Suppressing intense feelings can carry a heavy emotional toll. When letting it all out just isn’t a good option, here’s a healthier way to cope.
It’s Thanksgiving dinner and your crazy uncle has you cornered, describing his rigid political views and offering incendiary commentary on the week’s news. Part of you is tempted to let loose with a tirade of your own, but you don’t want to ruin the holiday or upset your entire family. So you decide to keep the peace by biting your tongue — perhaps the right thing to do for holiday harmony, but potentially stressful for you.
Suppressing emotions is not a good long-term strategy, of course. Among other things, it has marked negative effects on your emotional and physical health. But in certain situations — at a party with in-laws, dealing with an irate customer at work, interacting with a difficult coworker — it may not always be advisable or in your best interest to “express yourself” fully.
You don’t have to choose between social graces and your sanity, though. While you need to “make a distinction between feeling your feelings and expressing them,” says psychologist Gay Hendricks, PhD, cofounder of the Hendricks Institute and author of many bestselling books, including The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level (HarperOne, 2010), there are ways to go about it that don’t make you feel inauthentic or send your stress response skyrocketing.
Challenges to Overcome
- Uncertainty. If you’re taken off guard by an unpleasant encounter in a social setting, you may have no idea how to respond — or you may be unsure if the situation calls for you to express yourself or hold back.
- Feeling phony. You may feel you’re lacking integrity or inauthentic if you don’t speak your truth. Or you may feel a moral obligation to express your feelings.
- The “ready to blow” effect. Any emotion, if held down long enough, tends to become more concentrated, sometimes turning into a simmering rage you may feel frightened of or uncertain how to handle.
How to Cope
- Be honest — with yourself. “Is it a good idea to express your feelings all the time? No,” says Hendricks. “But in all situations, you can tell yourself the truth.” If you must temper your reaction for someone else, acknowledge internally that’s what you are doing, he advises. “When you hide your emotional responses from yourself, it throws off your integrity.”
- Name your emotions. Sounds easy, but, says Hendricks, “a lot of the time we don’t know what we’re feeling.” For example, we’ll often react with anger when, really, “we didn’t know how to say to the other person, ‘I’m afraid’ or ‘I’m sad.’” When you have a strong emotional reaction, try to identify your true feelings and reflect on what’s prompting them, instead of unleashing on the other person.
- Talk it out in advance. If you know you’re headed into an emotionally charged situation, talk about what you expect will happen with someone else in advance. Describe all the emotions you think might get triggered, says Hendricks. That preemptive conversation will help you stay calm in the moment.
- Be a neutral observer. When faced with an intractable difference of opinion, look at the situation as an opportunity to learn more about the other person, Hendricks suggests. Pretend you’re a sociologist trying, very neutrally and calmly, to understand another species. “If you do something inarguable — if you just listen and ask questions — the other person can’t really argue with you,” says Hendricks. If asking questions feels like a stretch when you really disagree with someone, try neutral, observing phrases, like: “Wow, you have strong feelings about that.”
- Shift gears. If you’re really stuck, “take three deep breaths and change your body position,” says Hendricks. Changing your body position keeps you from getting frozen in fight-or-flight mode. Likewise, rhythmic breathing quiets the body’s stress response. Try to make each breath four to five seconds long on the inhale and four to five seconds long on the exhale. And then just keep on breathing.
Jon Spayde is a regular contributor to Experience Life.