During our growing up years, all of us may have been told things like, “Don’t cry”, “You can’t be so weak”, “You have to be strong”. The intent may be good but the outcome of these statements is mostly not so good. Emotions are integral to us. They are automatic and unavoidable. Invalidating someone’s emotions lead to suppression of those emotions, and that tends to have detrimental effects. Emotions and feelings are like energy which need a release for a healthy functioning. Suppressing emotions or hiding feelings is like getting it out of sight but not out of mind.
Anything which is suppressed for long goes to the unconscious mind which eventually gets its release through undesirable behaviours unconsciously. Stoicism and stiff upper lip have often been glorified especially for certain sections of society. The act of expressing emotion is frowned upon in our society. We’ve been told “Don’t cry”, “Get over it” and to brush off our feelings since childhood, giving the impression that emotional expression is wrong. We frequently find ourselves in a position of perplexity, unsure of how to react to a certain scenario.
Emotions serve as a useful indicator as well as a warning signal, indicating how we are progressing through life at any given time. When we experience an emotion, it means our brain has identified a change in the environment that is relevant to us- our health, objectives, or concerns. It brings those things to our attention which emphasizes us to express, not suppress emotions.
While certain pent-up emotions have been regarded as problematic and that it has the potential to cause/worsen the mental illnesses, expressing them can be the key to physical and emotional well-being. The social stigma attached to expressing feelings and emotions, often forces people to shy away from expressing themselves and they fear that expressing, would overwhelm them and the unpleasant feeling will leave a lasting effect on them.
Although it may not feel comfortable or “safe” to express one’s emotions, suppressing, suffocating or hiding feelings can harm one’s mental health. It can lead to harmful behaviours such as using drugs, alcohol, food, or sex to numb any emotion.
Not everyone is as expressive or emotional as the next one. While your feelings are real, there are instances when you are unable to express them. For example, during a job interview, you don’t want to appear unprepared or unable to handle pressure. This highlights the importance of emotional regulation which can be done before or after the apprehended emotional disturbance.
Emotions can be released in many ways – talking, working out, through art-based activities, dancing, music, playing an instrument etc. The fundamental understanding is that it needs to be released in whichever way it suits the individual.
At an individual level, we can practice to deal with our emotions and feelings as it encourages us to pay attention to our feelings, both positive and negative, without passing judgment. It’s also about being in the moment and managing emotions while remaining calm.
The stigma around expression of feelings and emotions can only be fought by first changing our own narrative about the same. We can make ourselves feel more empowered and strengthened by embracing, regulating and introspecting our emotions and not by staying in a state of denial or suppression.
It is important to understand that every individual has the potential to help themselves and all they need is someone to just listen to them without being judgmental and not try to solve their problem. Be a good listener.
Feelings are not subject to right or wrong, they are one’s own experiences and cannot be invalidated on any grounds. We may disagree but we must not invalidate.
As a loved one or a caregiver, it may get overwhelming at times to deal with someone’s feelings or emotions and it is absolutely natural. In those situations, instead of being critical or invalidating, we must refer them to someone else or specifically to mental health professionals. A lot of us find it difficult when someone is trying to express their feelings, mostly because we assume that we are supposed to solve their problem which brings in helplessness or a sense of pressure.
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