Understanding Meta-Emotion

Posted on Feb 28, 2019

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw

“We don’t communicate,” is the #1 reason that couples seek help. Usually, each partner blames the other for not “getting it”. Blaming someone else for your own dissatisfaction is a roadblock in general.  However, when it comes to healthy communication, it is really important that you understand your own emotional needs.

There’s an essential part of communication that you’ve probably never heard of, but it makes a HUGE impact on your relationship:  META-EMOTION.

Meta-emotion is how you feel about having feelings.  Meta-emotion is rooted in your childhood experiences — how emotions were expressed and how people responded to your feelings.  Some grow up in a home where emotions (even negative feelings) are considered valid and important.  Others grow up in a more emotionally dismissive environment where emotions are seen as weakness.

Many communication problems are actually a mismatch in meta-emotion.

I’m working with a terrific couple now who are deeply in love, have shared values, and support each other’s goals and dreams.  You might be thinking, “Why are these people in relationship coaching?” — Because they have communication problems, of course!

Here’s the cycle that happens in their relationship:

Anne grew up in a home where negative emotions were not enjoyed, but expected and seen as normal.

Her husband, Chris, grew up with four brothers and a stoic father.  When they experienced negative feelings, they were told, “Boys don’t cry” and “get over it.”  Usually, the brothers physically tussled with each other to release their negativity.

Their mother, who was totally out-numbered and constantly marinating in testosterone, was called weak and crazy anytime she tried to express her feelings, even positive ones.

Chris loved that Anne was really ambitious and competitive. She had more male friends than female friends. This made him believe that she was not into all that “girl drama.” What he didn’t know was that during their early years, Anne would spill all her emotions out to her mother.  She didn’t want to expose her vulnerability to anyone else.

Now that they are married and have a child, Anne wants Chris to be the one to support her emotionally.  She believes it is an essential component of being a good husband and co-parent.

Whenever they have a conflict, Chris is immediately turned off by Anne, and he shuts down.  Because she isn’t being heard, Anne keeps talking and talking trying to make Chris understand.  Eventually, they both become flooded and get into nasty arguments. They say horrible things that they don’t necessarily mean but can’t take back.

This is where I come in — teaching about meta-emotions, explaining their mismatch and coaching them to create a new way of communicating so that both feel their needs are met.  Chris has learned his own early signs of being overwhelmed by Anne’s negative feelings and how to ask for a break.  Anne has learned to trust that Chris will come back to the conversation, and she will be heard when he is calm enough to really listen to her and can process what she is trying to communicate.  Anne has also learned to tell Chris at the onset of the conversation what support she would like from him — validation, a shoulder to cry on, or his input about the situation.

Does Chris still think that Anne is too emotional? Yes. Does Anne still think that Chris is “like a robot without feelings?” Sometimes.

The key to their progress is an understanding and acceptance of the mismatch while learning and practicing new skills to keep their connection strong.

If you feel that your relationship could benefit from this type of guidance, I encourage you to reach out. Let’s schedule a Clarity Call and start to get to the root of the issue – together!