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What is Emotional Hygiene?

March 11, 2010

Emotional hygiene is an idea I developed about seven years ago (the phrase is not original to me, though) when I was dealing with depression and one of my best friends was dealing with anxiety. As it turns out, the two states aren’t very compatible!

My friend and I had been very close and emotionally in sync for many years, and we were very used to sharing emotions with each other. It’s nice, and I’d say you can’t have working relationships without the ability to share emotions. However, I became aware that it wasn’t healthy to share my depressed mood with my friend, because it resulted in too much anxiety. My friend would ask worriedly, “Oh no! How awful! What should I do? Are you suicidal? Do you feel like hurting yourself?” And inside, I thought, “Well, not until you mentioned it. Calm down!” Eventually, I became careful not to let any depressed affect or nuance show when my friend was around. It helped my friend maintain composure and focus.

Picture of cats in bat countryThat was great for my friend’s emotional health, but my friend didn’t realize that constantly sharing anxieties, worries, plans, schemes, and trepidations was very upsetting to me. I tend not to worry. I don’t like to be jacked up and anxious all the time, but my friend’s behavior was sort of all about that. I found myself becoming less and less willing to go out or make the swashbuckling moves that were natural for me, because there was always this anxious chatter around me. I became isolated, and I pretty much lost some faith in myself and the world because I was spending too much time listening to all my friend’s anxieties about everything. Of course, this made my depression much, much worse.

One day, I finally realized that my friend had terrible emotional hygiene around anxiety, because every bit of worry and anxiety emanated outward … undigested and unconsidered. And because we were always close, I picked up all that emotional shrapnel and tried to do something with it. But I was depressed and not firing on all cylinders, and since the anxiety wasn’t being managed properly, I really couldn’t work with it. It was a mess.

I told my friend about how hard I was working on my own emotional hygiene — to keep my depression to myself — and I asked my friend to please consider that anxiety and worry were not good things to share. It changed the relationship for the better, and we’re doing very well now, because we have this concept of emotional hygiene to fall back on.

Now that my depression has relieved, I use this concept to make psychological separations between myself and other people’s poorly-managed emotions. It’s nice to have good emotional hygiene when other people are behaving clumsily with their emotions. It’s nice to be able to watch people throw their emotions around and not feel like I have to do something about it!

Is there an emotion that knocks you sideways when other people express it habitually? If you’re not depressed (depression can make empathic work difficult), see if you can create a felt-sense of separation between yourself and the emotionally clumsy people in your life.

In my upcoming book and audio learning set, The Language of Emotions, I teach specific skills for setting psychological boundaries so you can have some privacy in the often noisy emotional world that surrounds us.

If you’ve got a relationship that’s close and secure, but a little emotionally unhygienic, you can borrow the phrase emotional hygiene and perhaps help move your relationship to a cleaner place! It can be really fun and healing to share emotions; however, you have to be conscious about it!

8 Comments

Mj March 11, 2010 at 11:31 am

Thank you for words of wisdom, I have been reading and listing to your work for over 5 years now and have grown considerably as a result. Your life experience has brought out in you a great gift of teaching. As a fellow Empath, I greatly appreciate the wisdom in your words.

Karla March 17, 2010 at 7:58 pm

Thanks MJ! We empaths have to stick together. Not too close, of course, or we’ll start picking up on each other’s secrets. Hah!

Helene March 20, 2010 at 6:39 pm

I just purchased and received The Language of Emotions CD set from Sounds True. I have only had time to listen to the first disc in the set but I wanted to tell you that I deeply resonate with the language you use to convey the complexity of being an empath on the first disc. When I purchased the CD set I did not realize that you were going to publish a book that went along with the set. I now plan on purchasing the book as soon as it comes out but was wondering if I would be missing any information that would be provided by purchasing the book and CD together? By the way, the reason I have only finished the first disc in the set was because I HAD to find your website immediately after I finished listening to the first disc and here I am. Needless to say, I was quite moved by the clarity and beauty of the language that you use to express your ideas and understanding regarding emotions. I look forward to receiving the book that is to be released in the near future!

Karla March 22, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Thanks Helene,

I’m so glad you’re enjoying the CD set. It was fun to make, and to create for the ear. The book is longer and more detailed, of course, because I had the room on paper that you don’t always have in the learning sets. But with the audio set, you get the chance to do the empathic exercises in a step-by-step way, with someone keeping you company!

I hope you enjoy the rest of the CDs!

Thanks for checking in,
Karla

Pat June 24, 2014 at 10:49 pm

I am particularly interested working with my boundry. I know I have very weak anger skills. Only those closest to me ever really see me present anger, and it usually way unregulated.In regular phone coonversations I often take the stance of a real bully,sounding fearless, very dismissive, judgmental and opinionated.It’s like I only do this with those that will let me get away with it, those who actually love me!.(Sister, husband, mother) Later, I will feel shame for that, knowing that I did not really communicate, all I did was talk at them, over them. (I do recognize this habit in other members of my family)
For everyone else in life, I seemed to have developed a kind of phoney- type persona, overly friendly, overly enthusiastic, overly agreeable, like I am acting a part. It disturbs me, because I know it is not authentic.I usually feel so afraid behind it, so desperate.The acting takes so much out of me. Afterward, I go over the experience, trying to see if I said anything wrong, anything that would have been misunderstood or unpleasing.I often avoid people altogether if I can these days. I feel trapped in this familiar habit. As I begin a conversation, I feel as if I leave my self, and start “being” someone else.Ultimately ungrounded as a person. What do you think of this? Am I using this communication habit as a type of boundry mechanism?

Karla June 25, 2014 at 1:16 pm

Hello Pat! That’s some very nice awareness of your anger behaviors — and they’re not unusual, I have to say. Especially for women, anger isn’t taught at all well, and we wind up with lots of anger problems simply because we haven’t learned what anger is or how to work with it.

One thing I’ve been looking at for the past few years is that when people attack or attempt to manipulate others in a supposedly angry way, they’re not actually using anger primarily — they’re using panic! Panic is the emotion that has the fight, flee, or freeze behaviors, while anger, when it’s healthy, simply maintains and sets boundaries. For everyone.

So if what you identify as anger is breaking the boundaries of other people in a fighty or overbearing way, that’s actually anger acting in service to panic. The bullying phone behavior is fighting, and the over-agreeableness is fleeing or freezing. Both of these panic-based behaviors DO set boundaries in a way, but not in a way that makes your anger or its friend shame very happy.

The most important thing to do to get your anger to start working in its own way, and not in service to panic, is to develop self-soothing skills so that challenges to your self-image (which is anger’s area of expertise) don’t feel like challenges to your actual physical life (which is panic’s area of expertise). It’s a retraining and down-regulating process. And it can take practice, because panic is a very powerful emotion that takes over and makes decisions. Thank you panic! That’s awesome when you need to save your life!

But anger, when it’s healthy and acting appropriately, will give you the strength you need to be vulnerable, and it will give you the time you need to decide clear-mindedly about what you want to say or do.

I want to say again that this fight/flee/freeze behavior around anger is everywhere. It’s not a specific problem with you, though it’s awesome that you’ve identified your behavior so clearly, and that your shame is trying to help you become more aware of it. That’s magnificent; brava! Here’s a piece about channeling anger in an anger-supporting and shame-resourced way.

Some of the best work I’ve seen on taking fight behaviors out of communication is by Sharon Ellison, and her book is called Taking the War Out of Our Words. Her site is here, and she’s got lots of examples so that you can see what she’s doing. Here are some teaching stories, and here are some audio clips.

Pat August 5, 2014 at 11:48 pm

Karla, I am finally able to get back to you regarding your very accurate and informative response. I did go ahead and get the book you suggested, which is amazing. I know that in time, I can begin to incorporate those skills and that awareness in my life.However, it seems that before I even get to examining/altering my communication style, (which I really will need to do) I need to resolve something deeper, something that I am certain is an emotional “difficulty”.

Here is an example. I decided to spend time with a close sibling the other day. I felt a need to share some time, enjoy. All intentions seemed to be sound. Yet, I noticed right away a familiar resistant feeling arise within me, almost immediately. It happens every time I am with this person. I quickly seem to become guarded or something. I begin to experience this bristling. I begin to react to comments, to any spoken word, really. Feeling “that thing seems to make me behave, answer, comment, in really mean ways, superior, bully-type, cocky, know it all. I remind myself of a nasty teenager. The content of the conversation was not adversarial, just her talking about how she thinks and feels. And, deep within this “resistance”, I sort of spent the time judging, correcting, opining.

My responses become impatient and clipped. I begin to sound “superior”, tell her what to do, what not to do. Everything she said, I wanted to cut it down, or stop it on some level, or even worst, best it. I then get the feeling that I just want to escape it all. Later, I feel shame, and very alone. I often try to make amends, to be nice to sort of make up for it. But in my heart I seem to feel a terrible loss. In your last response, you wisely pointed out that what I call anger may very well be panic. What I can not understand yet is what creates a panic within me (which is what I now understand is a fear of visceral danger) in me as I sit with those I am closest with, my sibling, or my mother, or at times my husband?

I know you say that the emotions are always true, but not always right. Can it be that I am on some level threatened by those who love me? Am I trying to retrieve some kind of power, importance, or status or something? (a bit funny that I am still asking other people “Why do I do that?) Since I do such a phoney, people-pleaser thing with those less close to me, I can see that I must live and breathe in sort of a panic state with everyone! So far, I am unable to catch myself in the moment as these feelings come over me. I think I am very good at self observation, but my self awareness seems just not to operate in the moment. Does any of this make sense? Sorry for the way this response is so rambling. Would love to hear from you about this. Best Regards,

Karla August 6, 2014 at 9:46 am

Hello Pat — excellent, excellent awareness and tracking of the behavior that troubles you. And no, you’re not alone in having your anger connected to panic. Not at all!

I was talking to by friend Nick, who’s an aikido sensei, about how he teaches people to respond to actual situations of physical harm — which is where panic should arise in an untrained person. I thought that the training would specifically help people down-regulate panic so that they could respond with calmness, grace, and grounding. And that’s what happens in aikido — people aren’t getting ramped up into panic and lashing out at each other, or intentionally hurting each other for no reason. It’s a wonderful art that teaches people to blend violence and self-protection with awareness and honor.

But let’s face it, almost no one is taught how to do that out in the regular world. We’re left alone to deal with anger and panic in whatever way we can cobble together, and it’s usually a mess. But you’re at the change point with yours — you can see it and track it. What I would suggest is finding an ally with whom you can stop yourself in the process and say: “Oh, I’m starting to lash out, and I don’t want to do that any more.” And then track back to the place where the conversation went sideways, and see what the stimulus was. What was the specific sentence or thought that brought the behavior forward? When did you shift from being in a conversation to being in a conflict? When did you stop listening for content and start listening for ammunition?

This seems to be an ingrained pattern and it seems as if it’s happening without your conscious intent. So it’s got a purpose — but it’s not working for you any longer. It might help you to track the behavior back to when it started, if you can. What purpose did it have in the beginning? Did it protect you from harm? It has probably kept people away from you, and that might have been enough of a support to keep you feeling safe. But it sounds as if you’re not needing the behavior any longer.

My suggestion would be to thank the panic and the behavior for what it was trying to do, and let it know that you’re moving forward. Remember that anger, honorably held, is power within yourself, and not power over others. Anger’s power helps you be vulnerable — but when panic gets involved, people tend to tell themselves that vulnerability equals death. It doesn’t, but it sort of does — in that being truly vulnerable in the midst of a conflict means that you’ll be confronted with change, with challenging an old behavior or an old way of being, with feeling healthy shame and changing a behavior that isn’t working any more (or that doesn’t mesh with your current moral code), and with moving forward into new behaviors and new relationship styles. That’s exciting, and it’s challenging. It’s something that requires all of your emotions working together — and you’ll need an ally to help you become aware of the behavior, and to change it in the moment.

This could also be something that you can work through in therapy if you don’t have any allies in your family yet. But as shame will probably tell you, you’ll need to bring this behavior out into the open and make amends as you work to help your anger and panic learn new ways to engage with people close to you.

Whew! Good realizations!

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