Reimagining Education: Emotional Hygiene is Not Emotional Sanitization

Emotional hygiene and health means the ability to recognize emotions and express them appropriately.

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©2021 Belinda Chiu
©2021 Belinda Chiu

“Feelings are just visitors; let them come and go.”
~ Mooji

Whether it’s a corporate executive or a third-grade teacher, I often hear “I need to be more emotionally intelligent to stay even-keeled at all times.” The impression about being emotionally intelligent often gets translated to mean one being Zen at all times such that one is never impacted by emotions, no matter the circumstances. A natural disaster destroy your house? Meh. A $1mm lottery ticket win? Meh. Not sure about you, but if the former happened, I’d be pretty stressed; and if the latter, you would definitely hear about it.

A few weeks ago, I caught up with a friend whom I hadn’t spoken with for many months. During this conversation, he kindly acknowledged the heightened attacks and civil unrest impacting different communities in different ways. In response to his opening the door to a conversation about a difficult topic than we ever had spoken about previously, I shared some of my honest thoughts. With curiosity and without judgement, he offered an observation, “you seem angrier than before.”

Was I angrier?

It took me a few moments to do a quick body scan to notice if I was indeed angrier. I realized that while I was episodically angrier – rage at particular “incidences” of recent hate crimes, I wasn’t broadly speaking, angrier. It took me a few more seconds to get curious about where his observation came from. I realized that as someone who teaches on emotional intelligence and wellbeing, he expected my response to be more “emotionally intelligent,” or rather, more devoid of raw or heightened emotion. As many do, the assumption is that emotional intelligence is expressed as nothing-can-shake-me calm.

This assumption can be harmful in teaching children (and adults) emotional health and hygiene. When children fall and scrape their knees, it is perfectly normal and even expected that the adults and other children will rush to them and comfort them, putting Neosporin and a Hello Kitty! Band-Aid over it. Yet when children express frustration or sadness or fear, we often hear adults and others telling them: “stop crying; grow up; calm now; just smile; stop complaining and be grateful for what you have.” We are taught at a young age to suppress emotions in a misinterpretation of what emotional regulation or emotional health actually mean. Parents often try to suppress their emotions in front of children in an effort to maintain peace.

However, emotional suppression actually leads to greater mental and physical harm. Children pick up what psychologists call “emotional residue” from their parents, and when their role models demonstrate suppressing emotions rather than expressing them – the positive and negative – in a healthy, regulated way, they end up confusing healthy emotional expression as wrong. On the contrary, emotional hygiene, intelligence, and regulation allows one to recognize and tap into what emotions they are experiencing – without identifying or attaching their self-worth to them – and to be able to appropriately and effectively express them in healthy and productive ways.

Yet the reality is as a society, we get uncomfortable with negative emotions that arise and want to pretend they don’t exist. In his 2014 TEDx talk, psychologist Guy Winch talks about how much we show favoritism of the body over the mind. We see open wounds on the skin, but we don’t often pay attention to the wounds on the mind and heart. In fact, we tend not to even know we are injured. Or if we do, we pretend they don’t exist. It’s only when something reminds us or triggers us that we realize there is a hurt, not unlike those pesky papercuts we don’t know about until we wash our hands with lemon soap. Ouch.

Attuning into the observation my friend made, I responded to him that it wasn’t that I was angrier, it was that I was not sanitizing the truth as much as I did before I knew he was ready to hear it. Because my friend was more willing to be attuned to what he observed and having the courage to express with curiosity, he opened the door for me to sanitize less my response. We didn’t hide from the discomfit of emotions and ended up having a rich and deep conversation. 

Emotional hygiene and health means the ability to recognize emotions and express them appropriately. As I have noted before, it does not mean pretending they don’t exist or trying to be devoid of any. Rather, it is about acknowledging and learning what emotions have to tell us to help us move towards more productive action and emotional, mental, and physical health.

So what might we do to support our children to be more emotionally healthy without sanitization?

  • Recognize reality

Hiding the truth or reality from children usually backfires. Children are great detectives who can sniff out a lie. It also strips them of the opportunity to learn failure and resilience, resulting in more fragile states of mind and being to navigate the inevitable challenges of life, as Nassim Taleb notes. As discussed previously, teaching children the tools to cultivate compassion helps them to face reality without pretending or avoiding. This enables them to embrace the positive times as well as times of conflict or disagreement with empathy and a desire to connect with others for growth. 

  • Release constructively

We all know at least one person (of course, not us) who may maintain calm in one setting, only to explode in another. For example, we might be the picture of diplomacy and decorum at the office, but once we walk into the front door at home, the inner rage that we’ve been suppressing all day explodes like a pressure cooker with a broken valve. Adults are not immune to this, and children are definitely not. Rather than forcing children to be devoid of emotional expression (anyone who has tried that with a two-year old knows how futile that is), it is important to encourage and teach the tools of healthy emotional expression and regulation. There is a delicate balance to being overly permissive of emotional outrage and allowing space for constructive emotional expression.

  • Rediscover agency

Allowing children to express healthy emotions appropriately gives them permission to own behaviors. They learn that they have more control than they may realize over how they choose to respond to situations, when and how to express what they are experiencing, and discover that they have personal agency. Research has offered insights into how critical self-efficacy is to a children’s development of identity, self-worth, and resilience for their entire lives.

Balancing calm mindfulness and emotional expression is not easy to do or teach in practice. As we continue to explore the how, the good news is there are some great resources out there for families, including from the Gottman Institute on age-appropriate emotional management tips. Modeling emotional hygiene – not emotional sanitization – helps adults and children to recognize how their emotions can support their understanding of themselves and the world. It can also strengthen their sense of personal agency and be an active conspirator of their own lives and positively contribute to those around them.

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