One noteworthy study suggests that people who suppress negative emotions tend to leak those emotions later in unexpected ways… Later, however, the people who hid their emotions suffered side effects. Their memory was impaired, and the negative emotions they’d suppressed seemed to color their outlook. – Susan Cain; Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
Whether it be in business, or ministry or just everyday life people tend to be uncomfortable with excessive amounts of emotion. We are encouraged from an early age not to laugh too loud, cry or vocalize our anger in public. When we have an emotional outburst, we are too often told to “shake it off”, “suck it up” and “take a breath”.
While this may seem like good advice when emotions could damage relationships I believe in the long run it’s killing us. Well maybe not exactly. Stifling our emotions might not give us cancer but it certainly alters us in ways we cannot immediately see or understand until years later.
The truth is we, as a society, are not comfortable with our emotions. Sure, we collectively rejoice when our team wins the championship and we may shed a tear when the soldiers come home or the police officers are shot but even in those corporate moments of shared joy and grief we are encouraged to move on quickly. Nobody wants to spend time with Debbie Downer and we are equally uncomfortable around the perpetually “up”. It’s as if we have all agreed that our society functions best in a state of quiet, emotionless equilibrium. Whether we admit it or not we all what to be Mr. Spock, from StarTrek.
I’ll admit I’m not an overly emotional guy. I’m not easily impressed, I don’t get excited about things, I don’t get angry and although I have admitted to crying quite a bit privately I hardly ever cry in public. This works for me. I never feel unsafe expressing my emotions. And because I tend to express them sparingly, on the rare occasions when I do I believe they carry more weight.
I’ll never forget the last time I had a major emotional outburst at work, there was no mistaking that I was angry about the circumstances, my coworkers and the one client involved talked about it for years afterwards, and the situation never repeated itself. In that case I was able to use my emotions to great effect but I also believe that deep down I damaged relationships and hurt myself and my reputation in the process. You see, in that case my anger and frustration had actually been mounting for weeks, had I let it out more slowly over time, like air out of a balloon, I don’t think the situation would have ever escalated to the point in did. And why did I allow my emotions to mount for that long? Because I had been listening to the voices of our society tell me to “shake it off”, “suck it up” and “take a breath.”
Why are we so uncomfortable with emotions? I think it’s partly due to jealousy. When we see an emotional outburst our first response is to join in, misery loves company and so does euphoria, but then we remember we’re not supposed to feel this way for long so we “suck it up” and then look down on the people who don’t or can’t as somehow less evolved that we are.
There’s a bit of neuroscience involve here too. The more we suck it up the more we train our brains how to react and build neuro-pathways that make it easier to react that way the next time. But sooner or later our emotions always find a way out and the balloon pops.
We can’t all be Mr. Spock as much as certain parts of our society lionize his emotionless demeanor. But do you remember the back story of the Vulcan Empire? It seems that the Vulcan people trained themselves to think only in terms of logic because their history was plagued with violence. They had made a conscious effort to evolve and viewed emotions as primitive. Sound familiar?
The fact is, emotions are not primitive. They are what make us who we are and stifling them only makes us less than who we are meant to be. Yes we need to learn appropriate behaviours but that doesn’t mean we need to deny the way we feel about things. It is only by being true to your emotions can you be true to yourself.