Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Meta-Emotion: How we feel about feelings, and how it can affect our writing

Think about the last time you were in the presence of someone close to you who was experiencing a negative emotion. Anger. Fear. Sadness. Maybe this person was mad at you. Or maybe he had just received some really bad news. Maybe she was crying. Or yelling. Or hyperventilating. Or quietly seething.

Picture it. What did the person look like? Red face? Shaking hands? Furrowed brow? Head in hands? Piercing stare? Slumped shoulders?

What was she doing? Pacing? Weeping? Sighing? Flinching?

And now ... what was your FIRST impulse in responding to this person? Did you want to comfort? Appease? Stifle? Chastise? Did you want to grab him by the shoulders and shake him until he got ahold of himself? Cover your ears? Get away as quickly as you could? Embrace the person until the bad feelings were squeezed right out of her? Protect him from ever feeling that way again?

Got it in mind?

Now, whatever your response, it tells you something about how you feel about those feelings. We all have emotions, but we don't necessarily feel good about all of them, right? How we feel and respond to emotion has to do with how we're raised. Every day, every moment, parents socialize young children about how to express, think about, and regulate their emotions. That's just one of the many parts of becoming a human being who can function successfully in society--whichever society that might be.

Some of us were raised to suppress our emotions. To ignore our own feelings or stifle them. To distract ourselves until a feeling fades away, because they always do. The people who taught us that probably believed sadness was weak. That anger was scary. That bad feelings were uncontrollable and harmful. They might have dismissed a child's emotions just because he was a child, or maybe even punished emotion displays like tantrums or crying.

Some of us were raised to express our emotions to the fullest. To show the world how we were feeling, with no apologies, no regrets, because feelings are true, and whatever you do with them is okay. The people who taught us that may also have believed that feelings were uncontrollable, and that trying to control them is pointless. They may also have been reacting to how they were raised--possibly by parents who believed in suppression of emotion. They might have comforted a distressed child and empathized deeply. However, they probably didn't place a lot of limits on behavior and may have done a lot of appeasing.

Some of us were raised to feel our feelings but control our behavior. The people who taught us that likely believed feelings are natural and adaptive. That they are healthy signals and necessary for relationships. That feelings are just part of life and help us decide how we're going to solve difficult problems. These parents would have set limits on a child's angry behavior (hitting is not okay) but empathized with the feeling (it's natural to feel angry when someone snatches your toy). And then they would have helped problem-solve about how to feel better.

How were you raised? What were you taught? How does it affect you today, both in terms of your own feelings and in how you respond to others'?

AND--do you think that affects your writing? When you have a character who is going through something, how do you approach it as a writer in terms of:
  1. the behaviors the character exhibits (is the emotion display WAY heightened, or is it buttoned-down? Does that fit the character and the situation? Are you pulling your punches for fear your reader will hate the character or think she's weak or mean? Are you revving it up to make sure the emotion is clear?)
  2. how others react to those behaviors (are they instantly comforting? Distressed? Dysregulated and disorganized? Rejecting and censuring?)
  3. how you as the author resolve the situation (is the character left to feel that feeling, or must it be dealt with and dissipated by the end of the scene?)
  4. how you as the author feel about that character and the resolution (do you worry your characters will look weak? Do you protect them from bad feelings? Do you wallow happily in those feelings?)

I think it's possible that, if you consider these questions, you might notice some things about yourself as a person--and as a writer.

Of course, we have to keep in mind that our readers have their own feelings about feelings. My most trusted beta-reader once told me that heroes shouldn't cry, EVER. Because if they did, that meant they were weak. So, there you go. Some of my readers will feel that way, too. And how I deal with that knowledge depends on my own feelings about those feelings, and how I feel about my feelings about feelings. Oh, and what my agent says in her revision letter.


Your turn. Do you ever think about this stuff? Have I made your head hurt? Do you think your own emotion socialization as a child has affected how you behave today, and how/what you write?

Go check out Laura's blog for this month's round of Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog, in which she answers the question: "I have a genre-crush on _______ (in other words, what genre or category of writing do you like and wish you could tackle, and why haven't you done it yet)." My answer will be up here in a few weeks.


  1. I guess my case would be the third. We were definitely taught that feelings were natural and sometimes uncontrolable- but not always. Like 'you only fall in love if you allow yourself to fall in love' debate. And we were definitely taught to control our behavior.

  2. Wow, too many questions that I want to answer!

    How were you raised?
    Third option.

    What were you taught? How does it affect you today, both in terms of your own feelings and in how you respond to others'?
    I think for some reason I bottle up too much until it explodes. Which is quite extreme considering the way I was brought up was pretty emotionally balanced most of the time.

    AND--do you think that affects your writing?
    Definitely. A lot of my characters bottle up their emotions and learn how to express themselves better.

    Do you ever think about this stuff?

    Have I made your head hurt?
    Yes, but in a good way :o)

    Do you think your own emotion socialization as a child has affected how you behave today, and how/what you write?
    Yes. Completely. And it's even made me more aware of how I behave which has resulted in me trying to fix some things I don't like about my behavior too.

    Great post!

  3. Definitely the third. Feeling the full range of emotions was fine, expected (my Dad had his Masters in psychology, btw) and encouraged; but the expectation was that we would control our emotions appropriately. Feel them, but don't let them overtake the situation.

    Does it affect my writing? I guess it must, though I've never considered that before. As usual, you've given me something to think about.

  4. The thing about emotions is that if you don't express them yourself, in a responsible manner, they will find a way to express themselves, usually in an irresponsible way.

    I try to live this way and teach my children to do the same. Anger, hurt, resentment, guilt, sadness, they're all okay. There is nothing wrong with having feelings, it's how we express them that matters.

    However, that's incredibly boring when it comes to writing and storytelling. The more dysfunction the better, I usually say.

  5. I do think about this stuff when I write. It's part of characterization. :D

    When I received some really tough feedback last year, I had a melt down. But it was weird. Part of me was analyzing said melt down (you know, like how it felt) and cataloguing it. Then I snapped right out of it. Man, I'm such a writer/researcher! Now I do that all the time: step out of my body to analyze what I'm feeling at the time. (Hmmm. Maybe I need therapy!)

  6. Hmmm. Very interesting. I was never encouraged to show too much feeling. I was told to "calm down" and "stop that." Which only meant that I showed it on my face while saying nothing -- and that became an ingrained habit that I haven't been able to break even today. I can't hide a damn thing on my face.

    Now that I'm in a safe, loving marriage, I am free to let loose with what I'm feeling -- which almost always leads to me feeling better right away. If my husband can hunker down and withstand the storm, he knows it will be over in 10 minutes.

    Now that you've brought it up -- as I think about my main characters -- they generally fall into those 2 categories: the ones who hide their emotions (badly) and the ones who storm it all out and get over it. Wow -- never realized that before!

  7. Definitely #1. I don't think I realized this affected my writing until a crit partner went through a WIP of mine and kept writing "what is she feeling here?" on every page. Now, when I write a scene, I have to force myself to express the MC's feelings even if it makes me annoyed with her!

  8. I tend to suppress my emotions, and force my characters to, too. It's a battle to get them to react differently. Now that I see WHY, I think it will be easier. Thanks!

  9. Excellent post! Makes me REALLY think about all the emotions I write about and the ones I struggle with (like um, saying I'm sorry--true story).

    Now some clarification *evil giggle* I didn't say they shouldn't EVER cry. I said big, strong, masculine ones (who are portrayed as such) shouldn't have a break in character and break-down like a 5-year-old. Now, if you have a more sensitive hero (um, Seth comes to mind), then crying would be fitting for him.

    The super alpha hero? NO
    A beta hero? Sure. Why not?

    There's a difference!! Well, I think so, anyway. LoL.

    Good post!


  10. I was raised to speak my mind, but my husband was raised to suppress his emotions. You can imagine this causes some problems. But I believe in being honest and sincere (and to express how I feel), and generally, my characters are the same. I just can't seem to write someone who's afraid to share what they think. I wish I could! Maybe I should get some tips from my hubby. LOL!

  11. It's important to let our characters react the way THEY would based on their backgrounds and not force our own feelings/actions on them. It's tough sometimes, but it makes for much better writing.

  12. I'm in the same boat as E.R. King. My husband was raised to suppress his emotions - except anger. And so every emotion he has is channeled into anger. He thinks that crying, for example, is stupid and obnoxious because it doesn't help fix the situation (he claims that expressing his anger helps him get over his emotions quickly so he can think of a solution to the problem).

    Like Lisa said, we need to have a mixture of characters in our writing.

  13. When I think about how I was raised, my parents at least attempted to teach the 3rd option, but it seems I turned more like the 1st option (suppressing emotions). I have had someone in my critique group write "What is this character feeling?" on my pages, but only a couple times...

  14. Definitely #1. The parents' anger doubled (er, well, doubles) if I ever cried (cry) or looked (look) like I was (am) going to. *rolleyes*

    But that hasn't translated to my writing at all, strangely. My characters are overemotional little SOBs. :P Hey, maybe I'm compensating for something...?

  15. ooo... very cool questions. My reaction to displays of emotion depend on who it is making the display! Isn't that even MORE interesting? Like if it's my mom, I get extremely uncomfortable. Like throat-closey. But I don't immediately feel the need to comfort. I hang back. If it's hubs, I chastise--but he tends to be a blow-upper, so sometimes his outbursts are a bit inappropriate...

    It's funny though, b/c w/our daughters, I'm more "get a grip"-ish, while hubs is extremely "feel your feelings." I'm now hoping we strike a good balance! LOL!

    As for my writing, I'm the total actress. It depends on the scene and the character and what he/she is like. But I LOVE this exercise. Excellent post~ <3

  16. So interesting!!! :D

  17. You are so good w/pointing out things I don't consciously consider but should. Thank you for this excellent post! I think I often try to put myself in my character's head and react like they would, but sometimes their emotions and mine get intertwined. Great thing to keep in mind.

  18. So much of my emotional wiring can be found in how my characters tick. Maybe too much!

  19. Wow, thought provoking! As a mediator, I've learned to be deeply comfortable with the emotions of others -- I think you need to be authentic in that comfort, or at some level they'll know you're wishing they'd stop it. It's been an interesting journey, though!