Last week’s post on creating a mindful middle ground between repressing anger and expressing it drew a great deal of commentary. This week, let’s step back from specific emotions and look at the place of expression and repression in our emotional skill set.
EXPRESSION, REPRESSION, AND THE MIDDLE GROUND
When we express our emotions, we hand them over to the outside world, where we hope they’ll be noticed, honored, and transformed. Emotional expression relies on the outer world to decipher our emotions. While this expression of true feelings can be very healthy at times, it isn’t always the best way to work with our emotions. It can make us dependent upon external action, books, friends and family, or therapists for emotional relief. If these are not available to us, we might not be able to process our feelings – because our emotional skills will depend on things or people outside of ourselves.
Many of us have encountered this difficulty when we’re overtaken by, say, anger or depression, and have no one to talk to. If we don’t have internal emotional skills, we can feel trapped in our emotional states – unable to moderate or even understand our moods unless someone or something outside of us is available.
The other choice in this either/or system is to repress our emotions. When we repress our emotions, we hand them off to the inner world, where we hope they’ll disappear, transform themselves, or maybe return at a better time (whenever that might be!). Repression is the only internal emotional management skill most of us have. Emotional repression relies on the unconscious, interior world (and often on our bodies) to accept and do something with our emotions. When we repress an unwelcome emotion (like sadness or anger), we press it inward – we count to ten, think happy thoughts, or repeat a cherished phrase. We don’t know what to do with the inconvenient, embarrassing, or dangerous feeling. We just want to wipe the slate clean and go on with our day.
The problem with repression is that the inner world is where emotions come from. Shoving the emotions, these messages from our instinctive selves, back where they came from – without consciously processing them – creates an unpleasant short circuit in the psyche.
Every emotion has an indispensable function and something very meaningful and precise to say. If we ignore and repress an emotion, we won’t erase its message – we’ll just shoot the messenger and interfere with an important natural process. The unconscious then has two choices: to increase the intensity of the emotion and present it to us one more time (this is how unresolving moods or escalating emotional suffering may be activated); or to give up on us and stuff the emotional energy deeply into our psyches. Usually, this squelched intensity mutates into something else, like tics, compulsions, psychosomatic illness, addictions, or neuroses. Repressing our emotions is a very perilous way to manage them.
Expressing our emotions is somewhat better than repressing them. At the very least, it allows a flow of honesty in our lives. If we’re out there crying or raging or whatever, at least we’re letting our emotions flow. However, if our emotions are very strong, expressing them can create both interior and exterior turmoil. Expressing strong emotions at others can damage our ego structure and our sense of self-esteem. Then, our lowered self-esteem tends to make us less able to manage our emotions properly the next time, and we tend to slide into an almost uncontrollable habit of flinging our strong emotions all over the place. Our internal checks and balances seem to get broken, and we become emotionally volatile.
Current neurological and psychological research is also showing that constantly expressing strong emotions tends to wear a groove into your brain. If you let loose with rage or anxiety, your brain will begin to learn how to rage and be anxious; therefore, the next time you meet a possibly enraging or anxiety-producing situation, your brain may move to rage or anxiety simply because you taught it to. The plasticity of your brain doesn’t just apply to learning new skills or new languages; it also applies to learning how to manage your emotions.
We must learn not to work against the emotions with repression or for the emotions with incompetent expression. We must learn to work with our emotions.
There is a middle ground in the emotional landscape; there is a way to work with emotions in a respectful and honorable way. I call the process channeling the emotions – and I’m referring to the actual meaning of the word “channel,” which is to direct or convey something along a chosen pathway in a conscientious manner. If we can learn to properly channel our emotions, we can begin to work with them in vibrant and ingenious ways. We can interpret the messages our emotions carry and make proper use of the instincts our emotions contain.
The handoff we do with emotional expression – that handoff to the outer world – doesn’t bestow any skills upon us. Likewise, the handoff we do with repression – when we shove our emotions back into the inner world – makes us even less skilled. Neither handoff works, because neither one accepts emotions as important and useful messengers that help us learn and evolve. With channeling, we can feel our emotions consciously and express them in ways that will bolster our self-image and our relationships, rather than tearing them down.
When you can channel your emotions, you’ll discover something most people don’t know, which is that each of your emotions contains vital skills and abilities that help you survive, thrive, and create excellent relationships. Interestingly, these are skills you can’t get any other way. Next Saturday, I’ll give you some exercises from my book The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You to show you precisely what I mean.