Emotions are the first language we ever speak. Their expression is a pre-verbal language that is gradually replaced with words as we grow out of infancy. All emotions are really just energy moving through the body (though I think they originate in the soul). This movement is expressed through various physical reactions as the emotion moves out of us–laughter, crying, sighs, various non-verbal sounds, wiggling or jumping up and down with joy, trembling, and various expressions of anger (of course we need to be mindful of this one). This idea of emotions as a language isn’t my own; it’s been suggested by others, but I think I would have come to that conclusion on my own sooner or later.
Babies and animals (especially higher level mammals like dogs or monkeys) don’t have words, but they are very good at communicating their feelings and needs. In fact, they are better at this than adult humans, because there is no pretense and no words to mask or obliterate visceral emotion. With a baby or an animal, what you see is what you get.
We don’t begin to have problems with this until adolescence or sometimes later childhood, when spoken language has become fluent. You don’t see a toddler or a dog presenting a false self or hiding their real feelings. Unless abused early on, there is no shame in their emotional expression. An animal or an infant will not lie to you, manipulate you, or tell you they are happy when they’re anything but. That’s because they don’t have the language behind which it becomes possible to hide.
Babies cry to communicate. We may not like it when they do, but it’s the most important way they communicate. It’s really just a pre-verbal language that helps them get their needs met. Of course they could be crying because they’re uncomfortable or in pain, but they also cry when they need nurturing and just need to feel attached to Mom. Most of us are naturally drawn to comfort a crying baby, but really, they are just telling us about their physical and emotional needs that in a few years might be expressed by, “I’m hungry” or “I’m angry” or “I need a hug” or “I feel lonely.” It’s not always “bad” when a baby cries, although it seems so to us, and we want them to stop. Babies also use their whole bodies when they cry. As the emotion moves through them, their entire body responds. They kick their legs, punch the air, and howl. When an adult expresses strong emotion, such as crying (and sometimes laughing), they tend to hold themselves back to some extent, only letting part or none of their body respond to the emotion. Babies also wiggle when they’re happy. Do you know of any adult who wiggles or jumps up and down with joy? It’s something we outgrow as adult, but is that really necessary? What’s really wrong with wiggling or running around the room with happiness or sobbing with abandon?
When a dog sees its owner, it will bark excitedly and jump up and down with joy. If it has misbehaved, it will show its guilt (and I’m convinced that dogs DO feel guilt and shame). If it’s sad or afraid, it whimpers and its whole body trembles. It doesn’t need to say “I’m sad” or “I’m happy” or “I feel ashamed.” Its body and face says it better than any words ever could. That’s why I think people relate to dogs so well. Dogs represent our own emotional natures, that to a greater or lesser extent, almost all of us keep behind wraps most of the time.
I’ll never forget the time I was helping a friend pet-sit. The owners had a dog and a cat, and while we were there, the owners came home. When the dog heard the key in the lock, he began to bark excitedly and jump wildly at the door, intermittently spinning around in circles, wagging his tail crazily and practically tripping over his own oversized feet in his excitement. When the owners came in, he practically knocked them to the floor, licking both their faces happily. Even the cat went nuts with happiness, rolling around ecstatically on the floor in front of them. He also ran up to the owners, purring loudly and meowing. Do you know any people over the age of 6 or 7 who act like these animals did during a reunion?
Of course we don’t want to become babies or pet dogs and cats, but they have a lot to teach us about authenticity and the courage to be emotionally vulnerable.
I’m in no way trying to imply that language isn’t a good thing. We evolved it for a reason. Language makes it possible for us to use more of our minds and make new discoveries. It’s the reason we can write a symphony, a novel, or make new scientific discoveries. Good language skills are an indicator of high intellectual ability. Words can also be great tools for genuine emotional expression. But when we grow up and start to use language completely in place of bodily emotional reactions to communicate, we throw out the baby with the bathwater. I think schools are responsible for a lot of this. Schools–like work environments–discourage the honest expression of emotions. We begin to hide our true feelings.
Of course, bad parenting that fails to mirror a child’s true feelings does the same thing and is even more damaging because it happens when the child is still pre-verbal. A child whose emotional needs have not been met and who isn’t mirrored when very young becomes ashamed of their emotions and tries to hide their vulnerability. In some cases the damage is so great the person develops complex PTSD or a personality disorder. We need to find ways to be emotionally honest without reverting to a preverbal, infantile state. I think we’d also be not only more emotionally healthy, but also more physically healthy if there weren’t so much shame attached to emotional expression. Numerous studies have shown that chronic illness later in life is linked to repressed emotions. I think what happens is when they’re not allowed to move through the body naturally, they get trapped in the body and can make you sick.
To help us get there, I recommend watching anything by Brene Brown, an author and public speaker who thinks that vulnerability and authenticity are things we modern humans need a lot more of. Her most popular video is “The Power of Vulnerability.” Many people have said it has completely turned their lives around.