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Saturday, December 07, 2019

Walk with me down memory lane for a moment. When you were a child, did you have a garden hose outside your home? When you turned the water on, how did the water come out? If it was a basic hose, I’m guessing it flowed out naturally, almost lazily, and in one direction. Then, when you put your thumb over the end of the hose, how did the water come out? This time, the water was highly pressurized and it sprayed outward unpredictably, in all directions, right?

“What does this have to do with anything?” you astutely ask. I’ll get to that in a moment.

One of the more enduring stereotypes about gender differences is that women are more talkative than men, particularly when it comes to expressing their emotions. While some stereotypes are not very accurate, this one is fairly spot-on. However, generalizations are just that and don’t apply to every individual. Plenty of men are very expressive and many women are reserved. There is nothing wrong with being quiet and introverted just as there is nothing wrong with being social and outgoing. When we’re talking about different personality types, one isn’t any more or less “ok” than the other.

Personality aside, however, some men and women are uncomfortable expressing their emotions. In fact, some of us are uncomfortable even acknowledging our emotions to ourselves. This can apply to positive emotions. For example, some people are uncomfortable feeling happy and content, as if they feel they don’t deserve such wonderful emotions. This is often the case for individuals who have very low self-esteem, significant depression, or have long been abused and/or neglected. On the other hand, some of us are so uncomfortable with our negative emotions (e.g., hurt, guilt, anger, depression, and anxiety) that we attempt to suppress them, to pretend they don’t exist.

There are volumes of literature and research showing that suppressing and ignoring our negative feelings can be detrimental to our emotional health, as well as our physical health. For example, if gone unchecked, anger can result in hypertension, which can strain the heart, leading to hypertensive heart disease, stroke, and chronic kidney disease.

“OK,” you say. “Simple. I’ll just not be mad. I won’t feel anxious or depressed.” Such optimism sounds wonderful, but if we don’t know how not to feel such things, our efforts often amount to just ignoring the feelings, which is not the same thing as not feeling them (think of the 3-month-old child who’s convinced you no longer exist because you’re hiding just out of sight. You know you’re there. The family dog knows you’re there. But your baby is oblivious).

Over the years, I’ve encountered many people who were clearly experiencing strong negative emotions, but were trying mightily to deny it even to themselves. “So what?” you say. “People don’t like to feel depressed. Besides a little hypertension, does it really matter that much?”

Often, our negative emotions dissipate and give way to more positive ones within a short amount of time. Whatever we were sad, anxious, or angry about gets resolved and our mood improves. Sometimes, though, this is not the case. Sometimes, our mood lingers or it snowballs because one stressor piles onto another, leaving us feeling very overwhelmed.

Here’s where the story of the garden hose makes its grand entrance. Our negative emotions are a lot like the water in that hose, and ignoring or suppressing such emotions is like trying to prevent the water from escaping the hose by placing our thumb over the end of it. Rather than magically disappearing, our emotions continue to build below the surface, often without our awareness. They intensify and take on a life of their own. Eventually, they escape, far stronger and more difficult to manage then when we first felt them. And like the pressurized water, our intensified emotions may emerge at unpredictable times and in unpredictable ways.

Anger is a great example of this. Initially, we feel some frustration and a little anger. After ignoring it for a while, we might find ourselves becoming short-tempered and “losing it,” sometimes exploding at people who just looked at us the wrong way.

When we try to ignore our feelings, we’re really ignoring a part of ourselves. We don’t know what to make of these feelings or what to do with them, so we’re tempted to pretend they don’t exist because it’s easier that way. But this way lies half a life! Not only are we setting ourselves up for greater emotional problems down the road, we’re also cheating ourselves out of a fuller existence.

We all want to feel happy and content in life. It can be hard to achieve this under the best of circumstances, but extremely difficult when faced with challenges of one sort or another. Genuine happiness comes from learning to accept ourselves (warts and all) and what life throws at us. But, when we ignore our feelings because they distress us, we’re really ignoring a part of who we are and this creates further roadblocks to genuine happiness.

On the other hand, when we explore our feelings, however painful and uncomfortable they may be, we often find we are more resilient than we thought. We become more whole because we no longer are splintering off part of ourselves. This allows us to reclaim ownership of our emotional experience. When this happens, we find a garden hose turns into a fountain, from which flows genuine happiness and healing.

Dr. Gur-Aryeh is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Saddle Brook, NJ. He works with a wide variety of clients seeking mental health treatment and specializes in mood disorders and addiction in particular. If you would like to contact him, you can do so at [email protected], by phone at 201-406-9710, or through his website at www.shovalguraryehphd.com.

By Shoval M. Gur-Aryeh, PhD