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This article appeared in South China Morning Post, Life Section, Saturday 3 March 2007

Patricia Bowmer

Emotional dams

When I was a little girl, my father told me this cautionary tale about our neighbor Bill from down the street. Bill had confided in my father that he was feeling deeply depressed. My father’s response was, “No one wants to hear about that. Better keep it to yourself, or no one will want to talk to you.”

That’s a story that will teach a child to keep her mouth shut.

In countless books and articles, and by countless parents, people are told to keep their mouths shut, to keep their negative emotions at bay by thinking positive. If they can’t think positive, they should at least act positive. What happens when we encounter emotions that aren’t so positive and we follow this advice to keep our mouths and minds shut?

In my experience, telling people to think positive when they feel negative disallows the very emotions that are necessary to create truly positive and authentic lives. I’ve often heard clients say, when they encounter speed bumps on the roads of life, “It’s stupid to feel this way. I shouldn’t feel so bad about…”

People feel bad, then feel bad that they feel bad. Sometimes they feel even worse for wasting time talking about it. Invariably, these same people tell me they believe themselves to be all alone, and wonder why their friends and family don’t give them more support.

Is it wrong to suppress our expression of negative feelings? I think so. Our emotions are our best catalysts for change. By exploring them – and exploring can mean contemplating inwardly, as well as talking openly with others – we become super sleuths. Why do we feel so bad? If we can discover the underlying thoughts and beliefs behind our feelings, then we can create a true pathway to becoming positive.

We can’t erase feelings by swallowing them (“That’s it, I’m just going to stop feeling depressed”), or by dulling them (alcohol, drugs, overeating, undereating, and so on). We can change them by understanding the thoughts that caused our feelings in the first place. With understanding, we can change situations. Change beliefs; change habitual responses.

An inability to express negative emotions has an impact – and it’s largely a negative one. Finding ways to suppress emotions can harm your memory of upsetting events, making it difficult to process them later. It can weaken your immune system. In situations of high anxiety and distress (such as a diagnosis of cancer), suppressing negative emotions can make you feel even more emotional distress. Your body still feels the emotions you deny, and sometimes feels them more strongly as a result of your efforts to keep them silent.

By keeping a stiff upper lip, we miss out on valuable support. If our loved ones don’t know we’re distressed, they can’t help. I’ve heard clients say they are afraid of bringing others down by sharing negative feelings. But when they’ve chosen the right friends in whom to confide, they feel closer to them, and the friends feel honored by the trust that’s been placed in them. They’re brought up, rather than down.

However, there are times when it’s better to keep your mouth shut. Being faced with a judgmental listener who is unlikely to be empathetic is one such occasion. Revealing your emotions at the wrong moment, when it will inflame a situation, is another.

If expressing certain emotions makes you feel shame and guilt, explore your upbringing and what you’ve been conditioned to believe about the expression of negative feelings. You can change what you believe, if you want to.

Of course, people respond differently to the same situations. Some people feel things less strongly than others – not everyone who has a stiff upper lip is holding emotions at bay, or feeling emotionally repressed.

If you feel things deeply – both the ups and downs of life – it will help to find supportive people who allow you to express yourself authentically. This can be a true pathway to positive thoughts, and a positive life.

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