Where’s Your “Emotion License”?

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As anyone who has been to San Francisco knows, if you walk around the city for a while, you’re sure to meet some colorful characters. I met one such person the other day in a park. I guess I was smiling, because she approached me and yelled, "Stop! You’re under arrest for smiling without a license." And she laughed and ran off.

On one level, what she said was just amusing. I don’t need a "license" to smile, or to feel or express any emotion. On a deeper level, however, her words contained profound insights into the way we experience and manage our feelings.

When we tell someone we’re feeling a certain way, their typical response – if they care how we’re doing – is to ask "about what?" In other words, people ask for the reason we’re having the emotion. If we say we don’t know, or that we don’t have a rational explanation, they’ll probably be concerned. They’ll worry that we’re drunk or high on some drug, or perhaps even that we’re mentally ill.

We tend to take the same attitude toward ourselves when we experience an emotion we can’t explain. We shame ourselves for having the feeling, calling ourselves irrational and childish. "Come on, there’s no reason to feel bad," we tell ourselves when sadness or anger inexplicably arises. Or, if we’re feeling "too good," we’ll criticize ourselves for being "unrealistic" or "pollyannaish" about the state of our lives.

How did we develop this need to "justify" our emotions to ourselves and others? We didn’t have this need in our early childhoods. We would feel spontaneously joyful, sad or angry, and we wouldn’t suppress those feelings simply because we couldn’t explain them.

Perhaps our need to rationalize our emotions stems from the way our parents disciplined us as children. When they didn’t like the way we expressed our emotions, they’d demand an explanation for why we were acting the way we were. "Why are you being so loud?" they’d ask. "Why are you bouncing off the walls like that?" "Why are you going so crazy?" And so on.

When our parents made this sort of request, they didn’t actually want us to explain why we had the emotions we did. They were upset about the way we were expressing our emotions, not our lack of justification for feeling them. Demanding an explanation was their way of voicing their annoyance. But our young minds didn’t understand this, and we concluded our parents didn’t want us to have emotions we couldn’t logically explain. To appease our parents, and to make sure they kept loving and protecting us, we started shaming ourselves whenever we’d have a feeling we couldn’t rationally justify. And that habit stuck with us into adulthood.

Unfortunately, when we shame ourselves for having an emotion and repress it, it doesn’t go away. It stays in our bodies, and creates distraction, fatigue, tension in our muscles, and sometimes more serious problems. Our habit of denying ourselves permission to experience emotions unless we can explain them – of, in a sense, arresting ourselves for "feeling without a license" – is a harmful one.

If you feel you have this habit, I invite you to try an experiment. The next time you feel an emotion coming up with seemingly no relationship to events in the world, find a place to sit with your eyes closed. Simply sit, breathe and focus your attention on what you’re feeling. Don’t applaud, judge, criticize or try to explain the emotion. Just allow it to move through you. If you feel the urge to let out a sound – for example, a moan or a laugh – allow that sound to emerge as well. Remain there until you’ve fully allowed yourself to experience what you’re feeling.

If you repeat this practice over time, you’ll likely find your compulsion to justify your emotions, and to repress those feelings you can’t "justify," fading away. You’ll come to see that you don’t need, and never needed, an "emotion license." You’re free to experience, and express, whatever feelings arise within you – and, in fact, doing so is key to living a whole and fulfilling life.

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