When we were little children, we had no trouble smiling great 1000-watt smiles that lit up our eyes. We’d smile at anyone who wasn’t pitching rocks and insults at us. We might even smile meek little smiles of confusion at those who were – it must surely be a game, and we simply hadn’t learned the rules, yet. We didn’t hesitate to blurt out, “You’re nice. I like you!” at people who seemed nice and likable. We broke out in spontaneous acts of song and dance, simply because we felt like it – no matter where we were. We ran, arms wide, into the great big world. It was ours to explore on nimble legs and feet with young eyes that hadn’t seen it all – or anything, really.

Oh, we would pout at the drop of a hat if we didn’t get our way. Some of us would lie down on the floor and wail and punch the ground with tiny fists. “That’s not fair!” we’d yell, full of righteous indignation. Mothers and fathers would point out, in the voice reserved for telling children the truth about Santa and the Tooth Fairy, “Life’s not fair.” To this day, no one’s given me a good answer to the incessant question, “WHY?” We were, unfortunately, quick to plant our little feet wide, hands on hips, bodies pitched aggressively forwards, yelling, “I hate you!”

Fortunately, most of us learned that “hate” was really too vile a word for what we really felt. “Hate” was a poison arrow to the heart – and that one hate dart fired outward left another inside, festering.

We used words like “happy,” and “sad,” and “mad.” Children don’t often say, “I don’t know what this emotion is that I’m feeling.” They just feel it; they don’t agonize to define it over ten pages of prose. Have you ever noticed how simple emotions can be expressed in simple, one-syllable words that a first-grader can spell? These are the emotions of an eight-color crayon box. Sometimes, eight colors are enough.

When did we learn to hide them or rein them in so tightly we couldn’t acknowledge having “feelings” at all? What adult admits out loud, “My feelings were hurt when you…” No. We have no feelings to be hurt, dammit. You might get on our last nerve, but we can only be “hurt” physically. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Stuff the feelings down, medicate them, avoid them – don’t have them. Don’t admit to them, anyway. That would make us…vulnerable.

When did the open, 1000-watt smile turn into a perfunctory, guarded hello – or worse, yet, when did we learn to avert our eyes and pretend not to see the other person coming, lest they think our smile was weird or inappropriate, or, God forbid, they didn’t see fit to return it? When did we learn to control our emotions so well no one would know we had any feelings to hurt?

I’ve spent much of the past year making a point of smiling wholeheartedly at strangers. So what if they think I’m weird? I’ll probably never see them again, I’d say to myself. Well, “You’re weird” wasn’t the vibe I got back. The reactions ran the gamut: nervousness (“What am I supposed to do, now?”), avoidance of eye contact, slight hostility – sure, there were some of those. But mostly: something I can only describe as “relief” or “acknowledgement,” and a sometimes-surprised, open, childlike smile in return.  I guess what they saw, in my willingness to be vulnerable and smile first, was acceptance. I didn’t know them – but they were enough, and worthy of a real smile – not one of those little canned, perfunctory pleasantries, mind you – a smile that’s got the backing of your whole heart, and nothing less will do.

I think Brené Brown says it best – and with a big bonus for everyone whose New Year’s Resolutions included “lose weight”:

If the last few years have been focused on the “gratitude” component, could we focus this year on wholeheartedness and vulnerability?

Something else. Some of this boils down to “cultural norms.” When I was sixteen, my grandmother and I ventured to Mexico, where our tour guide promptly asked me to stop smiling at everyone. He said that the women didn’t like it and the men took it as an invitation. It was a hard habit to resist, and I’m glad I didn’t break it. Children have no such “cultural norms” to make them feel shamed or defensive, to add layers of complexity and nuance to their simple joy in living, and they are happier for it. Why do we break them, and ourselves, of that simplicity? Brown refers to vulnerability as necessary for “connectedness,” and in a world where the most technologically connected people are also some of the most isolated, this is important.

You do you. Get back in touch with your stifled self, your unbridled and innocent eight-color emotions. Be wholehearted. You are enough.


Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; Innocents & Demons; and A New Leaf for Lyle. You can find her books on Amazon at http://amazon.com/author/hollyjahangiri. For more information on her children's books, please visit http://jahangiri.us/books.
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14 thoughts on “Feelings”

  1. Thank you, I love Rene Brown’s Ted talk. And your message “you are enough”. Need to hear that forever!

  2. I love the idea of going back to how we were when we were kids! I’m a super emotional person so I’m always feeling LOTS but I’ve learned not to express it much now that I’m older. Having kids and dogs tho have helped to stay true to myself

    1. Isn’t that sad, that we “learn not to express it much” as we get older? Sure, there’s a point to learning to control our tempers – at least to controlling the BEHAVIORS that our tempers might provoke. We can’t run around, as adults, smacking every jackass in the mouth or even sticking out our tongues at them. But the way we stifle positive feelings is just tragic. Brene Brown suggests that we can’t stifle emotions selectively. I wonder if we can stifle bad behavior selectively, and express negative feelings through words without violence towards others. (Ever notice how it’s easier to say “emotions” than “feelings”? Is it just me, or is that because “feelings” is a word that brings to mind their very vulnerability and ability to be hurt, in ways “emotions” doesn’t?
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…Slow BloggingMy Profile

  3. Well, this is a fresh perspective (see what I did there? lol). I remember being taught to try to control my emotions, but it was mainly because I had kind of a quick temper, which sometimes didn’t serve me all that well. I also had a pretty good smile from what I was told and that worked a lot better.

    As I get older I get either a bit more withdrawn or fly off the handle quicker. I notice things go better in “real life” because either I walk around fairly impassive or with this big smile on my face because I’m laughing at something internally and know that if I start laughing out loud in public someone’s going to call the wagon to have someone come take me away to the funny farm where life is beautiful all the time and I’ll be happy to see those nice young men in their clean white coats… wait, I think I just went off topic 🙂
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    1. I do see! 🙂

      I think that we tell kids wrongly to “control their emotions” when what we really want them to control is their behavior when they have emotions. It’s fine to say, “I am furious, and I don’t even want to look at you right now,” so long as you don’t hit or shoot or stab the other person, or go out for revenge against them. And I wonder, if more kids were allowed to express strong emotions – even negative ones – in healthier ways, if they’d even feel the need. You know, take a kid with anger issues and teach him to box. Talk to him about personal values, integrity, and rising above petty nonsense while he hits the bag. Because you’re right – a QUICK temper, especially if you lose control of your actions, may not serve you well at all. Then you’re only hurting YOU – not the other guy – anyway. Or maybe both of you, and it’s probably too high a price to pay, in hindsight.

      You sound like my son with that “laughing at something internally.” I keep telling him he’s got to not laugh out loud at random times, or he’s got to at least try to share what it is he’s laughing about so those nice young men in their clean white coats to come to take him awaaaaaaaaaay. Ha ha.

      🙂 Now sing it backwards.

      1. It’s fine to say “I am furious, and I don’t even want to look at you right now” as long as you’re not saying it to the wrong person. The thing is we still have to interact with others, and we can’t control how they’ll react to what we say and do. I think that’s a part of why we’re told to temper ourselves, for safety purposes.
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