Long-Term Stress Relief

Letting Go of Feelings
One of the challenges of motherhood is finding good ways to express your feelings. After all, you can hardly tell a child that you feel depressed or that his whining makes you want to scream. And sometimes it's not the right time or place to lay out all your feelings about your partner.

The problem, though, is that emotion is like a river. When it's allowed to flow, it stays clean and clear; but when it's dammed up, it grows dank and dark. Fortunately, there are two ways to let your feelings flow without the consequences that sometimes come from communicating directly: expressing them within your own mind, and expressing them symbolically.

Expressing emotion within your own mind. The safest way to express emotion is to yourself, which doesn't reveal how you feel to anyone else. As a start, and as best you can, try to name your feelings to yourself. (Please see the box on self-observation.) Normal emotions include joy, surprise, curiosity, lust, love, peacefulness, sense of worth, triumph, religious exaltation, fear, sadness, anger, and shame. Also acknowledge the intensity of the feeling. For example, the spectrum of anger includes mild annoyance, exasperation, irritation, resentment, hostility, and rage.

Further, can you notice more than one emotion present at a time, especially the softer, more vulnerable feelings beneath any angry ones? In order to identify your deeper feelings, relax and let your awareness sink down into the younger layers of your personality; see what might be similar there to your current situation, perhaps intensifying your reactions to present-day events. For example, feeling let down by your partner could be amplified by experiences in which important people were not understanding or supportive when you were a child. If those early experiences stir up feelings of embarrassment or shame, remember that much as every child is innocent and good, you are innocent and good yourself at your roots. Try to bring an attitude of compassion for yourself to all that you see. Sometimes there will be a memory or image of some episode, but often there will simply be a feeling that has a young quality to it.

Paradoxically, feeling your emotions fully helps to let them go. Try to own them, even the most difficult ones, inside your mind: This is my anger, my sadness, my frustration. I'm out of my mind with worry about the baby. I really do feel let down by my partner. I feel embarrassed, trying to pump milk at work. In essence, you let yourself feel bad for a moment in order to feel good for a long time.

Of course, it's hard to claim your feelings as your own if you can't accept them in the first place. As one mother put it: The worst part of it is I get mad at myself for how I'm feeling. This is supposed to be a happy time, so I think I must be doing something wrong if I'm grouchy or sad. Often our reactions to our experience are more stressful than the experience itself, like feeling ashamed of being needy, or angry at getting irritated once again. We suffer that we suffer, frustrated with our experience or guilty about it. For example, one mother said: I feel mad at Tyler for making me mad. I just want to feel happy with him, not irritated. I'm upset about being upset so much! Instead, see if you can have compassion for your feelings. They occur for real reasons, triggered by hard situations today or by the painful residue of difficult experiences you had as a child, and they are not your fault. Imagine being as kind to your inner self as you'd be to someone else who's upset, like your child or a dear friend. You can be a dear friend yourself to the distressed parts within you.

There is nothing shameful about a feeling itself, and accepting it is not at all the same as acting on it. When a person resists her feelings through suppression, denial, or minimization, they keep sticking around, like a preschooler pounding on a closed door. But when you accept them and express them to yourself, the door opens, the pounding stops, and the feelings move on.

Expressing emotion symbolically. In this mode, you do express your feelings outwardly, yet still not directly to the person they concern. The most obvious way is to write them down without editing or censoring yourself, remembering that no one will see these words but you. If you like, you could write in large letters with crayons to bring out the younger feelings below the surface, or use your nondominant hand (the left one for most people). In a more structured way, you can draft multiple letters to a person (not to send) in which you focus on different feelings such as hurt or anger. You could then release your writings through physical action, such as by throwing them away, cutting them into pieces and flushing them down a toilet, or burning them and scattering the ashes. As you do this, you may want to speak some words of release, in your mind or out loud, such as: I am letting go of these feelings. As this paper burns, my anger is turning into smoke. I am cleansed inside. Good-bye, feelings!

Or you might draw pictures - which is about exploring and expressing your inner world, not trying to make good art. Take a moment to get a sense of what you are feeling, and then let it flow through you and onto the page. Don't be concerned if there seems to be no logic to it. Let your hand movements be big and free. If it helps, you could speak out loud or make sounds while drawing. You can be completely abstract, or you can do loosely representational drawings, such as you in relation to another person. You can also combine pictures and words, such as a cartoon of a typical argument with your spouse, with balloons over the heads that show what each person is thinking or feeling.

Venting out loud is another form of symbolic expression. Please do this only when no one can hear you (especially your kids)! The shower might be a good place, the top of a hill, or inside your car (as long as you can continue to drive safely). If you feel you are losing control or getting lost in a negative emotion, stop venting and do what you need to do to calm down. You can also vent through physical action, not words. You could tear paper, smash your pillow against your bed over and over, hit something soft, or jump up and down. Again, do this only while no one can see or hear you, and be sure not to hurt yourself.

Finally, you could express your feelings to someone else. Pick a person with whom you feel safe, tell him or her your purpose in talking, and ask for whatever would make you feel comfortable, such as a promise to keep things confidential. You are not looking for advice, but for someone to hear you out so you can move on; nor do you want to fan the flames of your feelings, since your purpose is release. As you speak, try to sense that the emotions are leaving you, that your listener is drawing them out of you. You can ask him or her to help you let go by saying things like I got it, I hear you, yes, OK.


From Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships by Rick Hansen, Jan Hansen, and Ricki Pollycove. Copyright © 2002 by Rick Hanson. Jan Hanson, and Ricki Pollycove. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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