Bottled up: people who avoid expressing negative emotions

I have encountered some people, most of them men, who avoid the expression of vulnerability or suffering. In some cases, they seem to think that it is the expression of emotion that takes you to a dark place, rather than the experience of the emotion itself. Accordingly, the best way to deal with difficult emotions is to try to bury them down – don’t go ‘there’; hold fast and you will triumph.

In this context, the phrase ‘time is a healer’ can be grossly misused. As if one must simply weather the storm and the ‘unwanted’ emotion will dissipate.

For men who hold this view, there is the added dimension of gender identity. The expression of emotion becomes something associated with women – perhaps even with female irrationality and being the ‘gentler sex’, in need of protection. The man may only have experience of these kinds of defined gender roles. As the man, he must remain in charge, in control. He will keep himself in check and he will make sure that other men do, too, reminding them to buck up, keep strong, stand tall.

But if we bury our pain, sadness, anxiety, where does it go? Does it ever just disappear? You might think that Father Time has seen it off, but all you’re doing is numbing yourself. The emotion is still there; it is part of your fabric. Conversely, by trying to stifle it, you give it greater power. It is now your secret and your deepest dread. The possibility of letting the emotion out is now too terrifying. It represents the opening of floodgates or Pandora’s box – once released, you don’t know how you would stop it, or put things back like they were before.

No one is saying that we should force it or rake through our memories to see which ones were most damaging. Yet there should be no shame in simply stringing some words together to describe what is happening inside; the currents swelling beneath the surface. Our emotions need not define us. To let them out is a way to value and care for ourselves. It signals integrity and humility – what stronger position could there be? But to deny them… now that is a great brutality.

A psychologist once said to me that we should think of emotional pain like a physical wound, and we should keep checking how it’s healing. There of course needs to be some outlet for this process. It doesn’t have to be spoken, it can be on paper. But it is through this expression – even if saying the same things over and over again – that we begin to process and perhaps even move forward.

There’s no doubt that if we decide to share how we feel with others, we need to make sure we’re talking to the right people. Not everyone has the experience, skills or resources to support us without judgement, or help us see from new angles. But then, you also don’t know until you try. And it only takes one person to take that risk, and others around them might start to see that they could do it, too.