Humans have a wide range of emotions. Some are considered more acceptable than others. Compassion, for instance, is generally more accepted than anger. We experience emotions internally before we express them externally. Anger is sensed as an intense internal discomfort, quickly projected outwards towards an object of blame. If we don’t catch it in time, we become physically or verbally abusive.
COSTS AND BENEFITS
Expressing emotion is a balancing act. We take into account the costs and benefits of speaking out. Even when we feel affection, we consider carefully whether to match that affection with an affectionate act. For example, if an affectionate act would cross a social border and cause problems for others, then we keep the emotion inside, and don’t act on it. Spotting someone we like the look of on the beach, we don’t immediately rush over and hug them. There are laws against that kind of thing.
Some people insist that they are entirely direct, and just say what they feel. I doubt it. If we think carefully, everything we say goes through some kind of filter. Our bodies are very used to regulating our behaviour, either to protect ourselves, or to protect others.
EMOTIONS IN CHILDHOOD
Some of us, when we were growing up, were encouraged to keep things inside. If our primary carers did not welcome our emotions, then we may have learned to handle them inside ourselves, without giving much away in our behaviour. An extreme example is where a parent has abused a child, and then manipulated them into secrecy. The child can grow up with an ‘overactive filter’, afraid to say freely how they feel.
Another example of keeping things inside is power imbalance. Air stewards, when faced with an abusive passenger, have to keep their own emotions in check in order to act professionally. Temporarily, the passenger has the upper hand in terms of power. Power will only return to the steward if the law is structured to privilege them. Power imbalances can occur between genders, between social classes, between racial groups, between rich and poor, between parents and children, between popular and unpopular people… in each case, the less powerful learn to mask their true feelings, or face the consequences.
Each of us has our own character when it comes to expressing emotion. Each of us also has our own set of power imbalances in our lives. Life is full of strategy. We are always deciding when to speak, and when to stay silent. And we are always puzzling about how to speak, choosing our words and actions carefully.
Anxiety and depression are intimately related to how we handle inner emotions.
Anxiety can be caused by excessive agonising about whether or not to express how we feel. For instance, an abused child can experience a great urge to ask for help, but also a great inhibitory urge to remain silent. The tension can become trapped inside, and become experienced as an anxiety or panic attacks. In this way, anxiety can be caused by any situation in which we are unsure whether to speak out or remain silent.
Equally, if the inner tension goes on too long, then the anxiety can turn into depression. There is a loss of hope, a sense of ‘I am beyond help’. Many adults go through life with this loss of hope, because their anxious mind has given up believing that it has a right to be heard – it’s just too tiring.
WAYS OUT OF MENTAL ILLNESS
If we suffer from anxiety or depression, we may feel that it’s caused by trapped inner emotion. We may have a sense that we haven’t processed something properly. We don’t necessarily always know what it is we need to process. We only know that something feels wrong. We may experience panic attacks, palpitations, sleep disturbance, the wish to retreat from society, or the wish not to get up at all in the morning.
It can take years to find a way of getting our ‘stuck’ inner emotion to flow again. We can get stuck in unresolved anger against a parent, or trapped in complicated grief if someone died and we weren’t able to process our inner feelings properly. It can take a lot of exploration, as we try different forms of words to express how we feel. It can be hugely difficult, especially if we are still afraid of hurting or offending others.
COUNSELLING AND THERAPY
Counselling and psychotherapy can help with this processing of trapped inner emotion. Clients sometimes don’t want to burden family and friends with their thoughts. It can help to work with a professional who is used to, and skilled at, helping with such inner exploration.
For some people, their character or self-perception can make things even more difficult. An example is the frequent social expectation that men should ‘deal with’ their feelings without appearing vulnerable. Opening up can go against a person’s self-image. However, a skilled counsellor, with a friendly and receptive style, can help.
A BALANCE OF ACCEPTANCE AND CHALLENGE
In working with a counsellor, it’s wise to remember two things.
- Firstly, we need to feel accepted, and not judged. The therapeutic alliance is really important. If we don’t feel comfortable, then it may be best to seek another counsellor, or at least to bring up our unease.
- Secondly, we do need some challenge. If a counsellor just blindly agrees with everything a client says, then there is no room for growth.
Expressing emotions is a subtle balance of self-acceptance and self-challenge. To get there, we can work with a counsellor/therapist who accepts us, but also challenges us. We feel safe, but also inspired to look more closely at ourselves, our thoughts and our behaviour.
Anyone suffering from ‘trapped inner emotion’ can benefit from counselling and psychotherapy. The aim is to achieve a better flow of emotion, and less of a feeling of being ‘stuck’. A safe therapeutic relationship can provide the exploration which can lead to that better flow.