This is the sixth post in our Thanksgiving Family Survival Guide series.
by Seth Eisenberg
As you prepare to welcome family and friends to your home for Thanksgiving, you want to be in the best frame of mind to celebrate. It can be difficult to be aware of the good things in your life when you’re holding onto anger, sadness, fear or frustration. No matter how much you may want to follow the rules that tell you to count your blessings, if you don’t have anything good to say don’t say anything at all, and not rock the boat with your own problems, negative emotions held in can smother feelings of love and happiness. After a while, those negative feelings may leak out through sarcasm, ridiculing, blaming, assuming, distancing, and a range of other behaviors that push loved ones away.
Eventually, negative feelings held in tend to either implode or explode. When they implode, you may feel sad or even depressed. Many people make destructive decisions about how to cover up or mask those feelings that end up making things even worse. At the extreme, holding strong negative emotions inside can lead people to hurt themselves. For others, negative feelings held in explode outwardly, most often towards the people they care about most. That can look like anger, a short fuse searching for any excuse to go off, and at another extreme, violence.
Being angry, sad or scared as a result of the events you experience is perfectly normal. Being fully alive and aware of events taking place near and far may bring many reasons to feel angry, sad or frightened. As couples discover in leading marriage education and relationship skills training programs, having those feelings doesn’t have to be destructive to you or the people you love. The challenge is to have a constructive way to release the energy of those feelings to make room for a sense of relief and joy. Being able to do that with a close friend or family member is one of the greatest gifts you can share with each other, both as the one talking and the one listening.
If you notice you’re feeling distant from yourself or others, invite a trusted friend or family member to listen to you as you Empty your Emotional Jug. Done correctly, this exercise will help you make room to take in lots of good feelings while providing wonderful relief from any negative emotions you were holding onto.
What often keeps people from sharing feelings with others is concern about how others will react. With the best of intentions, confiding often leads others to judge, criticize, deny, disqualify, or try to fix things. For this exercise, the listener’s role is to listen with empathy, meaning imagining what it’s like to be in your shoes, and to show appreciation as you confide your feelings. Confiding is the lifeblood of intimacy. Being willing to trust another person with your feelings is a sign that they’re important to you.
Once you’re sitting together privately and free of distractions with 20 – 30 minutes for this exercise, you can take hands. The Listener will ask the questions. As the Speaker, your job is to look into your gut where you keep your feelings, as if going there with a search light, and answering the questions the Listener asks. Don’t think too much about what you’re going to say. It doesn’t have to make sense or convince someone. It’s simply an opportunity to become aware of what’s inside and express it to make room for good feelings.
Especially the first few times you do this exercise, if you have feelings of anger, sadness or fear that are about the Listener, do not include them. The Listener is learning to listen with empathy while you’re becoming comfortable expressing the range of feelings you have inside. At the beginning, it can be difficult to listen with empathy when the issues confided are about the Listener personally. It’s important that the Listener knows before you begin that no matter what you share during the exercise, the Listener is not going to ask questions, comment on the issues, tell you the same thing happened to a neighbor down the street, or offer solutions. For this exercise, the Listener’s role is to listen with empathy, show appreciation for your willingness to confide, and continue to ask the questions until the exercise is complete.
When you’re ready, the Listener begins by asking, “What are you mad about?” After you’ve shared whatever you find in your gut that you’re mad about and expressed it in words, the Listener shows a sign of appreciation (by saying “thank you,” gently squeezing your hand, or maybe a hug) and then asks, “What else are you mad about?” Again, you share, the Listener listens with empathy, and shows appreciation, and then continues with, “What else are you mad about?” You may continue as long as it takes to express everything you’re mad about. As you do, the listener keeps listening and appreciating you for sharing. When you’ve said everything that’s there, the Listener asks, “If you were mad about anything else, what would it be?”
Once you’re done with feelings connected to anger, you move on to what may be causing sadness with the Listener asking, “What are you sad about?” Search your gut for anything and everything connected to sadness. Remember, emotions have no sense of time. What may have caused sadness months or years ago can be just as present now. The Listener listens with empathy, shows appreciation, and continues with, “What else are you sad about?” Always listening with empathy, showing appreciation, and continuing until you’ve expressed everything in your gut connected to sadness. When you’re all done, the Listener asks, “If you were sad about anything else, what would it be?”
Next is to move onto feelings of fear with the Listener asking, “What are you scared about?” Share whatever is there as the Listener listens with empathy, shows appreciation, and continues asking, “What else are you scared about?” When you’ve expressed everything you can find connected to sadness, the Listener asks, “If you were scared about anything else, what would it be?”
The last step is to share what you’re glad about. You’ll quickly discover that having released pent up feelings connected to anger, sadness and fear, you’re much more in touch with positive feelings. The Listener asks, “What are you glad about?” As with the previous steps, the Listener continues to listen, show appreciation, and ask, “What else are you glad about?” After you’ve shared as much as you want connected to feelings of joy, happiness or gratitude, the Listener asks, “Is there anything else you’re glad about that you’d like to share?”
End the exercise with a meaningful sign of appreciation towards each other for the experience you’ve shared. A long hug, warm hand shake, or generous words of acknowledgment.
The experience will leave you ready to fill your emotional jug with lots of good feelings and psyched up to embrace Thanksgiving’s opportunities for celebration and love.
Seth Eisenberg is President of the nonprofit PAIRS Foundation, an industry leader in relationship and marriage education.
Thanksgiving Family Survival Guide, Part One: Uninvited Guests
Thanksgiving Family Survival Guide, Part Two: Encouraging Connection
Thanksgiving Family Survival Guide, Part Three: Filling the Love Bank
Thanksgiving Family Survival Guide, Part Four: Getting Past Resentments
Thanksgiving Family Survival Guide, Part Five: Head of the Charles
National Healthy Marriage Resource Center
It Gets Better Begins with Listening