for others and tend to pay attention to the feelings and emotional states of those around them. In some cases, experiencing emotions more acutely is biologically based, similarly to how some individuals may have natural athletic qualities or seem to demonstrate a strong natural ability to solve problems and equations. While in other cases, experiences of adversity, challenge or even trauma may contribute to individuals experiencing their own emotions and the emotions of others more intensely. Additionally, the brains of children and adolescents are not fully developed, contributing to a more intense experience of being a super feeler for these young people. Ideally, over time and with the support of adults around them these young people will learn how to understand and process their emotions and emotional experiences and learn how to regulate their own emotional states. Effectively, turning their natural “sensitivity” into an asset and even a way of being within the world.

Many caregivers who choose to access counselling for their children do so, due to their children’s intense experience of emotions – ranging from anger, anxiety, worry, overwhelm, etc. and while the below the information is beneficial for super feelers, it is helpful for all children.

Ways to support your Super-Feeler Child:

  1. Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation – an ambiguous phrase – but what does it actually mean? Dr. Stuart Shanker refers to emotional regulated as “The three R’s of Emotional Regulation” a threefold process in which a caregiver first recognizes the emotional state of their child, assists to reduce both the physical and emotional state of the child and then works to restore the child to a place of equilibrium. This can also be referred to as co-regulation and it is important to note that children, especially those that are younger (infants to early elementary) require regular and consistent co-regulation prior to them being able to consistently self-regulate their own emotional states. Depending on the age and developmental stage of the child, the parents’ role in the process may differ, for example the process of recognizing, reducing and restoring the emotional state of an infant would be different than that of an older child. (Shaker, 2017)

The pattern of recognition, reduction and restoration also works in reflective and pre-emptive capacities. For example, when the child is calm and can talk about their stressors – asking what these stressors feel like in their bodies, accompanying emotions, preventative strategies and effective ways to reduce the stress response can all be part of the process. The hope and goal is that a young person can eventually learn to do this effectively for themselves and will possess (and in many ways continue to develop) these tools while moving into adulthood.

Teaching emotional regulation does not have to be complicated and in some ways can be worked right into the day-to-day routines of families. Two easy examples are:

  • Working in discussions around emotions while watching television and reading children’s books can be an easy way to discuss and normalize emotions that fit into many family’s regular routines.
  • Engaging in activities that will slowly stretch children’s abilities and then praising their efforts and validating their emotional experience can support their ability to work through difficult situations, while recognizing their own internal experience and resilience.
  1. Learn about the purpose of emotions.

Emotions are not inherently good or bad although a common perception of emotions is that positive emotions are considered “good”, while negative emotions are considered “bad”. All emotions – both positive and negative are a form of communication, described as “fundamental adaptive signals that provide individuals with information about themselves and the world” (Lafrance et al., 2020, p. 32). Normalizing emotional experiences as that of communication takes away the stigma around emotions and provides a more accurate and balanced perspective of their purpose and function.

  1. Learn how to validate emotions.

There are many strategies for caregivers on how to validate the emotional experiences of their children. One of my favorites comes from the above noted Emotionally Focused Family Therapy (EFFT). The approach taught by this model emphasizes using the word because – instead of but and uses three separate validations which deepen in their content as the validation unfolds. This model endorses the validation of feelings, emotional states, experiences or elements of the situation.

For example:

  1. “I understand that you are feeling left-out because ___________, because ____________, because ____________”.

“I understand that you are feeling left-out because you were not invited to the sleepover, because you regularly feel left out by these friends and because you wonder if there is a reason they are leaving you out”.

  1. I understand that you do not want to get out of bed today because________, because_________, and because __________.

“I understand that you do not want to get out of bed today because you are feeling sad/low and because sometimes it feels easier to take a break from the hard stuff and because you wonder if it’s worth it”.

The thing about the EFFT style of validation is that it does not shy away from validating the hard stuff, the deep emotions that are related to pain, suffering and sadness. This form of validation can be life change and dynamic changing– but it can also feel hard, different and even vulnerable. At times it can feel like speaking the “unspoken” out loud. Sometimes if we can speak to the deep and intense feelings that people are experiencing, we gain understanding and reinforce deep emotional connection. The formation of deep connections creates feelings of safety and security from which people can grow. Through these connections we can act preventatively, understand a fuller picture of what our loved one is experiencing and do our best to support their emotional regulation development. While this model is used to validate intense emotions, it is a highly adaptable tool that can be used to validate all forms of emotional experience – from day to day worry to feelings of happiness and joy.

Another amazing thing about the EFFT model is that they offer a ton of really great resources on their website: For Caregivers | mhfoundations-efft (mentalhealthfoundations.ca)

  1. Do your own work.

It is important to note that validation of emotions does not mean that you as a caregiver are agreeing with the choices or actions of your child. Agreeing and validating are two different things. In fact, the actions or decisions of your child may bring up your own difficult emotional experience or increased stress response. This is a common caregiving experience – I would not be surprised to hear that most caregivers can think back to a time when their child’s actions caused them to feel embarrassed, worried, or even in some cases to enter into the “what ifs”. At times, the actions of our children may feel uncomfortable due to our personal and/or family values, goals and even our hopes and dreams for the lives of our children. For instance, if our child engages in name-calling or even bullying – does this mean that they are going to grow up not caring about others? Or if your child appears to have low motivation for an important task or school assignment – does that mean that they will go on to be unsuccessful adults? One example of doing our own work may be becoming aware of these thoughts and what they trigger for us as a caregiver and as an individual. And if applicable, are these triggers impacting our ability to connect with our child, co-regulate our child or support the growth and development of our child?

Our own understanding and perceptions around emotions may be other areas to consider when working on ourselves as caregivers. Considering what the understanding and expectations were around emotions when we were children and how has this may have impacted us? For example, was it considered weak or inappropriate to express “big emotions” as a child and if so, what did we do to manage these emotions? Are these strategies still impacting us and if so, in what ways?

References:

Lafrance, A., Henderson, K. A., & Mayman, S. (2020). Emotion-Focused Family Therapy A Transdiagnostic Model For Caregiver-Focused Interventions. American Psychological Association

Shanker, S., Dr. (2017). Self-Reg How to Help Your Child (And You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life.

 

Blog Post by: Andrea Rhodes-Reilly, Registered Social Worker

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