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In an influential study, a group of Stanford researchers asked pairs of unacquainted people to watch and then discuss a documentary about the World War II bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
As part of the study, some participants were asked to “behave in such a way that your partner does not know you are feeling any emotions at all.” Compared to the people who were free to express emotions, those who were told to hide their feelings experienced spikes in blood pressure and distraction. Also, compared to the pairs who were allowed to express themselves naturally, both people in the emotion “suppression” groups tended to feel less rapport and less positivity toward each other.
This study is one of many that suggest concealing emotions can have negative repercussions — both for the person doing the concealing and for those around them. More research has linked emotion suppression to higher rates of anxiety, insomnia, and other unhealthy outcomes.
But while suppressing your emotions is often bad, experts say it can sometimes lead to better outcomes.
Of course, there are the obvious social situations — ones many of us encounter on a daily basis — in which expressing your feelings would be uncomfortable or embarrassing, says David Caruso, a psychologist and research affiliate at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. If you’re in a meeting with a boss or client, and they say something you find “utterly ridiculous,” telling them how you feel would probably do more harm than good, Caruso says.
But even when you’re dealing with people who are close to you — a family member or friend — there are situations when spilling your guts may exacerbate negative emotions, not assuage them.
“Emotions are contagious, and you can impact the emotions of others by sharing how you feel,” Caruso says. He points out that emotions often arise suddenly, can be fleeting, and are dependent on a lot of contextual factors, from how well you slept to how recently you’ve eaten. “How you’re feeling in the moment can be the product of all these unrelated things,” Caruso says. And by expressing what you’re feeling, not only do you pass some of your emotion to others, but you also have to deal with the aftermath of that disclosure.
Say that, in a fit of anger or frustration, you share your negative feelings with your spouse or a close friend in a way that makes that person feel responsible. Opening up may be satisfying in the moment, Caruso says, but it could also be damaging to your relationship in the long run. In many cases, he says, it would be better for all involved if you took some time alone to come to grips with the real root of your feelings.
“There are situations when spilling your guts may exacerbate negative emotions, not assuage them.”
Caruso is quick to add that “there are all sorts of costs associated with emotion suppression.” Along with the psychological burden of trying to keep your feelings to yourself, you may pay a relationship penalty. “When you express an emotion to someone, you’re sending them data on how you’re functioning, and that’s a good way to gain that person’s support,” he says.
Also, trying to conceal or swallow your emotions is taxing. “Our brain’s ability to attend to and process information is limited when we’re using cognitive resources to suppress or emotionally check out,” he says. (Hence the Stanford group’s finding that emotion suppression can be distracting.) “But when we just flail around and say whatever we’re feeling,” he adds, “we can get into trouble.”
Other experts agree. “The way we’re built, we naturally want to describe what we’re feeling to others, but the reality is that sometimes this would hurt other people or would be embarrassing to us,” says James Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. And when you share your feelings with someone else, you risk them refuting or rejecting the validity of what you told them, which can be devastating. “In that situation, you may end up worse off than if you’d kept what you were feeling to yourself,” Pennebaker says.
He says a close examination of your emotions and an honest assessment of where they’re coming from can be more helpful than simply declaring what you’re feeling. “If you’re just focusing on your emotions, you’re often missing the point,” Pennebaker says. “The examination is the helpful part.”
Of course, verbalizing your feelings can help you make sense of them, he adds. This is why psychotherapy and other forms of talk therapy, which allow you to express your emotions without fear of social or personal blowback, is so helpful. “But my research has found that putting your emotions into words by writing them down can do what talking would do,” he says.
Some of Pennebaker’s work has shown that writing about emotional experiences can reduce measures of distress and depression and even improve immune function. Writing out how you feel, he says, seems to offer biological, mood, and cognitive benefits that are comparable to verbally sharing your feelings — without the risk of angering someone or making yourself feel silly or rejected.
“There’s no right way to write about your emotions,” Pennebaker says. “Just find a quiet place and do it for 15 minutes, three or four times a week.” He recommends thinking about what you’re feeling and why you’re feeling it. You can write your thoughts longhand or on a computer — or even with your finger in the air, he says.
Some of Pennebaker’s advice touches on an emotion-regulation strategy known as reappraisal. In simple terms, reappraisal is a method of identifying and reframing the underlying causes of an emotion in ways that may allow you to let it go. For example, if you’re feeling angry with your partner, recognizing that you’re hungry or stressed out — and that these factors, and not the thing your partner did, are the true cause of your anger — can help you get over your negative feelings.
And while reappraisal can seem a bit like emotion suppression, research suggests it comes with few of the negative side effects of trying to ignore or hide emotions.
Opening up about your feelings can be a great way to understand and manage them, but a “full disclosure” approach to sharing your emotions may not always lead to the best outcomes.