I will never forget the last scene of the 1975 movie, “The Stepford Wives.” I was only 14 at the time, but I understood the chilling implication: Meticulously coiffed, serene ladies — even if they had to be turned into robots — were more desirable than the messy, emotional women who openly expressed their feelings.
Unfortunately, this exaggerated tale exemplifies a deeply rooted theme in our culture, which is still alive today. That is, women have been taught and are encouraged to keep their negative emotions, such as anger and frustration inside, while maintaining an outward demeanor of calm cheerfulness.
Men, too, are told to keep some of their most heartfelt emotions under lock and key. Even today, it is more socially acceptable for a man to show anger than tears. Whereas women are expected to keep so-called “male” emotions inside, men are often chided for allowing the outside world to witness feelings that are labeled as so-called “feminine,” such as vulnerability and fear.
Mix these long-term cultural norms with the tidal wave of optimistic affirmations flashing across our social media screens and it’s a wonder we’re not all imploding. An article published in The Atlantic notes that studies have linked the repression of emotions to increased stress and that emotional expression is a common trait among the long-lived.
In this piece, the author interviews the co-founder of the Emotional Intelligence Skills Group, psychologist David Caruso. In answer to her comment about how people seem to be more comfortable in expressing positive emotions over negative ones, Caruso answers that “American culture demands that the answer to the question ‘How are you?’ is not just ‘Good,’ but sometimes ‘Great.’” He goes on to say: “There’s this relentless drive to mask the expression of our true underlying feelings.”
So how can we appropriately express our negative feelings? Caruso recommends using what he calls “emotion words.” For example, if someone asks you how you’re feeling, instead of retorting with the perfunctory “I’m fine,” you can be more honest with a simple, yet more accurate reply such as: “I’m somewhat overwhelmed today.” He also states that it’s a good idea to pay attention to your physiological signals. For instance, if your shoulders and jaw are tense, ask yourself if you’re worried or stressed out about something, and then try to pinpoint the possible causes. Practicing this kind of self-awareness can give you the skills to react to others in more appropriate ways.
A Psychology Today article states that holding back negative emotions is not always the most adaptive strategy. The author cites a study that shows how people in middle adulthood often control their negative emotions in ways that lead to avoidance in confronting them — “and they were less likely than younger people to seek social support when they’re sad and angry.”
In much the same way that Caruso recommends self-awareness, the author states: “The better you understand yourself, including your emotional triggers, and the better you’re able to cope when those triggers set you off, the more likely you’ll know whether it’s okay or not to vent.” Of course, the safer you feel, the easier it will be to share negative emotions. This coping mechanism is actually productive because it may not be to your advantage, let’s say, to vent too much — if at all — to your boss, coworkers, and clients.
In conclusion, know that you have every right to feel whatever emotions may surface. Yes, they may be negative, and yes, they may even be somewhat irrational. But no matter how many may people lecture you about staying strong and how many sunset-strewn quotes you’ve tried to ingest that declare how it’s your duty to turn the horrible events of life into something positive, you’re still going to feel what you’re going to feel.
So don’t push those negative emotions down. Don’t let them fester under the subconscious so that they boil up as increased stress and overall unhappiness. Instead, be mindful about why a certain negative emotion has struck, and then think about how and with whom you can safely share it with. And if all else fails, do what this author does: While doing your dishes or driving your car, crank up the tunes and swear a blue streak!