Stop telling me to calm down

Dr Lindsay-Jo Sevier-Guy

I get really tired of people telling me not to feel what I’m feeling.

“Calm down”

“Don’t cry”

“Don’t be sad about it”

“Don’t get upset”

“Chill out”

“Don’t get stressed about it”

“Don’t let it bother you”

Does that ever happen to you? We are probably all guilty of saying some of those phrases to other people at some point too! Why is it that we try to shut emotions down? And why is it important to start to listen to emotions instead of trying to push them away?

Emotions are hard

Emotions are hard. They are difficult to experience and difficult to watch. Even “positive” emotions can be painful – like joy when thinking about an amazing experience we had with someone who has passed away. It is also hard to watch someone we love struggling or in distress. We say these things with the best of intentions – we don’t want the people we love and care about to feel bad, sad, angry or stressed. But what if we pause for a second and think about what we are really saying?

What we are really saying is “Don’t display that emotion as it is too difficult for me to see” or “Your emotions are making me feel overwhelmed and I’m struggling to cope with that” or “I don’t understand why you are feeling this way, so it isn’t valid”.

I’m sure we don’t truly mean to give that message.  It is very unlikely we would actually say those things directly to someone. We’re trying to alleviate distress. It’s important to take some time to reflect what we mean by something like “don’t cry”, even when it is well meant. Perhaps we’d then think about changing how we want to react to that person’s distress.

Why do we have emotions?

It is an interesting question, isn’t it? Why do humans experience joy, sadness, anger, embarrassment? There are lots of theories. One is that they are messengers of sorts. Emotions are trying to tell us something about ourselves, our current situation or even the past. If we ignore and push down these messages, it means we can lose out on really important information. For example, if we were choosing a route to get home between a well-lit street and a dark alley, and when we look at the dark alley we feel fear – that tells us that it is probably safer to take the well-lit route home. If we see politicians having Christmas parties during lockdown and we feel angry about it – it tells us that we think that isn’t right or fair. If we feel guilt that we haven’t texted a friend back – that tells us the friend is important to us.  Perhaps then we can do something to try and change that thing – maybe we choose to write to our local council about public safety, or we get more involved in politics, or we prioritise texting our friend.

Sometimes though, the messages don’t seem to make sense in our current context and might be more linked with our past. Perhaps we are walking down a bright sunny street and we feel afraid. If we listen to that emotion, it seems to be telling us we are in danger and we need to get out. But that doesn’t match our current situation – there is no-one around who looks threatening, it is sunny, we are safe. On reflection, we remember a scary experience where someone tried to mug us on a similar street – this time the emotion is telling us something about our past. We can then choose to respond in a way other that what the emotion is telling us to do – perhaps we choose to stay in the situation despite our fear.

What can I do?

Emotions are important, they tell us so much. We don’t have to react in line with our emotions – we can still choose how we behave in response to them. But we can only do that if we listen to them, we allow them to be there, and make space for them. If we ignore them or try to push them down, we will miss important messages. Other times, we might find ourselves doing things we aren’t proud of if we have responded automatically to an emotion.

The next time we go to say “don’t cry” to someone, maybe we could pause and think of a different response. How about “what’s making you cry?” or “I’m sad to see you so sad, I’m here for you”.

The next time we feel an emotion, pause, listen to its message and think about how you might choose to respond.

And the next time someone tells you to calm down, remind them this:

“Never, in the history of calm down, has telling someone to calm down, made them calm down”

Photo by Samuel Regan-Asante on Unsplash

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