We think we have to suppress our emotions. We think that, if we want to be strong, or at least appear it, we have to be totally imperturbable, always appearing calm and collected, masking any and every emotion that reveals the contrary. That’s what “stoic” means right?
Author, clinical psychologist, and the developer of Emotion Focused Couple Therapy, Dr. Sue Johnson warns—from years of scientific research and evidence—that repression doesn’t work. In fact, it’s a danger. In her book, Love Sense, she spends a chapter talking about the right way to deal with emotions. She writes:
“Scans showed that suppression actually heightened activity in the amygdala, ‘fear central’ in the brain. Stifling emotional reaction had a rebound effect: the women became so stressed and tense from holding back that the negative emotional effect was exacerbated. By contrast, the more distancing reappraisal strategy…showed activation of the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that regulates emotion and turns down activity in the amygdala.
Reappraisal intervenes as emotion is being generated and thus is able to modify and shape it. Suppression, on the other hand, occurs after the emotion registers in the brain. We have to work very hard to push down intense emotion; our heart rate speeds up, and stress chemicals pour out. Think of capping a ready-to-erupt volcano: the bottled-up force makes the eventual explosion stronger. That’s why we see people suppress, suppress, suppress, then blow!”
Seneca said, “Every emotion is at first weak. Later it rouses itself and gathers strength as it moves along—it’s easier to slow it down than to supplant it.” Anyone who has tried to stuff down negative emotions only to reach that boiling point where you unleash all that pent-up frustration or anger or resentment—usually on someone who didn’t deserve it—knows the truth behind Seneca’s words.
Strength isn’t in burying emotions. Strength is in regulating emotions, sharing, processing, talking through them. To catch them and break them down when they first arise. Not stuffing them down. Not letting fear or anger or doubt bounce around and bubble in your mind, Not dumping your half processed resentments or disappointments on other people, but transcending them through love and connection and reason.