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'Upset' is Not an Emotional State

Posted Apr 14 2009 11:39pm

Conventional wisdom in the shrink world tells us that mental health improves when we're more 'in touch' with our emotions. In other words, the more specifically you can understand and articulate your psychological state, the better your quality of life will be. This premise isn't about just being an emotional giant nor is it some touchy-feely exercise. It actually has practical implications as well.

Given that women are stereotypically associated with being more 'emotional,' let's consider an example with a man to demonstrate the universality of emotion recognition. Years ago I had a client in his late 30's, a man I'll call Jeff, who was well-educated and financially stable. He had three children and had been married for about 10 years. While his marriage would be considered good by many, he and his wife would often engage in unproductive arguments. Jeff would ultimately perceive his wife as not understanding him and she would view him as unable to be placated. They were both correct.

When Jeff would recount the exchanges with his spouse it quickly became apparent what was wrong.

"When she wasn't home within an hour of when she said she would be, I got upset. She apologized for being late but I kept pushing her not to do it again. She got annoyed because she said it ultimately wasn't a big deal and that she didn't know what to say to help calm me down."

"Let's go back to one of the first things you said. What does that term mean, 'upset'?"

"I don't know if I understand what you're asking."

"The word 'upset' is kind of a basket term for emotions. It doesn't really tell us anything other than something doesn't feel right. It's like 'uncomfortable' or 'distressed.' We use them socially without a problem but they are basically empty words. They don't describe what you were feeling when she didn't come home."

"So what did I feel?" he asked.

"I'm not sure, but many options come to mind. If you perceived her lateness as a sign of disrespect you might feel angry. If you thought she might be late because she was with another man you might feel jealous. If you thought her to be in danger or have gotten hurt you could feel anxious. There are probably many more possibilities as well."

"I think I felt anxious."

"That's a good start. How did you decide that? You should she was hurt, like in a car accident or something?"

"No, I thought she might leave me."

"Why would she leave you?" I asked.

"Rationally I don't think she would. But years ago when the relationship was still young we had a huge fight and she had threatened to break up with me. She didn't contact me for a few days and I had no idea where she was or what our status was. I was completely lost and afraid."

"So when she didn't come home it reminded of you that time when you thought you might lose her? Was the feeling then the same as now?"


"Now you're getting somewhere. This wasn't just some vague emotional freak-out. At some level you were afraid she had left, that she was gone. You see now why it's important to be more specific about your psychological state?"

"So my wife can reassure me that she's not leaving?"

"Possibly. I'm guessing that she doesn't know how to console you because she doesn't know what you really need help with. If she knows that this is about prior feelings of abandonment she is in a position to reiterate that isn't an issue now, should she choose to. But even if she doesn't go that route I suspect you'll feel better simply because you'll feel more understood."

"I actually feel a little better having articulated it here."


"Have you ever considered bringing this stuff to TV?" Jeff asked. "This would fly incredibly well with housewives and guys who need to get in touch with their girly side."

"I'll...keep that in mind the next time Oprah calls."

Since I'm not slated to be on The View anytime soon, keep this post in mind the next time you get 'upset.' I can't guarantee it will improve your relationship but at least you'll be more girly. And who wouldn't want that?

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