Let the feelings out or keep them in?
Sometimes we advocate letting emotions out to play. The following common expressions show this bias:
- Don’t bottle up your emotions
- Let your hair down
- Let it all out
- Say what you feel
Sometimes we advocate holding emotions in. These expressions perhaps reflect that bias:
- Don’t spill your emotions all over the place
- Control yourself
- Think before you speak
Most people would agree that context is important.
Imagine walking past someone in the street and experiencing extreme disgust at their appearance. Most of us would decide to curb our emotional expression, to avoid awkwardness and hurt feelings.
Equally, imagine experiencing great benevolence towards someone. Most of us might seek to express this through words or actions. It is the foundation of many kind acts.
In polite society, we graduate towards controlling destructive emotions, and encouraging positive emotions. This prevents us from hurting each other, and helps us to help each other.
However, what is to be done with the negative emotions? We all experience them:
- FEAR – fear, guilt
- LOSS – loneliness, emptiness, sadness, depression
- POWERLESSNESS – overwhelm, failure, inadequacy, helplessness
- ANGER – anger, resentment, jealousy, frustration, disgust
To a degree, we are right to hold these emotions in. If expressed all the time, without a filter, we are likely to come across as unmanageable and difficult.
ACKNOWLEDGING AND PROCESSING EMOTIONS
But we need to acknowledge them, process them. Otherwise we are destined to repeat them.
Acknowledgement is not easy. When we’re angry, we don’t like admitting it. We think it shows us in a bad light. ‘I’m not angry, I’m disappointed,’ we may say when angry. Equally, ‘I feel lonely’, ‘I feel powerless’, ‘I feel guilty’… they are hard to say.
We fear losing our esteem with ourselves and others if we confess to these emotions. Often we would rather blame others than sit still and handle our own negativity.
Obviously, it would be great not to feel these negative emotions at all. That’s certainly possible, but not the subject of this article. Given that most people do feel them, what is the best way of processing them?
Counselling and psychotherapy gives us one way of processing difficult emotions without hurting our nearest and dearest.
Without an outlet, we tend to ‘act out’ negative emotions. ‘Acting out’ means we let the emotion loose on others without taking responsibility for it, without filtering it.
The main thing about acting out is that we start dramas, but aren’t aware of why. The angry person starts fights, and swears it’s everyone else that started it. The person who feels powerless takes a power position, whether as victim or aggressor. The guilty person blames others. The lonely person drinks.
Processing negative emotions requires honesty and trust. The reward is freedom. Once we are able to say, calmly, what our negative emotion is, and gain some understanding of the context, then the negative emotion itself is defused, unable to force us to ‘act out’.
We can still act, though. That’s quite important. For example, our anger or frustration might be telling us something important. It might be telling us that there is something we need to ask for, to help us to function happily.
If we can process our emotions well, we can get better at asking our loved ones for what we want without being moody. We can ask clearly and without negative feeling.
If we have done the hard work in counselling, we can begin to communicate more calmly, balancing our own interests and those of others.
In short, we would all rather not have negative emotions, but most of us do have them. And they can rule our lives if we let them. However, if we can acknowledge and process them in a trusting environment, then we have a good chance of becoming free again.
Once free, we can stop being ruled by negative emotions, and can relate more easily with others, asking for what we need without causing conflict.