What is the Best Way to Begin Expressing Emotions?
In the last article in this series on emotional regulation, we talk about the different means and mechanisms by which people learn to actively suppress their emotions. The goal of understanding and becoming increasingly aware of this is to help set the stage for healthy emotional expression and release. In this article, we will discuss some fairly simple guidelines and suggestions for expressing feelings.
Most people are able to quickly realize how they are suppressing, realize they probably need to stop suppressing, but fear stopping. They fear if they do express their feelings a great dam will burst open and they will not be able to stop the outpouring of emotion. There is some potential truth in this fear. Due to ongoing suppression, people stockpile feelings and they build up like steam in a pressure cooker. We cannot guarantee you that at times you will not lose control over some of your feelings and feel overwhelmed. We can assure you that you will not die or “go crazy”. We can also assure you that over time that pressure will begin to lessen and dissipate, which will make it easier to regain healthy control over your feelings.
With some coaching, hopefully, we can teach you how to prevent the dam from bursting open and you become overwhelmed with feelings. First, imagine a sink faucet. A faucet has a handle that allows you to control and regulate the flow of water. We want to begin allowing some feelings out, but in a controlled manner, just like a faucet. Because you have become unfamiliar with your faucet, you may let out too little or too much at first until you get the hang of regulating those feelings again. The important part to remember is that you are in charge of the flow. The continuum of control dictates that a certain amount of control is healthy.
What follows are two important rules not to violate when expressing emotion:
- Intensity: We do not want to express feelings that are getting too intense. If you are starting to feel like the dam is bursting open, then it is getting too intense. Expressing feelings too intensely is exhausting and for some people feels traumatizing. We are not interested in traumatizing people with their own emotions. When you feel yourself reaching this threshold it is time to turn the faucet off and take a break. Those who cross the threshold of intensity find it difficult to shut off and end up feeling wiped out because they usually violate the rule of duration as well.
- Duration: When we express our feelings, we don’t want to express for too long. For most people, 15-20 minutes is long enough. Expressing feelings tends to be emotionally draining, not unlike working out is physically draining. Sobbing for three hours while curled up in the fetal position is not healthy and usually reinforces the avoidance of future emotional expression. Just like physical exertion, there is a point of diminishing returns. Similarly, part of emotional regulation is taking breaks in between to recover and regroup.
Catching things before they get too intense and being mindful of time makes it easier to shut off the emotions. After it has gotten too intense or gone on too long, it can be harder to shut things off. You might be thinking, “Why are we turning the feelings off if our main goal is to express them?” The reason is moderation. We can’t let out everything we have been stuffing all at once. It needs to be done in stages so we aren’t devastated in the process. Think of turning off the faucet like putting the lid on a jar and putting it up on the shelf. They aren’t going anywhere and when we are ready we can take it down, open it up, and deal with some more. So how do you turn the faucet off? For those who worry you won’t be able to stop the feelings, we remind you that you have been an expert at suppressing and over-controlling your feelings. Earlier you identified a handful of methods of suppression. We suggest using healthier methods, such as distraction. Go do something to take your mind off of what is producing the feelings for a while. Distraction used in moderation is healthy. Distraction used excessively to avoid and suppress, is not.
- Safety: Some of our feelings (sadness, fear, shame) make us vulnerable. To protect ourselves from further injury and pain we need to think about to whom, and when, we make ourselves vulnerable by expressing emotions. We do not want to express your feelings to be a negative experience where your feelings get dismissed, ignored, rejected, berated, or used against you. In fact, this is usually what causes people to begin suppressing in the first place. In most instances, you should be emotionally safe as long as you pay attention to Person, Place, and Time.
- Person: It is important for you to know who in your life is safe to express emotions with. Like children seeking a parent to soothe their feelings, adults also like to receive support, validation, and assurance when we express our feelings. Your job is to know who can provide that to you and who cannot.
- Place: It’s also important to be mindful of your situation and surroundings. Various settings may not be the best place to work through feelings. For example, getting some negative feedback during your performance review at work may not be a good place to get tearful. Various other public settings may bring unwanted attention to you. In these instances, it may be better to suppress the emotion and process it later in a different location.
- Time: Like Place, we also need to mindful of time constraints. If you have to leave for an appointment in five minutes or have the neighbors coming over, it may not be the appropriate time to begin processing feelings alone or even with someone you trust. These are situations where we can exercise healthy control over expression and delay those feelings until a more appropriate time presents itself.
Hopefully, these guidelines will help you develop enough comfort to let down your defensive methods of suppression and take a risk by allowing your feelings to come out. Remember our primary goal is to re-engage and reconnect with our feelings to allow both the experience and the expression to occur. If you are interested in exploring your own emotional inhibitions and learning to begin expressing feelings in a healthy manner, feel free to contact IPC so you can schedule a consultation with one of our psychologists or therapists so we can help discuss treatment options. Please call us now at 763-416-4167, or request an appointment on our website: WWW.IPC-MN.COM so we can sit down with you and complete a thorough assessment and help you develop a plan of action that will work for you. Life is too short to be unhappy. Find the peace of mind you deserve.
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