Emotion affirming families vs. emotion dismissing families

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Jessica Zeyl, Certified Canadian Counsellor

Once again this is Jessica, owner and therapist at Toronto Counselling Centre for Teens, writing this blog entry.  This blog entry is also posted to my private practice blog here.

John Gottman is a couples researcher and therapist trainer.  He writes a number of books that are popular and available online as well as at most book stores.  There are also a number of videos posted of him on youtube.  I like him.  I appreciate his quirky approach and his commitment to research.  In his early research days he used to get couples to fight and he hooked them up to a number of machines that would measure their movements, heart rate, etc.  Now he has a love lab in Seattle where there is an apartment that couples stay in and they are monitored for research.

There’s an important part of his research that I want to highlight today.  He looks at a variety of aspects of couples, what hinders them from relating and what helps them to relate.  One of the areas he looks into is their families of origin.

He (as well as others) have focused on two types of families: emotion affirming families and emotion dismissing families.

Let’s start with emotion dismissing families.  There is a range of qualities or behaviours that you might find in an emotion dismissing family.  These families believe that a person can decide or will what they will feel.  Action is favoured over self reflection.  You’ll hear phrases used like “suck it up”, “roll with the punches”, etc. in these families.  Having needs is usually bad.  Feeling or reflecting on sadness, anger or fear is a waste of time.  Children in these families become effective at compartmentalizing/suppressing emotion.  Parents are quick to correct behaviours and emotions.

Emotion affirming families, by contrast, tend to believe that emotions are a guide on how to manage life.  Emotions can’t be decided, they simply just exist and they contain information about a person and their situation.  Self reflection is encouraged and understanding emotion is the basis for action or making decisions.  They believe that all feelings are acceptable, but not all behaviour is acceptable.  In these families a variety of words are used to describe emotion.  Knowing one’s needs is considered a strength.  Parents are quick to praise positive behaviour.

Some families will fall under one of these two categories.  Some families will have some sort of blend of the two categories.

Which one is better?  The answer isn’t simple.  There are situations where it is helpful to favour action over self reflection and, of course, situations where the reverse is true.

In general, however, the research indicates that emotion affirming families (as opposed to emotion dismissing families) produce children that grow up to feel more secure in the world and are more likely to have satisfying relationships.

So both John Gottman and I are inclined to encourage families to be emotion affirming families.  For me, this is informed by my years of experience as a therapist.  I have worked with countless people who are quite effective at suppressing their emotions and it causes them a lot of problems.  In my opinion, people who suppress their emotions tend to either cut themselves or have high levels of depression and/or anxiety.  They also have little sense of how to trust their own intuition.  They can struggle in intimate relationships with having the language or understanding of how to talk about the relationship itself.

If possible, I like to end blog entries on a hopeful note.  This is because in every situation there is the possibility for some level of empowerment and positive change.  When thinking about the families we come from or the families we are parenting, the good news is that people from all types of families can heal, grow and adapt.

The descriptions of both types of families are paraphrased from Gottman’s chapter in the Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy Fourth Edition edited by Alan S. Gurman.