To me, some of the most ignorant, and potentially harmful, words are when one person says to another, “You shouldn’t feel that way.”
Oh, I believe the intentions may be pure, or even innocent, when someone says that. For example, a father may see that his daughter is throwing a temper tantrum. When he gets her to tell him what is the matter, it turns out that her favorite breakfast cereal is no longer being produced.
To the father, breakfast cereal may seem like a trivial matter—certainly nothing worth getting upset about. So, in trying to help his daughter, he says, “I’m sorry they are no longer making the cereal. But that’s not worth getting upset. You shouldn’t feel that way.”
You may be thinking, “I’m with the father on this one. He needs to teach his daughter not to throw a tantrum.”
If that’s your thought process, I don’t disagree. Tantrums aren’t good. But that’s not the point. You see, I categorize feelings and actions as two separate things—though they can be related.
In the case with the cereal, the father wants to teach his daughter not to throw tantrums. Logically, her tantrum is caused by her emotional reaction to something. Therefore, if he can change how she feels, then she won’t throw the tantrum.
That’s not a bad idea. However, it’s been my experience that humans don’t work that way. Based on our belief systems, our life events, our upbringing, and various other factors, we will have emotional reactions to things, and not always understand why.
Personally, I get rather upset when someone doubts my sincerity. I had a boss who questioned everything I did—and it nearly drove me nuts. However, just because I get upset doesn’t mean I then have a valid reason to throw a tantrum.
This is one of my favorite sayings: I can’t control how I will emotionally react to something, but I can control how I act on those feelings.
Based on this concept, when you tell someone, “You shouldn’t feel that way” what you are really doing is questioning him or her as a person and who he or she is. In other words, who are you to tell someone else how he or she should feel? You aren’t them. You haven’t experienced what they have experienced. How can you know what makes them tick when they may not be sure themselves?
Back to the story of the father and the daughter, a better way for the father to react is to address the daughter’s actions as being inappropriate. He should help teach her that she chooses how she acts—and that it is possible to not act on your feelings.
In addition, he can talk with her about why she felt that way about the cereal, without being judgmental about her feelings. He can work with her to understand her feelings so she can mature. In time, she may grow to understand what makes her feel certain ways, and what she can do to address her feelings on her terms.
Next time you feel like telling someone, “You shouldn’t feel that way,” think to yourself, “Why do I feel that he or she shouldn’t feel that way?”