Ever Been Told, “You Shouldn’t Feel That Way?”
You shouldn’t feel that way.
Get over it.
Have you ever heard any of those statements? Those remarks that leave you angry and confused. Hackles up, yet questioning if the other person is right? Why do people make those remarks? Is it out of ignorance or attack? Are they trying to help or harm? How can we respond those who tell us we do not have the right to feel the way we feel?
I work with middle schoolers – a group that is well recognized for being very emotional and reactive. I have seen a girl become suicidal after a dismissive comment by a friend. I have seen a boy with a shattered face after a fight over a mustard packet. To the outside person, those reactions seem well over the top, like calling the fire department to extinguish a candle. I could have pulled those students aside and told them they were overreacting. I could have said that they should get over it. I could have shared stories of others that had it worse to downplay their feelings.
I think we all realize that such an approach would not be helpful. Simply telling the girl that her despair was stupid or the boy that he shouldn’t be angry would do nothing to dial down their emotions. In fact, it would have made the situation worse because then it would be introducing an element of shame, causing them to question if there is something wrong with them for feeling the way they do.
When we respond with ‘shoulds,’ we are responding only to the surface. If someone appears to be overreacting, there is often much more beneath. That was the case with these two students. The girl’s sister had committed suicide the previous summer. She was feeling abandoned and lost. When her friend slighted her, she felt alone and hopeless. The boy’s family had fallen upon hard times. His only meals were through the school. To him, that packet of mustard was life or death.
So why are we so quick to dismiss the feelings of others? Sometimes, it is from a lack of empathy, an inability or refusal to put yourself in another’s shoes. Sometimes, you may have the empathy but you lack the understanding. Maybe you’re missing key information that explains the reaction. Maybe you want to help, but you’re frustrated and don’t now how.
The truth is that we can never know completely how someone else feels. It’s based on past and perception, two things that are unique to each individual. When it seems that someone’s reaction is over the top, maybe it just means that their brain needs time to catch up with the past pains held in the heart. Rather than berate the brain for not moving faster, try supporting the heart while the brain moves forward. All the heart wants is to be accepted.
If you are the recipient of the ‘shoulds,’ try not to internalize the statement. It is okay to feel the way you feel. Try to see the motivation behind the statement – is this person trying to help you or are they simply unable to comprehend your pain? Also be open to the idea that your past and your perceptions may be harming your present. It’s okay to feel the way you feel and it is also okay to not want to feel that way and to work to make it better.
As for my two students, we (teachers and counselors) worked to validate their feelings in the moment while helping them to understand why they reacted the way they did and how they can cope better in the future. Rather than telling them how they should feel from a place of judgement, we showed them how they could feel better by coming from a place of love. And that is how we should all feel.