Suppressing your emotions all the time might actually do you more harm than good, suggest recent studies.
Millions of people live or work with cool customers, who seem to be missing an emotional battery, or perhaps saving their feelings for a special occasion. People who — unlike the mining operators in the Gulf of Mexico — have a mechanism that prevents blowouts all too well.
Sang-froid has its place, especially during a crisis; but so does Sigmund Freud, who described the potential downside of suppressed passions. Lose it. Just once. See what happens.
Cost of restraint
The study of what psychologists call emotion regulation is fairly new, and has focussed far more on untamed passions than on the domesticated variety. Restraint is usually associated with good mental health and runaway emotion defines many mental disorders.
Yet social functioning is a different matter. Research in the past few years has found that people develop a variety of psychological tools to manage what they express in social situations, and those techniques often become subconscious.
Most scientists agree that a person’s range of emotional expression is a matter of inborn temperament. Growing up, is in one sense, a living education in how to manage that temperament so it elicits help from others and does not torment oneself.
“As we grow, the prefrontal areas of the brain develop, and we become more biologically able to control our impulses as well,” said Stefan G. Hofmann, a professor of psychology at Boston University.
Why you should lose it? Psychologists divide regulation strategies into two broad categories:
Pre-emptive: occurring before an emotion is fully felt.
Responsive: coming afterward. The best known of the latter category, and one of the first learned, is simple suppression.
Suppression: While clearly valuable in some situations (no laughing at funerals, please), has social costs.
In one 2003 Stanford study, researchers found that people instructed to wear a poker face while discussing a documentary about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made for stressful conversation partners.
In another, published last year, psychologists followed 278 men and women as they entered college, giving questionnaires and conducting interviews. Those who scored highest on emotion suppression had the hardest time making friends.
“An individual who responds to the college transition by becoming emotionally guarded in the first few days,” the authors wrote, will most likely miss opportunities for friendships.
In one experiment, published last year, Dr. Tamir and Brett Q Ford of Boston College prepared participants to play a video game in which they would be hunted down by monsters.
Before playing, the study volunteers rated what type of music they wanted to hear and what kind of autobiographical memories they preferred to recall. They were much more likely to want to recall fearful memories, and to prefer to listen to ominous music, than others who were expecting to play a video game in which they would build a theme park or solve a simple puzzle. They were, the authors argue, adopting an emotion that would serve them well in the game.
Don’t be inflexible
“If staying calm and patient and confident is what has worked for you in crisis situations in the past,” she said, “then it may become automatic. And the more automatic it becomes, the less of the actual anger, or panic, you feel.” All of which makes it a treacherous task to express the real thing, at exactly the right moment.
The most socially skilled among us — those who project the emotions they intend, when they intend to — are not inflexible. They conceal (i.e. suppress), adjust (by quickly calming anger) and tolerate (by openly expressing emotion) at different points, rather than falling back on their subconscious reactions.