Work WITH your emotions rather than supressing them
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
It is worth remembering that largely emotions evolved to keep us safe. Feeling fear will help us survive in a threatening environment, and feeling love helps us form companionship which in turn may help propagate the species, or at the very least enable us to be part of a community. Whatever we may think about them, suppressing them is likely to do more harm than good.
Why might we want to supress emotion?
As society evolved, so have we – and sometimes a very powerful form of defence, attack or superiority can be the ability to firstly hide emotion, and secondly to “mange” it in order to use it to our advantage. Simple evolutionary behaviour where emotion is manipulated includes the act of “posturing” – making one’s body look larger than it is so as to seem more threatening (you still see this in fights – the “come on” – as well as on a more trivial scale in “man-spreading”). It can also include the act of “preening” – showing ones body off to best effect to attract a mate. Humans also instinctively respond (emotionally) to the neonatal features of babies, or the young of animals which in turn encourages us to protect them…thus ensuring their survival. Therefore the power of emotions can be that we instinctively respond to them to help guide our behaviour.
Of course, we can all understand that emotions must go beyond those relating to sex and aggression and in our society we also have intimacy, jealousy, envy. Thus, the ability to affect our emotional display can be advantageous. Hochschild (1988) wrote her seminal paper called “The Managed Heart” where she coined the phrase “emotional labour” – the act of being able to alter our emotional display so as to elicit the appropriate response from our clients. This is part of the work of any customer-facing professional eg. The teacher who is hugely frustrated, but smiles and says “How are you?” to the next class s/he teaches; or the nurse who has been spat on and called names, still showing kindness to a vulnerable patient although she is hurting inside. Emotions, emotional agility and the ability to manage our display helps us in our professions – and are indeed part of our success.
However, it is also notable that emotional labour can cause burnout, manipulation of emotion can cause confusion and hurt in relationships, and showing off will not necessarily achieve the results we want.
So, emotions are best respected as powerful - they can be manipulated, affected and they do cause a response, and therefore being able to manage and channel them in a healthy manner will be of greatest benefit to our own mental health, as well as that of those around us.
Feel the real emotion, but be mindful of the context.
Although pain and sadness are difficult emotions to contain, emotions are nothing to be ashamed of. However, sometimes one may prefer to hide one's true feelings if they feel they are in a position where expressing them causes further vulnerability. "Remaining strong" - is an admirable quality, but that emotion - or at least the root cause of it - must be dealt with if it is to be prevented from affecting our future behaviours.
Learning ways to feel, safely express (and even talk about) our own emotions appropriately forms a great model of healthy behaviours. Burying negative emotions can lead to a number of mental health issues – if you never resolve the issue, it can result in ineffective behaviour strategies to cope eg. Avoidance of the person, people, or place which causes the discomfort – which in turn can lead to isolation, and that can lead to social anxiety, anxiety and depression. It can result in never forming a positive connection with people, places or things, which you might have been able to do had you faced the situation when it was merely a conversation which needed to be had…and this can restrict huge avenues to you. Although you are “inactive” it has the same effect as “burning bridges”. This can have repercussions on the rest of the family – perhaps you never want to see your parents at Christmas – but that may also mean that your children miss out. (Arguably, there can also be good reason for such a breakdown in a relationship, but there is often collateral damage too).
Further, if you do not deal with emotions in a healthy way, you may engage in “self-medication” to help supress them eg. Drugs/alcohol/over-eating – and this will have huge physical consequences including detrimental effects (sometimes irreversible) on the brain and body.
You are also unable to teach your own children – or perhaps model healthy expression of emotion to your own teams in the workplace. This can affect your success as a parent, and as a professional.
A simple approach to emotion management is to:
- acknowledge and accept the emotion
- be mindful of the context in which you express it
- find healthy ways of restoring emotional balance
- then deal with the root
It is often not the emotion that is the problem - but what brought it about in the first instance, and being able to deal with that root with clarity of mind is often the most productive approach.
1. Recognise and label the emotion
When you recognise an emotion - usually a negative one (as it will often affect your body - fear makes me tense my shoulders) label it and accept it is OK to feel it.
At this point you may wish to write down how you feel and why you feel that way - as this form of expression can have a very therapeutic effect, as well as serve as a reminder of the trigger situation when you are ready to address it.
2. Find a healthy way to restore a sense of emotional balance
Simply laughing - watching a funny video, listening to music, crying, singing, changing your environment by going for a walk are quick, simple and free ways to manage emotional stress.
Being able to discuss the situation which is bothering you rationally can be a healthy way to express negative emotions.
Some people keep a "wellbeing box" or "crisis pack" which gives them easy access to things that help them feel better - I keep a fan (my temperature changes when I get angry), as well as a fluffy keyring as the feeling of that texture has a calming effect. It is the same principle as the diabetic who keeps sweets available just in case.
Sometimes it can be helpful to go for a run – to exhaust your body (ie channelling the stress response into physical exercise), or to change the temperature immediately, ie. If you are hot, then splash cold water on your face – these are just quick ways of changing the physical before attending to the mental and emotional.
Try to avoid unhealthy soothing methods such as comfort eating, drinking, recreational drugs, and avoiding the situation altogether.
3. When you feel able to, address the root cause.
And these tips may support you:
1. Have the discussion when you are NOT hugely emotional (otherwise it is likely to turn into an argument where “winning” becomes the goal, not solving the problem) – sometimes you need to walk away, then return to the discussion…but if you are going to walk away – tell the other person/people you need a moment and you will be back. (Then come back!)
2. Have your agenda written out if you can – it is easy to be pulled off track and again it is important to keep focus on resolution.
3. Hold the discussion somewhere neutral if you can.
4. Have an idea of what you want as a solution but be flexible – and then listen.
5. If you can, try to avoid “blame” language eg. “You were mean…” it is healthier to focus on what is under your control eg. “When you said X, I felt…” – it may even be that the issue lies in communication rather than in the actual event that occurred.
Key signs that someone suppresses their emotions as a coping strategy
The following behaviours may be indications that you, or your loved ones are supressing an emotion - and if the emotion is being supressed the root is also not being dealt with:
-Not wanting to talk about something is a key behaviour. (Sometimes physically leaving the room when a difficult subject or a specific name or discussion is raised can indicate avoidance).
-Getting angry suddenly and out of proportion to what was asked/said can also indicate deeper issues.
-Talking in extremes eg “Everyone” or “no-one” can also indicate the inability to see nuances within a situation.
-The other two which I have learned as a coach is the avoidance of emotional language eg. The use of the word “interesting” as opposed to “hurt”, or “sad” or “rejected”; and the use of joking/humour/laughter – this latter one is, for me, the hardest defence of all to break through because people like “happy” people, and we do not often think to ask further when someone appears happy; and making a joke about something that has upset the person still means they have acknowledged it, so it makes others presume they have dealt with it enough to laugh at it.
Helping release supressed emotions
Working with a professional can help. Family and friends can be “too close” to the situation, they may have their own opinions which can muddy the waters for your own reflections, and also it can then make you feel bad that you are “wasting their time”. A professional will give you objective ways to work through. I personally would also advocate someone who has an understanding of DBT (Dialectic Behaviour Therapy) as this is specifically aimed at managing emotions and is hugely practical. But, either way, in choosing a professional/practitioner – make sure it’s someone you can work with – because you are going to deal with somethings you have likely bottled up for some time.
Remember also that people express their emotions in different ways - just because your response to grief, for example, may be to cry, it does not mean that the person who instead busies themselves fixing things isn't feeling the pain. Making a judgment is unnecessary, instead, making yourself available to talk, or perhaps signposting them to someone else (there can be many reasons why people prefer to speak to a stranger) can be constructive.
A quick mindfulness exercise to begin to accept your emotions
Think of a time you felt excitement – make the picture vibrant – where do you feel that emotion?
Think of a time you felt anger – where do you feel take emotion?
Think of a time you felt love – make the picture vibrant – where do you feel that emotion?
Think of a time you felt sadness – where do you feel that emotion?
Think of a time you felt proud – make the picture vibrant – where do you feel that emotion?
Think of a time you felt fear – where do you feel that emotion?
Think of a time you felt happiness – make the picture vibrant – where do you feel that emotion?
Having emotions is part of the beauty of life, and I know how to express them in healthy way.
This exercise takes you through a number of emotions asking you to recognise where you feel them; and then ending with an affirmation which focuses on accepting them. They also bias the visualisation to the positive to not allow you to spend too long in the negative, and recognising where you feel those emotions can give you insight into the emotion arising so you can manage it before it becomes overwhelming.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt