By: Noureen Benhalim, Psychologist
Recently in my work with clients, in conversations with friends and family, something has come up over and over again. I’ve realized that most people will hold onto their anger (sometimes for years) because it is easier than experiencing other emotions like sadness.
Anger is the more “acceptable” emotion. Sadness feels threatening. It is more pervasive and therefore, doesn’t feel safe. Anger is a secondary reaction, but sadness sits underneath, and we often stifle it, (purposely or unconsciously). And we do this simply because sadness triggers feelings of deep shame and insecurity.
The “gender-appropriate” rules we learn for emotional expression are the reason men have a harder time expressing their emotions. They’ve been socialized to inhibit emotional and mask emotional expression. There is a need to maintain emotional control and strength above all. Women learn that crying is acceptable, but they are often told to “stop being so emotional” “sensitive” or to use logic rather than emotion in their decision-making.
It’s no wonder that the rules that govern our emotional expression perpetuate a shame based-culture. We are ashamed of how we feel.
Women learn to diminish their reactivity and men learn that being vulnerable compromises their masculinity.
But what we are actually compromising is our emotional well-being.
We make assumptions like:
“If I allow myself to really feel sad, then I will never stop being sad.”
“If I allow myself to feel sad, then I will become overwhelmed.”
“If I’m sad, then I will lose control over my life.”
“If I allow myself to feel sad, then other people will get tired of hearing me complain.”
“If I’m sad, then that means I’m weak.”
None of these are true.
Emotions are your body’s way of signaling something important to you. When you avoid or constrict any type of emotional pain, on the short-term, you may gain temporary relief and distance. On the long term, however, what was once adaptive or protective behavior no longer serves you. You externalize, become aggressive, or act out. Or you internalize and withdraw. Your emotions always find a way to leak out into other areas of your life.
1. What is the threat behind my emotions? What am I afraid might happen if I explore everything I’m feeling?
2. What social rules are preventing me from fully experiencing my emotions?
3. What is this pain trying to signal to me? What is my body trying to tell me?
4. How willing am I to tolerate some discomfort in order to push through what I feel?
Let yourself experience and stay with the pain that you feel. Allow it to come over you. You may initially feel discomfort. That’s ok. Remember that discomfort is not a sign that something is wrong. Try to let go of any need to control your pain. Tolerate it, contain it, know when to regulate it, and when to give yourself space if you’re feeling too overwhelmed. And know that it will eventually come to pass.