Merriam Webster’s 2023 word of the year was authenticity. I learned this during a recent course on narcissism with Dr. Ramani Durvasula, and saw it again this morning while reading my colleague Leanne Sowul‘s newsletter.
Authenticity is being true to who you are and operating as your true self in all situations. It’s a state where you understand your feelings, know what you want, communicate your needs, and uphold your boundaries.
Sounds great, doesn’t it?
I’ll be the first to admit that my path toward authenticity has been a little like the Velveteen Rabbit’s. It’s taken a long time to become real.
The more I learn and grow, the more opportunities to evolve present themselves. One such opportunity was this question, posed during my fall 2023 webinar series, The Psychology of Memoir: How do you write about emotions when you’re not used to sharing them?
As I wrote down some of the family rules that inhibit self-expression, an inner voice said, “There’s more to this.” My answer has turned into a four-part newsletter series that gives us all a chance to do some of the Velveteen-Rabbit-style work that makes us real.
Let’s begin with the four reasons we struggle to write about our emotions.
Reason We Struggle to Write About Emotions # 1: We Feel Deeply
Every person is born with an emotional set point that’s influenced by a combination of genetics and the pre and perinatal experiences that shape our nervous systems. These emotional set points exist on a spectrum. That means some of us are born with extremely deep feelings while others aren’t prone to intense highs and lows.
People who feel deeply can become overwhelmed by the intensity of their feelings, especially if they were told those feelings are wrong, or they haven’t learned how to regulate them.
Reason We Struggle to Write About Emotions # 2: We Don’t Have Access to Everything
For example, some people cry easily or have no problems talking about their fears, but can’t tap into their anger. Others love the fire of a heated exchange, but rarely shed a tear. Some revel in positive feelings, but skip over the negative ones, where others find darker emotions more comfortable.
Reason We Struggle to Write About Emotions # 3: We’ve Been Told Certain Feelings Are Wrong
Family and societal rules around which emotions are acceptable further influence what we suppress or express. Messages like, “quit crying or I’ll give you something to cry about,” “don’t be such a drama queen,” and “why are you so sensitive?” can create dissonance between your felt experience and what’s expected of you.
Social media highlight reels, the culture of toxic positivity, and society’s penchant for avoiding experiences like grief can reinforce the notion that certain experiences are okay while others are not.
Reason We Struggle to Write About Emotions # 4: We Mask or Fawn to Stay Safe
The pressure to conform to certain emotional standards can lead to masking, where you pretend everything’s okay, even when it absolutely isn’t. You might say things, like “it’s no big deal” and “I’m fine,” or smile and go about your day as if you’re not sad, scared, hurt, when you’re feeling absolutely crushed.
Neurodivergent people, including trauma survivors, often mask their feelings when they’re dysregulated, because it feels safer or less emotionally taxing than reaching out only to be bullied or misunderstood.
According to my colleague, Katie Rose Guest Pryal, “masking, or what is sometimes called social camouflaging, forces a person to dissociate from their internal experience, which leads them to lose track of their emotions and reactions, especially when they’re so focused on pleasing others. If you’re forced to do this from childhood in an abusive situation (even an unintentional one), you will lose track of yourself.”
This can lead to fawning responses, a term coined by psychologist Pete Walker, that describes why some of us habitually “please and appease” those around us.
Trauma survivors who’ve developed fawning responses can become even more confused about their emotions as they shut down who they are to maintain connections with unsafe people. Fawning can include compulsively apologizing, saying yes when you mean no, discounting your feelings in favor of another person’s experience, or going blank when asked your opinion about where to eat or what to do, leading you to say things like, “I don’t care. What would you like to do?”
If you struggle to write about your emotions, here’s a series of questions you can ask about yourself:
- Which feelings are easy for you to access? Which ones do you struggle with?
- Do you avoid certain emotions, because “going there” feels overwhelming or scary?
- What are your family’s rules around the emotions you easily access? What about the ones you struggle with?
- Do you ever mask your emotions to feel stay safe? If you do, in what situations do you do this? Which feelings do you mask? How often does this happen? What toll has this taken on you?
- Is fawning an issue for you? If it is, what does it look like?
As you answer these questions, feelings might crop up. If they do, take self-care breaks so you can attend to them. Better yet, prepare yourself for success, by scheduling your favorite self-care activity into your day. That way you know what to do if the going gets tough.
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