Why expressing your emotions is not ALWAYS such a good idea

Why expressing your emotions is not ALWAYS such a good idea

The other day I was talking to a friend about a classic scene in the movie, Analyze This (HERE and beware…serious language warning!). In this scene, Robert de Niro plays a mobster seeking counsel from Billy Crystal who's an analyst. 

To cut a long story short, de Niro's character is struggling to manage his frustration and anger and ultimately takes it out by shooting, multiple times, a pillow!

The scene ends with him reporting that he feels better and this reinforces one of the most common myths in psychology and therapy…that the best thing to do is to express (or let out) our emotions. 

Quite simply, this is not always true!!!

Why not? 

Because in the case above, all that would result is that the behaviour (e.g. shooting the pillow) would be reinforced and, therefore, more likely to occur again in the future. So in simple terms by expressing anger via hitting out or enacting violently all we're learning (or as therapists and coaches, all we're teaching our clients) is to express more anger! We're also learning/teaching that anger and violence are appropriate ways to express ourselves…and I for one don't believe this to be true. 

Now let me make clear an important, related point…I'm not suggesting in any way that we should repress or hold back our emotions. Emotions, especially powerful, negative ones, need to be acknowledged and in some ways, managed. 

What this means is that we need to be mindful of our emotions, all of them including the "pleasant" and "unpleasant" ones, and we need to enjoy them or find ways to deal with them; but the ways we find to deal with the unpleasant or unhelfpul ones should really be constructive and healthy.

Is shooting a pillow really healthy or helpful? Is punching anything really, ultimately healthy or helpful? Do either of these "strategies" really lead to real and meaningful happiness or teach us anything about living a good life? 

I'm afraid I don't think so. 

But the good news is there are other strategies that will, much more effectively, help us through difficult times and help us, much more, cope with negative emotions and enjoy more positive emotions more often including happiness and satisfaction and control.

What are these? Well, give some thought to the following…

  • practicing mindfulness and trying as best we can to avoid labelling the emotion as good or bad but just realise…it is what it is and all things shall pass

  • mood surfing which involves reassuring yourself that what ever the upleasant emotion it is most likely like a wave and if we can ride the crest then as noted above, it too shall pass

  • understanding the root cause of the distress and asking whether or not we can do something about it

  • if we can fix or change the cause of the problem then do something

  • if we can't fix or change the cause of the problem then accept it

  • making sure we keep things in perspective by asking questions such as…is it really that bad? will it really seem quite so bad in 10 days or 10 weeks or 10 months time? 

  • Is it really about me or am I unnecessarily taking responsibility for something that's not really my fault? 

  • and finally, for now anyway, practising meditation or relaxation strategies which can, obviously, have a calming effect and allow us to think more clearly and helpfully about problems or challenges 

All of these might require some work to master in the early stages but all will be markedly more effective long term and will achieve a much greater reduction in the experience of negative emotions PLUS an increaase in the sense of control we have over ourselves and our lives…which in turn will bring MUCH more happiness!