Suppressing emotions – when to keep your mouth shut

Vector image for article: Suppressing Emotions: when to keep your mouth shut. Picture of a man with mouth tapes, headphones on and glasses over the eyes.

Today, Conrad looks into an important subject: suppressing emotions – when you should (and should not) vent your feelings.

I’m going to start with something that will upset the Internet. Bear with me.

Sometimes you need to find *whisper it* a middle ground. And that’s true when it comes to suppressing emotions.

Sorry Internet, and your clickbait ways.

I know, I know. I should be telling you something more extreme, more definitive. With suppression, I should be saying either DON’T SUPPRESS YOUR EMOTIONS – RAGE UNTIL YOUR HEAD EXPLODES or BECOME A ZEN MASTER NOW or SHARE EVERYTHING UNTIL YOU BECOME A PINK GOOEY PUDDLE ON THE FLOOR.

But no, its a bit more nuanced than that.

My suppression story

I’ll start with a story that is in no way any kind of medical advice. Seriously it’s not. I’m not a doctor.

But this story, my story, showed me that suppressing emotions may not be all that bad.

I remember when I went on holiday a few years ago. I had a lot going on – or at least thought I did.

Back then, nothing felt easy. I kept checking my phone for work stuff. I kept thinking about stuff that could go wrong whilst I was away. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I was so important.

Eventually, enough was enough. Having shared my concerns, I then decided “f–k it”, and pushed the negative thoughts out of my head. I felt like if I didn’t, I’d go absolutely mad.

What happened? Well, the first few hours were difficult. Then, eventually, I began to feel like a light had been switched on in my brain. It was like a VERY long tea break was over, and the workers in my head were getting back to business.

I then turned to my wife and – feeling better for the first time in ages – said something that surprised the living hell out of me. I said: “I think I’ve been depressed for a very long time.”

Wow. Talk about a moment of clarity.

All because I pushed my worries out of my head.

But, as we shall see, it’s not always that simple.

Suppression – what the hell is it?

Suppression is when you push down thoughts and feelings knowingly.

In the public imagination, suppression is BAD. It will destroy your relationships, mess up your ability to do simple things and, of course, it will all end in nuclear war.

Perhaps it was Sigmund Freud who kicked things off, what with him being the father of modern psychology. He said basically that thoughts will eat you alive unless you vented them:

“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”

Thing is, despite there being a sound trashing of his theories, people still seem to think we need to always unpick everything that has been buried deep down in our memories. Because Freud.

Must be his authoritative, pointy beard.

Except Freud might be completely wrong about suppression.

You see, a study has said that suppressing memories doesn’t necessarily have bearing on the mind’s function. Suppressing the memories, in the context of this study, lead them to being completely forgotten – repressed. And that turned out to be fine. They didn’t simmer under the surface.

In other words, the memory of a thing or event does not undermine your basic ability to get on in life.

Seems the jury’s out on suppressing emotions – a least a little more than we might have thought.

When suppressing emotions seems to work

Well, suppression seems to work best when you are dealing with good old, white hot rage.

Let’s go back to the whole “vent everything you’re upset about” mindset. As a journalist, I’d argue it has somehow conflated with the individualistic, self-obsessed “me” culture. We vent about EVERYTHING these days, big or small. Sometimes about stuff that’s not entirely helpful. We seem to get upset over everything – even second-guessing a dead person’s thoughts and feelings to justify this rage. We will tweet unhinged fury at celebs if they don’t meet our unrealistic expectations of the world. That’s the downhill trajectory of our celebrity infatuation. The period before this – when we worship them – is hardly more healthy. We become roped into a “Me culture” that allows us to compare our lot with the richest percentile in the world, and moan with abandon when the curtain rail we got doesn’t make us feel like a million dollars.

We will also moan if we can’t afford that curtain rail. Or moan when if can’t eat because we were dumb enough to buy two.

Fact is, suppressing anger is more and more being seen as a good thing. Acting out sets the body into overload. Our pulse races and the system goes haywire. It can build up scar tissue on the heart and possibly contribute to heart disease.

Now, that’s just one outlook. Some studies disagree or simply muddy the waters. But, sifting through the evidence, my takeaway is that the more constructively you deal with anger, the better it is for your long-term health.

Oh, and hitting things, by the way, doesn’t actually seem to help, either.

When suppressing emotions actually works

Let’s hang onto a watchword for a second. One I mentioned a moment ago: constructive. Constructive is good.

You see, there are times when you have to look at suppression from a practical point of view. Practical in that if something is bothering you and you feel the need — the genuine need — to tell someone something, then tell them. If not people will speculate. As an aside, that doesn’t mean you owe them an explanation for having a bad day. Fact is you owe them nothing if you are nevertheless a kind and helpful person. However, there can be a price socially if people misread you. Expressiveness is equated with being agreeable. With being someone who you can get on with. However, context is still key. Sometimes, suppression of socially awkward things can be seen as good, beneficial. There is more research on this to come, no doubt.

Of course, research says not talking in a close personal relationship is utter poison. It creates a tension which those who know us best can spot a mile off.

Final thoughts on suppressing emotions

These are my thoughts. These work for me – you should always seek medical help though if your problems are serious. I’m just talking as a friend.

Keeping it simple, you need to be constructive. Express emotions because you feel like something needs to be said. Something that’s ideally constructive. That goes double for close relationships. Venting physical rage, however, doesn’t seem to do much.

Sharing is good, but use common sense. Is this something that feels better out in the open? Is it something you need to bring up? Perhaps, alternatively, there is something you can actually do to remedy your situation.

One thing that works for me is this: if I’m not sure, I decide to park it. Maybe the thing I’m upset about is something that will pass. A cloud in the sky. I’ll tell my wife, for example, I’m a bit under the weather, and that I may need to have a talk at some point … but the possibility is the cloud will pass.

I then leave it for the rest of the day.

If by then end of the day, or the beginning of the next, the matter is still pressing then I’ll talk.

Remember, though, that works for me. It’s my own personal gig, and something I’m sharing as a friend. If you have issues that may be serious see a professional.

See you in the next post.