How Meta-Emotions Can Keep You Stuck In The Past Recovery from childhood trauma entails being able to feel our feelings without censure

Many of us grew up in homes that did not support or acknowledge our child emotions. We were shamed, mocked worse told to shut up or else…

This gives rise to another subset of emotions called meta-emotions.  We feel bad for having feelings.

So now instead of just coping with just feeling angry we also feel afraid or guilty for being angry.

Our primary emotion gets pushed under because our environment deems it unacceptable. A secondary emotion/s or meta-emotions occur as a dysfunctional way of dealing with the original emotion. Meta-emotions might serve as an emotion-regulatory function. 

Become Aware of Your Meta-Emotions and Learn To Feel Again
Meta-emotions like guilt and shame can keep you stuck and prevent authentic feelings

It’s no surprise that now even as adults we kind of feel conflicted about our emotions. This deflection from our primary emotions hinders our recovery from our past, leading to inauthentic lives.

Understanding Meta-Emotions

The concept of ‘meta-emotion’ was first introduced by psychologist John Gottman in family therapy research. Meta-emotion refers to the idea that whenever we have a certain emotion, it may also elicit subsequent emotions regarding how we experienced the primary emotion.

Meta-emotions can be classified into four types: negative-negative (e.g., feeling embarrassed about feeling sad), negative-positive (e.g., feeling guilty about feeling happy), positive-positive (e.g., feeling hopeful about feeling relieved), and positive-negative (e.g., feeling pleased about feeling angry).

Those who experienced abusive/neglectful childhood environments, commonly experience negative-negative meta-emotions. People who have more frequent negative-negative meta-emotions also experience greater feelings of depression

From my experience, the other dynamic of negative-positive can also be very damaging (feeling sad but pretending to be happy – toxic positivity. Or being angry but forced to turn the other cheek because of my Christian upbringing.  Thus becoming a people pleaser and fawner while being filled with resentment. It was the only way to survive the toxic dynamics of my dysfunctional family.

Dysfunctional Family Dynamics

How you perceive your emotions and whether you are comfortable feeling them depends on, yes your family of origin. If you are lucky you had parents who did not overlook, deny, negate, or dismiss your emotions. However, a number of us grew up in dysfunctional families where we had to repress or pretend something other than our real feelings.

When my mother died, I aged 11 was expected to become the woman of the house and take on adult roles even in my extended family.  If I faltered I was reprimanded and made to feel that I was flawed. So, I spent my teenage years repressing my grief and feeling ashamed that I missed my mother. It is only since the last 3 years of healing work  I’m beginning to accept, acknowledge, and grieve for my loss at such a young age.

I grew up feeling bad about feeling sad. So, I put on a happy face despite feeling miserable. I became a pleaser and always said ‘Yes’ when I myself was empty and needy.  No wonder, I suffered from low self-image and debilitating depression my entire adult life. It’s no surprise I  ended up with codependency issues.

Fear+Obligation+Guilt = Toxic Shame

In her book Emotional Blackmail, Susan Forward coined the term FOG (fear+ obligation+ guilt). It is the toxic family dynamic of covert, or not-so-subtle ways of emotional blackmail, and manipulation.

My personality-disordered father would threaten to throw us out of the house for any minor infractions. As a child, I was so afraid to say, do, or feel anything. And there was my mood-disordered grandmother the expert at silent treatment if I did not help her out with babysitting my cousins, she’d become cold as the Antarctic. My real feelings had to be suppressed and grew up with a deeply entrenched feeling of toxic shame- I was not good enough.

My internal life was overtaken by this demonic inner critic – full of resentment but ashamed that I felt that way about my family. As I grappled with this cesspool of confusion, my mental and physical health suffered.

Codependency and Meta-Emotions

Growing up being responsible and parentified as a child invariably leads to adult codependency issues. You have been groomed and programmed to put everyone else first. Your needs and feelings are not important.

I am supposed to be this way and feel this way is the only way to survive. Even as an adult you come to believe that self-erasure and self-sacrifice are the way to be. You are simply afraid to express your true needs and feelings. You become an echoist which as a child can be self-preserving but as an adult is detrimental.

Your interpretation of their treatment of you becomes how you see yourself – unworthy.

Moreover, having scoliosis further made me feel unworthy. I kept on being the people pleaser in the hope of receiving love. But it was all in vain, this made me feel resentful and used. which I further covered up with niceness. Basically, my psyche and body were layered upon with meta-emotions.  I did not know what exactly I was feeling and why?

Recovery – Accepting My Emotions

One of the reasons why most of us are stuck in our past stories is emotional non-acceptance.

The magic key to healing from our traumatic pasts is acceptance of our emotions – the good, bad, and ugly without fear and shame. Experiencing emotions, even when one is unable to identify exactly what type of emotion one is experiencing and why.

Moreover, we have to stop covering up our emotions with acceptable meta-emotions.

We have to be able to say ‘Yes,’ my father was a mean SOB and I hate him’ without feeling guilty  ‘That my grandmother was a cold fish and it bloody hurt‘ instead of whitewashing her behavior and feeling ashamed Or ‘that  Uncle was creepy asshole instead of internalizing their condemnation that you were the wicked one.

Nurturing Self-Compassion

This would mean paying attention to what we are feeling with self-compassion. Being non-judgemental and compassionate allows you to accept your reality.

Non-acceptance of our feelings keeps us from accepting and releasing our unpleasant feelings. Even though it may be hard to accept the reality of our abusive past we have to reconcile with the truth about our abusers – they were flawed, mean, or evil human beings. And their abuse had nothing to do with ME as a person  – I am not bad or unworthy.

Additionally, I am free to be and feel and don’t have to play nice or forgive.

Dr. Kristin Neff has defined SelfCompassion as being composed of three components: SelfKindness, Mindfulness, and Common Humanity. We need to stop ignoring our internal suffering or pain and stop being self-critical. Being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life’s difficulties is inevitable we don’t need to beat ourselves about our shortcomings.

Moreover, self-compassion gives us the resources to acknowledge our reality and see ourselves honestly.

Meta Emotions:  How Mindfulness Helps Us Deal with Them

Honoring Our Emotions and Rewriting Our Past Programs

One of the keys to recovery from my past was becoming aware of my emotions as they come up and accepting and honoring them. I had to learn to get rid of the bypassing mechanism of meta-emotions.  That I don’t need to feel bad or ashamed of my feelings – I have to deal with them.

I work at rewriting my past programs of – I am unworthy. That I don’t have a right to my needs and feelings. Daily I overwrite the negative voices with guided meditation and journaling.  Furthermore, I have stopped tolerating and accommodating people who don’t respect ME.

Instead of swallowing my anger, I express it or walk away. I have learned that I need to have boundaries and I have the right to say ‘No‘ without feeling guilty.

Furthermore, I have retrained myself to feel their emotions as they are happening instead of repressing them and pretending something else. This has really been pivotal in healing my mind and scoliosis. I no longer have to maintain a false persona and it is such a relief.

It is not easy when for most of your life you have tried to fight genuine emotions with shame-based emotions. But as they say, practice makes one perfect. With the help of an enlightened witness – a therapist, a friend, or a spouse you can learn to bounce your feelings without being judged.  Believe me, being accepted totally by another person makes all the difference in our healing and life.


Reference: The Concept of “Metaemotion”: What is There to Learn From Research on Metacognition?
When you don’t like what you feel: Experiential avoidance, mindfulness, and meta-emotion in emotion regulation

Image Source: Pexels

Further Reading:

How To Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits –  Darlene Lancer

Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You  – Susan ForwardDonna Frazier 

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