Have you ever experienced being confused by your feelings or getting a sense of being “numb” to what’s going on inside?
In my case, I typically spend much of my time “living from the neck up”, and I’d wager many of us share this tendency. By that, I mean that we tend to think much more than we allow ourselves to feel.
Perhaps this is due to the messages we receive about feelings and emotions. Generally, we’re encouraged to be stoic and to see emotions as inconvenient or something to be avoided so we won’t be seen as weak.
Why have we been taught these kinds of lessons? Most of us grew up with the idea that emotions should be hidden, kept to ourselves and, should any rise to the surface, changed swiftly if we’re to keep ourselves together.
In a recent Twitter post, Ariana Huffington (founder of online portal The Huffington Post), wrote, “The power of reframing: Whenever my sister and I were upset about something growing up, my mother would say ‘Darling, you control the clicker. Just change the channel’.”
In response, American psychologist Jonathan Shedler wrote, “Psychological perspective: This sounds more like the power of denial. Like all psychological defences, it reduces distress in the moment but comes with long-term costs. Especially when the unspoken meta message is, your negative feelings are unwelcome.”
Suppressing negative emotions or bottling them up can affect not only our mental health but also our physical well-being. A 2013 study by the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester in the United States found that people who bottled up their emotions increased their chance of premature death from all causes by more than 30%, with their risk of cancer diagnosis increasing by 70%.
Bottling up our feelings can also lead to struggles with anxiety and depression, and it typically amplifies emotions when they next visit us. For example, a person might lash out over a seemingly trivial issue; in fact, the issue simply serves as a tipping point for the weight of emotion they have long been struggling to contain.
A common expression we might find among older people (40 years and over) is “I never needed to express my feelings and I’m doing fine”. For many, well-practised suppression and denial might give the impression that they’re “fine” but in reality they might be far from it.
I suspect we find emotions difficult to deal with because it’s only in recent times that we’ve started to learn more about them and how they affect our well-being. Our parents and grandparents might not have known how to deal with emotions and, having been taught by their parents, they passed down the message of “keep calm and carry on”.
Emotions can be messy and complex and, therefore, uncomfortable to deal with. For men, feelings were traditionally seen as being the domain of women, making it difficult for men to express themselves. “Boys don’t cry” is a sad and harmful lesson to teach.
As I’ve said before, all emotions serve a purpose and carry important messages calling for our attention. If there’s any “weakness”, it lies in the lessons that emotions are to be ignored and that suppression is a strength. Neither of these is true or helpful.
One of the ways you can begin to connect with your emotions is through the practice of “Focusing”, a technique developed by American psychologist and philosopher Eugene Gendlin (see focusing.org/sixsteps for a guide). Focusing takes us from living from the neck up and into the “here and now” with ourselves without distraction or our minds wandering, as they tend to do.
In counselling, a common phrase I use with clients is to “be intentional” about how they understand and relate to themselves and others. It’s easier said than done and Focusing is a method that can help.
It’s so important that we learn to overcome well-intended though misinformed ideas about our emotions. Ignoring what’s within us doesn’t make it go away, and suppressing what we feel only ends up increasing our sense of isolation.
Being more in touch with ourselves helps us to understand not only our own needs better, but it also helps us relate to and be more compassionate toward others. (For anyone who might prefer listening to reading about this, email firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be happy to send you guided audio exercises for free that I’ve recorded.)
When we befriend our emotions, we can heed the messages they have to offer, process them, and move on. Of course, this is rarely a quick process, but it’s one that offers a great deal of insight and wisdom and helps to overcome the tradition of being afraid of ourselves.
Dr Alvin Ng and Dr Chua Sook Ning of mental health NGO Relate Malaysia will discuss men’s mental health on July 7 at 8pm on Instagram. To join the discussion, follow @relatemalaysia.
Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email email@example.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.