Marriage Minute #24 Express or Bottle? from my book, Marriage Minutes, available on Amazon.com
Do you remember hearing those encouragements to “let it all out”? And, do you remember hearing people tell you that it is healthier to express your emotions than to bottle them up? Well, the latest research and theory seems to suggest that the first suggestion is seldom true. The second is only true some of the time.
The most psychologically healthy people may well be those who know how and when to express, and how and when to suppress. Or, as the famous marriage counselor, Kenny Rogers, said, “know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ’em.”
In the July 2004 edition of Psychological Science, experimenter George Bonanno reports some beginning research on college students experiencing high stress. The group was at first too small to qualify as valid research, but as numbers have continued to come in, it seems that some patterns are emerging. Bonanno reports that students who were able to alter their emotional responses were better able to manage stress, and adjust to the demands of their life, while students who had a limited range of expression were less able to adjust.
In this and other research about grief, he has said that neither expressing nor suppressing grief will lessen or weaken the grief. Rather, letting the process of grief do its work, understanding, resolving, and making internal peace with the grief is a healing process.
He states that it is more accurate to see emotions as reactions, and not internal forces. “An emotion is really a response, and that response can be either appropriate or inappropriate.” Anger can be used to scare off a threat, and sadness can be used to attract nurture. But over-doing it, or using only one or two emotions for everything, or using emotions to manipulate others can send confusing signals.
The “let it all out” fallacy is often practiced by someone who is angry, and they are quick to express their right to be angry. That’s all well and good, but you won’t force someone into appreciating music by making them sit next to the loud speaker at the concert. Expressing emotions doesn’t have to cancel all the rules of good communication. If by “all” you mean everything you have ever been angry about, or if you mean you want to express anger until you are tired (rather than understood), or if you mean you want to shout your way into feeling better, then don’t let it “all” out.
Expressing vs. bottling up emotions should be decided around the question of whether or not we are ready to express in an honest and redemptive way, and whether the person hearing us is really hearing us, and ready to respond with mutual respect. I am not recommending silence, but I am recommending that expressing emotions can be thoughtful, and it need not be careless. When emotions are believed to be “forces” for controlling the listener, the possibility of choices is disbelieved. When emotions are seen as “responses” but not controlling tools, the possibility of choices is magnified.
[Taken from article, “Emotions and Mental Health”, by Garry Cooper in Psychotherapy Networker, March/April 2005… Used by Permission]