Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Why express your feelings?

I see advice repeated over and over again without clear justification for why we should behave this way. A classic example is the advice to express your feelings. I'm not saying this is bad advice. I suspect that there is something there but that we aren't given any compelling reasons for it.

Under pressure

I'll start with an example of really bad reasons. I've discussed this here before. In the 19th century and in the early part of the twentieth people often thought of the brain on analogy to a hydraulic system driven by steam power. They did that for the same reason that a lot of people imagine the brain working like a computer now. It was new technology and you could do some pretty amazing stuff with it.

One consequence of thinking that way is that pressure has to go somewhere. If your whole system is driven by steam power and you allow that steam power to keep building up it will eventually explode. If feelings drive our psychology the way steam drives a hydraulic system, then we need a pressure valve to blow off our feelings or else we'll explode.

The problem is that there is no evidence to support this. To the contrary, people who "depressurize" by blowing off their feelings actually get worse and worse at controlling them.

This bad thinking still lingers in the background when experts tells us that we should express our feelings.

Real, true, authentic?

Being in touch with your feelings will make you a better person as well as a better parent and partner. Being true to your emotions can’t help but make you feel better about yourself, for you’re able to be authentic.
That's Barton Goldsmith Ph.D. writing at Psychology Today. The old conclusion is still there—Goldsmith warns us not to "bury" are feelings because, he claims, bad things will happen when we do—he talks about "toxic energies", a concept that is more akin to the sort of pseudo science yoga instructors flog than anything someone with Ph.D should be talking about. Along with the old, bad argument, however, something new has slipped in.

Exactly what this new argument consists in is hard to decipher, not just for us but for Goldsmith himself.
When you express how you really feel (in an appropriate manner), problems get solved, relationship issues get resolved, and life is easier. In addition, you will like your life better because you’re not holding on to unhealed or confusing feelings.  
When you express how you REALLY feel. Okay. That makes a certain sense. You might say things that aren't true. Marie tells Aiden that she thinks he's a really sweet guy that she's sure someone will find attractive but she's not ready for a relationship right now when the truth is that she thinks he's a pathetic, spineless wimp. That's a good example of not expressing what you really feel except that, uh oh, it implicitly accepts that there might be good reasons to sometimes not express your feelings.

Goldsmith accepts this and argues there are times when feelings should not be expressed and that there are ways they should not be expressed. "The purpose of expressing your emotions is to convey your true feelings, and to be open and honest, not to embarrass or blast another human being."

And we're back to the idea of something "real" or "true" that is, well, where exactly? Inside us? Yes, apparently. Goldsmith writes about "what’s truly going on inside your head." Again, this is undefined. And what if these true feelings might hurt? It might well be that telling Aiden the truth will motivate him to change.

Oddly, Goldsmith also thinks that there good stuff and bad stuff going on inside your head that needs to be balanced. He argues that we need to get to be as good as expressing the good stuff as the bad. But if our feelings are what is "really" inside us, what difference does it make whether we express them or not? Are our feelings somehow invisible to us until we express them?

Actually, that sounds plausible to me although I doubt Goldsmith would agree. We use metaphors such as "what's really going on inside your head" but you can't look inside your head. Just try it if you don't believe me. All we have is thoughts and thoughts are just expressions. You can say "I feel sad" out loud or you can say it in your head just as you can read this sentence out loud or say it in your head. You can say it whether it's true or not.

If you take the time to read the whole article you'll find a confused jumble of ideas.

  1. Feelings are natural things that spring up from some source inside me.
  2. Expressing my sadness will help me get over it.
  3. Learning to get as good at expressing positive feelings as negative ones will give us emotional balance.

The god inside me

A bad reason to express your feelings would be to manipulate other people into treating us in certain ways. No one else is responsible for your feelings. We could argue that we shouldn't hurt other people by saying things that will give them negative feelings and that is true in some cases. But it's not your job to make me happy when I'm feeling miserable.

Why do we even need to say this? Because of the assumption Goldsmith (and many others) operate on that feelings are natural, that sadness, joy, anger, relief, and so forth are things that just spring up inside us. Because they are natural, they can't be questioned. We can reasonably argue that people shouldn't shit in the kitchen but not that they shouldn't shit at all. The same logic has to apply to negative emotions if they are natural. That said, unless you did something to directly cause someone else's anger or pain, you aren't responsible to do anything about them and you have a right to expect them to only express these feelings in appropriate ways at appropriate times.

At the same time, expressing feelings is a huge part of what we human beings do.

I could go on circling like this for ever so I'll get off the merry-go-round. There is no natural source of feelings inside me. Every feeling entails a judgment, a judgment not about what is inside me but what is outside me.

Let's go back to Marie and Aiden. Why does she not tell him the real reason she doesn't want to enter into some sort of sexual relationship with him? There are a number of possibilities.

  • She doesn't want to hurt him and she believes he is easily hurt.
  • She thinks he should stop being such a wimp but she doesn't think he'd listen to her.
  • She thinks he should stop being such a wimp but thinks it is up to him to figure this out for himself.
  • She just wants to get away from him and this cringe-making conversation as fast as possible so she is brushing him off.

Marie need not be aware of which of these apply as she refuses Aiden. Anyone one of them or, indeed, all of them may apply. Or there may be some other reason such as that she'd actually settle for Aiden because she just wants sex right now but she's convinced a better option will be available at the party tonight if she can ditch Aiden now. The point is that the real reason is not something inside her but a choice she is going to have to make and live with.

And if that's rue, and I think it is, the key lesson about feelings is not to express them but to actually have them.

No comments:

Post a Comment