A 21st century first world problem that is potentially one of the biggest health risks we face.
I have been meaning to write an article about this subject matter for some time. It is a favourite soapbox subject for me in workshops and seminars but strangely enough I have not really committed it to our site. It is one of the greatest challenges to our emotional resilience I can think of.
This has been prompted by some research that has been released in the last few days. In a nutshell, the research suggests that if we feel the emotions and feelings that we want to feel we are happier overall. In other words, if my internal dialogue is that I should feel more angry about certain subjects, if I can feel angry I will be happier. Click here to see the BBC website take on this.
In principle , agree that to be able to feel the range of emotions and feelings that want to feel will help me be happier I think this is a deeper issue which I will address below.
This is the issue of avoidance of feelings.
In our workshops and seminars we discuss that there are 6 core feelings that psychologists seem able to agree we are all hard wired with from birth. These are happiness, fear, anger, hurt, shame and sadness.
Whilst we have a rich language for describing or hiding how we are feeling it all comes back to those key, or core feelings, or a combination of them. For example when I am excited there will be a combination of happiness and fear in there.
The challenge we have to our emotional and physical health is that our culture in the UK and a great deal of the west does not value the expression of feelings that are not of a positive nature. The quicker thinkers reading this will have already identified that of the 6 feelings named above only one is positive in it’s impact, and four of the remaining five are about feeling vulnerable.
Going a level deeper we do not value or encourage vulnerability in this culture. It is seen as a weakness. With perceived weakness immediately comes the fear (feeling of vulnerability) that our vulnerability will be taken advantage of by others so we do not express it. Furthermore we have become very practised at denying and suppressing our negative feelings altogether.
Suppressing feelings does not make them go away
Because we have become so good at suppressing feelings of vulnerability many of us do not even currently possess an active awareness of how we are feeling. This does not mean, however, that we do not feel. It means that many of us are running in neutral, coasting and sometimes oscillating between anger and happiness. The anger is often used to cover up or express the other feelings of vulnerability. For example I will not admit to being scared but I may act out some anger as the next best thing because when I am angry I am not vulnerable…or so I tell myself.
A wise man called Bill Spinoza said “What you cannot be with, will not let you be.” In other words, just because you suppress and hide your feelings they do not go away. In fact they return with more force and often at time when it is entirely inappropriate such as emotional outbursts at work.
The health part
Suppressing feelings is unhealthy for our emotional health and our physical health and , therefore, our overall wellbeing.
Our emotional health
While we are suppressing our vulnerability we are lying to ourselves and trying to behave in ways in which we are not truly ourselves. In other words we are not being our authentic selves. This leads to challenges such as negative beliefs, shame spirals and, of course experiencing these feelings with the greater intensity mentioned earlier. So imagine experiencing a sad event such as bereavement or loss of a job and not allowing the time to express and process those feelings at the time. They can return with more strength later and could be experienced as depression.
All of our emotional health challenges can be linked back to, amongst other things, our inability to be with and process our feelings.
Our Physical Health
The physical effects of prolonged stress are in our experience just the same as the physical effects of prolonged suppression of feelings. There’s a lot of evidence arising through research linking stress to long term health issues
In addition, while it may belong above in the emotional health area, addictions are often, at their core, down to numbing our feelings. One of the greatest addictions we have to face in the western world is the one that leads to the obesity epidemic we have yet to feel the full force of. Many stuff their feelings by stuffing themselves…comfort eating.
These feelings have a lot to answer for.
In reality it is the way we deal with them and how society as whole deals with feelings that has a lot to answer for.
In headline terms I am not advocating everyone everywhere sharing their feelings with everyone. We see this on social media and it is neither welcome nor healthy.
What we advocate is that as individuals we have a responsibility to understand our feelings, allow them the proper space they need as circumstances and situations demand, and be honest and authentic with ourselves. That way, at least, we can take steps to have a happier and healthier life.
The final point.
In the last paragraph I effectively suggested that by allowing more time for feelings that are really uncomfortable and often painful we can be happier. For many that must sound counter intuitive (bear in mind it is that very intuition around feelings and pain that has got us to where we are).
We have long observed in our work that because of the uncomfortable and repressed relationship we have with vulnerability many of us do not really know when we are experiencing happiness. If I am continually stuffing my feelings away then it is likely that the moments that I assume I am experiencing happiness is actually relief rather than actual happiness.
I’ll leave you with that thought.
If you want to work on having a healthier relationship with your feelings then you know where we are.