I find the way people express their feelings—or refrain from doing so—absolutely fascinating. Think of the people you interact with every day: family, friends, co-workers…Even in a relatively small sample like this, I bet you find a wide variety of expressive styles. Maybe one of your colleagues has a tendency towards righteous indignation, while another comes across as unflappable. Maybe your spouse is especially warm and comforting, your uncle is kind of morose, and your daughter is a bundle of exuberance… Emotional expression isn’t just a passive indication of how we are feeling. It’s also a part of who we are, and it creates and colors our relationships.
In a clinical context, clients’ typical expressive styles influence how they approach psychotherapy and how they relate to the therapist. Many clients have difficulties involving maladaptive underexpression, overexpression, or ambivalence about expression.
Emotional expression has been studied in just about every area of psychology…clinical, social, developmental, health… Jeanne Watson and I wanted to write a book that pulled together these separate literatures in a way that was comprehensive, but also clear, practical, and pleasant to read.
Different kinds of nonexpression have different causes and different consequences, and they require different therapeutic approaches. Some people might not express because they are unaware of their emotional responses, so a therapist could help them recognize and label their feelings. Some people might not express because they don’t have any close friends of confidants. They might need help developing and maintaining relationships. Some people might not express because it’s part of their deeply help personal of cultural values to respond privately or stoically. For them, nonexpression might be an adaptive coping strategy.
Not everyone can or should or wants to be a “Let it all hang out” sort of person. Forcing people who believe strongly in emotional self-control to, say, burst into tears, isn’t helpful. They’re likely to experience those tears as coerced or shameful. Sometimes clients find it helpful to talk about their expression-related beliefs with a therapist. Making expression-related beliefs explicit gives clients a chance either to revise their beliefs of to figure out ways of expressing that are consistent with their values.
The venting hypothesis says that people are like boiling pots: they have to let off negative emotional “steam” through expression, or they’ll spill over with all kinds of physical or psychological symptoms. The venting hypothesis sees negative emotions as something to be gotten rid of, and the more you “let out,” the better. The venting hypothesis is quite common in popular culture and clinical lore, but the data just don’t support it.
Our view of emotional expression is qualitative rather than quantitative. We see emotions, both positive and negative, as a source of information about the self and the environment. Expression is a means of processing and communicating this information, but it can be done in adaptive or maladaptive ways. Understanding our feelings can clue us in to what matters to us and motivate us to act accordingly, but endlessly, passively ruminating about our feelings is paralyzing. For most people, it’s important to be able to share their feelings with loved ones, but having frequent temper tantrums at work is generally not a good idea. Ideally, expressing emotions involves BALANCE: We need to be aware of our feelings, but not driven blindly by them. We need to be true to ourselves, but also consider our impact on others, and flexibly adjust our behavior to fit our circumstances.