Light up your face with gladness,
Hide every trace of sadness,
Although a tear may be ever so near.
That’s the time you must keep on trying,
Smile, what’s the use of crying?
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just smile …
A little girl accidentally breaks an arm off her doll and starts crying. You say to her, “Don’t be sad. We’ll fix it. Come on. Smile.”
Nothing wrong with offering assistance to reattach the broken limb.
Plenty wrong with telling the little girl how to feel.
See, children identify very strongly with their emotions. From their perspective, they are whatever they feel in the moment. So if you, even in as ostensibly benign a manner as can be, command them to feel differently from the way they do, what they’ll invariably hear is, “I don’t like you the way you are.” That, of course, is one among many powerful ways to instill neuroses in a child; specifically, to lay the groundwork for a life-long quest for validation by others, including the whole ragbag of personal insecurities that commonly attend such a quest.
So if your paramount objective in life is to find unconditional love and acceptance, chances are you were told to stop crying one too many times.
Unsurprisingly, the psychological term of art for instructing others on how they’re supposed to feel is invalidation. A person will perceive him- or herself as having been invalidated when informed that how they feel—i.e., who they are—is not being appreciated; that their present emotion—i.e., they—ought to be discarded and replaced.
Charlie Chaplin inadvertently composed the unofficial Hymn of Invalidation: Smile, though your heart is aching / Smile, even though it’s breaking / … (In fairness, Mr Chaplin is innocent of the lyrics, lovely as those lyrics may seem until you consider the troublesome thesis they advance.)
And by no means does this concept apply to children only; for what are adults but big infants with an advanced capacity for behavior modification, i.e., for bottling things up and pretending?
Sure, as adults we may conclude intellectually that how we feel in the moment isn’t “who we are” and that being told to smile doesn’t necessarily amount to a wholesale rejection of our entire being. However, our neurological hard-wiring rarely conforms to our rational understanding of the world. Upon introspection, most of us will probably find that our internal response patterns to external stimuli, e.g., to treatment by others, have remained fairly unchanged relative to when we were five years old.
So even as grown-ups, for all practical purposes, our emotions and beliefs—more often than not, our beliefs are but extensions of our emotions anyway, rendering the distinction largely irrelevant in this context—comprise a significant part of our identity, which is why we generally don’t take too kindly to being told to “calm down” or “relax” or “be happy” or the like; for, once again, the message that comes through loud and clear is “I don’t like you the way you are,” and this harks right back to our childhood trauma of feeling unwanted in consequence of experiencing emotions our parental units disapproved of.
The broadside on people’s self-esteem aside, this irritating habit of issuing guidelines regarding acceptable vs. unacceptable emotions bespeaks an eagerness on the part of the issuer to control his or her environment, and this, in turn, suggests a diminished ability to cope with his or her own emotions, manifesting as a desire to regulate other people’s.
Needless to say, a person telling someone else how to feel (or how not to feel) will assert it’s all for the good of the person experiencing the offending emotion. Fiddlesticks. In reality, it’s all for the good of the individual that can’t deal with observing that emotion in the other person. The little girl can handle her sadness over her doll’s broken arm just fine. It’s the parent that can’t handle watching his daughter cry and hence attempts to manipulate the girl’s state to secure his own comfort.
That said, there are situations where controlling someone else’s emotions is called for, such as when a reasonable concern exists that a person’s emotional state might spin so out of control as to potentially pose a clear and present danger to himself or others, either by setting off a medical episode of some sort, damaging property, or physically assaulting somebody; or in a work environment where showcasing certain emotions might alienate clients and negatively affect the bottom line: if you walk around bawling while working at Disneyworld, your supervisor has a point when he asks you to cut the waterworks and cheer up—it’s part of the job description.
Whatever the circumstances, telling others how to feel is an extremely controlling behavior. Nonetheless, even far afield from professional or “clear and present danger” scenarios, exhibitors of this behavior will often insist they’re not being controlling when delivering peremptory directives along the lines of “calm down” or “cheer up” under the gauzy pretext of caring about and wanting to help the other person overcome a painful emotional state.
If the objective truly were to help to the other person—rather than to make yourself feel better by molding your environment so as to reflect your own comfort zone—accepting any emotion on display and trying to understand its provenance would go a much longer way toward being of genuine service in terms of unearthing possible demons that may impair a person’s quality of life in some way, as opposed to waxing dictatorial in hopes that clipping off the tip of the iceberg by fiat will make the iceberg go away.
In the latter case, to remain in the realm of metaphor, all you’re doing is trying to incapacitate the regulator valve in a pressure cooker, which might not be the best strategy for preventing it from blowing up at some point.
On a related note, there’s no such thing as a “small deal.”
There are only clues.