Whether it is expediency in parenting or preparing us for the reality of our world, we all learn before we are too old that it is not OK to express all emotions in public, if at all. The phrase, “If you cry I’ll give you something to cry about,” was commonly used when I was a little girl. It was understood that boys were not allowed to cry at all, because, “Big boys don’t cry.”
Anger and rage are treated the same way. A woman that gets angry is summarily dismissed as a bitch and a man that explodes is often seen as violent and out of control. The immediate death of a politician is any show of uncontrolled emotion, except of course, passion.
There is an excepted amount of emotion that can be shown in public. Excitement, laughter and contentment are all commonly seen. But our society is very uncomfortable with someone crying in the grocery store for instance, or a couple having an actual argument in public. If you showed true anger in a store, you would be gently escorted out. Don’t even try it on a plane!
Unfortunately for many of us, it is difficult to recreate the feeling and express the emotion later. It might have been terribly frustrating at the time and you may have been furious, but it was not OK to scream at the idiot, but now, it is over and it is not always possible to recreate the response.
A similar thing has been said about our stress level. Our bodies were designed to respond to a threat. There is a whole series of events that occur when the threat is perceived and then we relax. Unfortunately, the stresses in our society are often things like sitting in traffic, waiting in line ups, forcing ourselves to spend our days doing jobs in unnatural situations, like sitting in front of a computer for most of the day or serving customers that come in all shapes and sizes. These stresses don’t have the sudden hit of a lion jumping out at you or the immediacy of slipping on the edge of a cliff.
The result of all of this is that we go through our days feeling things that we cannot act on. We feel emotions that we cannot express and we feel stress that does not have a definite beginning or end. When the traffic finally moves, we do not have the same relief as having the tiger walk away or getting purchase on a cliff. Instead, we often enter a building that has poor air quality and a chair for us to sit in.
So many of us have learned to ignore the emotions in the first place. We are no longer aware of the stress hormones in our blood and we no longer even recognize that something made us angry or sad.
The funny thing with emotions is that if we don’t express them, they park themselves in our bodies and stay there. In order for an emotion to move through us we have to feel it completely. We have to let the energy build and escape, as it would have naturally if we had not been taught to repress it.
When these emotions get trapped in our bodies they continually try to break out. Many people have experienced a disproportionate emotional response to something minor. You forget something and really let yourself have it on the way to work. Or, you drop something and become furious. This does not mean that you are going insane or losing your mind, it is just these pent up emotions are trying to be expressed and when they see a little crack in your veneer, they try to get out.
People that expertly contain all of their emotions often end up with sicknesses. Trapping pain in your body causes your body stress and you become ill. Many a cancer survivor has realized, only after becoming sick, that they were terribly unhappy in their lives and did not allow themselves to express, or acknowledge their own pain.
So what to do, what to do? You need to express the emotions that are in you. This does not mean that when the cashier gives you the wrong change you yell at them in public, or that when someone cuts you off in traffic you get out and confront them on the street. We are still responsible for our behaviours regardless of how we are feeling.
What I am suggesting is that you take the time to feel the emotions that you do not allow yourself to feel while you are in public. If you need to cry, wrap a blanket around yourself and put on some sad music and cry. If you need to rage, get a pillow, some time alone and yell and scream into it. If you are glad or proud honour it through creating art or music or indulging in movement that works to fully allow yourself to express the emotion and celebrate it.
It is probably worthwhile to point out that worry is not an actual emotion. Worry is a form of thinking. It might be attached to an emotion, but it is not a true emotion. I am not recommending that you take time out to worry. If you are worrying, you need to identify the thoughts that are causing the worry and write them down. When you see them on paper it is easier to recognize them for the thoughts that they are.
Worry is either about changing something in the past and wishing that it did not happen or being concerned about something that has not happened yet. You can spend all of your life arguing with your past and it will never change. Byron Katie likes to make the point that you will lose, but only all of the time.
Worrying about the future is just as futile. Worrying does not stop bad things from happening. It does nothing to prepare you for the bad things that might happen. If you need to think about what you can do if a certain eventuality occurs, think about it, make a plan and then stop worrying.
So here is your assignment. Find some time when you can misbehave. Get the appropriate supplies and indulge in actually feeling some of the emotions that you have not allowed yourself to express. This can be painful. This can make you feel “out of control” but that is the point. The pain that you will feel while expressing your emotions is a fraction of the amount of pain that you cause by trying to suppress the emotions, but it does occur all at once. The eventual result is often a feeling of lightness. You may find that you feel happier than you have in a very long time and that is an emotion that you can express, even in public.
Back in 1994, psychologist Thomas Moore wrote that your living space is a three-dimensional self-portrait. Its less-than-pristine places mirror tangles in your mind and energy, and you can’t clean up one without cleaning up the other.
Some of the bits that were edited out of Martha Beck’s column for Oprah magazine.