As I was driving home from soccer practice one night, I was listening to The Darin Olien Show, a podcast that goes over society’s fatal conveniences – the things we do that we’re indoctrinated into thinking we have to, even though those very things are negatively affecting us, and in some cases, slowly destroying and even killing us. In this episode (episode 10), the host, Darin Olien, was going over the fatal convenience of avoiding your emotions. A few weeks later, my Psychology class went over the societal influences which cause us to avoid expressing our emotions, and how that can be harmful to our health. This got me thinking about my own life and my experience with the avoidance of emotions, and I began to notice how relevant this is in society and I decided to investigate further.
We have all grown up with the social expectations that boys aren’t supposed to show much emotion. On the other hand, we’ve been taught that girls are overly sensitive and show too much emotion. These stereotypes have been around for so long that it has become almost normal now. It is evident that, as a society, we all avoid our emotions to a certain extent and it isn’t healthy because it can lead to behavioral and physical consequences.
“It’s difficult for many people to express their emotions and seek comfort for them because they’ve never learned how to do so safely or effectively. Children learn early in life that uncontrolled expressions of emotion can result in teasing, emotional or physical abuse, embarrassment or humiliation, and ultimately rejection,” said local psychologist Michael Kandle. Because we have grown up with all of these social influences surrounding emotions, that makes it harder for some people to open up about their emotions.
As children, we are all influenced by stereotypes. “Society makes up a lot of how we grow up and what we think it is right to become. I think it is extraordinarily difficult to become someone who is unique, because you are affected by so many people that sometimes you can lose yourself,” said Henry Zent (‘22).
I noticed similar things that Zent did as I got older. When I was younger, there was nothing wrong with being true to yourself. Being true to yourself is important because if you are not expressing your emotions, you are not acting yourself and . This means that you are portraying this persona that society wants you to be, not who you actually are. This is because your emotions are a big part of who you are.
As I transitioned into middle school there were many more social influences. For example, with the introduction of social media, everyone cared about more materialistic things other than having fun and being yourself. There was this whole new concept introduced about being popular and your social status that everyone was focused on. Zent noticed similar things, and said, “I think that at least for me, people in middle school and freshman year people wanted to become popular and hang out with popular groups. But in the older years of high school I don’t see that as much and there isn’t a group you have to be accepted by in Oyster River High School.” I now realize, looking back that I too lost part of who I was during middle school. I didn’t express who I truly was in order to “fit in,” and to avoid being ostracized.
As we moved into high school, for many of us our focus changed from social status to just being yourself. Because people cared about status, this led to a decrease in the expression of emotions in fear of being judged. “You get to know yourself so much better throughout high school and as you get older your self confidence improves and that contributes to your ability to deal with your emotions,” said Stasko. Although these focuses shift, it is still very hard for some people to express their emotions.
While for some people it becomes easier to openly express their emotions, there are certain societal pressures that make it harder for others. One of these expectations is typically that males aren’t supposed to show much emotion at all, and that anger and pride are the only socially acceptable emotions for them to express. This causes males to continue to not show their emotions into adulthood. I have experienced this myself. When I was younger I was influenced by peers and stereotypes around being a boy that led to me not expressing my emotions. Although that was a long time ago, I still don’t.
While for males they are told to not openly express their emotions, females are pressured to grow up too fast emotionally. This is because of social influence from things like social media and the need to fit in. “I think that women are labeled as more emotional,” said Ella Stasko (‘21). This label causes them to put on an emotional mask to fit the mold of societal expectations. This emotional mask leads to them feeling as though they can’t express who they truly are. Because of this, some females’ emotions aren’t taken as seriously because most of the time they are viewed as being over sensitive. This is harmful because it makes girls feel as though they can’t express their emotions, and have to fit this perfect mold in our society in order to be accepted.
Holding our emotions in can lead to negative effects. “In addition to worsening anxiety, depression, and anger, there are also physical and behavioral consequences of ignoring emotions,” said Kandle. He explained that sleep, concentration, motivation, social connections, eating habits, and immune health can all be impared due to ignoring emotions. Along with this, self medication in the form of drugs, alcohol, and escapism can be overused.
There can also be long term effects. According to “Why ‘Bottling it up’ can be Harmful to Your Health” by The Hospitals Contribution Fund of Australia, “a 2013 study by the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester showed that people who bottled up their emotions increased their chance of premature death from all causes by more than 30%, with their risk of being diagnosed with cancer increasing by 70%.”
Hawley spoke on these negative effects, and said, “the answer is not to express, but the answer is to discover what is happening inside of your brain while you are experiencing these things, and to a certain extent regulate the negative outcome of that which simultaneously acknowledging its existence, if you just ignore the emotions it can come back and hurt you.”
Others also have things that they do to take their mind off of things. “Soccer is definitely my outlet that I use the most, because at least for me, dealing with them by physically working is the best way for me to do that,” said Zent. Physical exercise is a good way to help with emotions. According to “Benefits of Exercise” by Ulifeline, when you exercise, endorphins are released in your brain and improve your mood. Stasko also uses exercise to deal with her emotions, “I mainly express them to friends or if I’m really stressed or sad about something I’ll go for a run,” she said.
However, physical exercise isn’t the only solution to dealing with our emotions. “The remedy for this is to cultivate relationships with friends and loved ones who respect the importance of emotion and will respond to them with understanding, empathy, compassion, reassurance, and other forms of support,” said Kandle. One of the best ways to actually deal with our emotions is to have people that you can talk through them with.
Hawley finds that opening up to someone allows us to be vulnerable, which is very important. “If you go down that road you might not be able to have those experiences that vulnerability affords you, which is insight into your personality and your self, there are many things that you are not aware of that others folks see in you,” he said.
One other way that some deal with their emotions is to use them to fuel and motivate other areas of their life. “You can take that adrenaline and that anger and you can transmute it into action into steps forward, and not feed more of the anger, fear, guilt and sadness,” said Olien in episode 10 of his podcast.
Avoiding our emotions can lead to a variety of negative mental and physical consequences, but it is so hard for many to actually express them because of. As a society we say there needs to be change about what emotions are viewed as “acceptable” because it is negatively affecting everyone to some degree. Kandle said, “emotions are valuable signals of various needs that require attention. If the emotions are ignored, those needs go unmet, just as ignoring thirst will lead to dehydration.”