The Art of Healthy Expression
“But feelings can’t be ignored, no matter how unjust or ungrateful they seem.”
“And just like that, I snapped...out of nowhere...I was so angry.”
I would not consider myself a very angry person, but there have been times when it comes out and surprises me. The “out of nowhere” sentiment is meaningful to me - it can really feel like out of the blue something makes me particularly frustrated and often my reaction can feel unnecessarily big.
Maybe it’s not anger for you...it might be sadness or fear. Most days you have a low level of it hanging around in the background, but nothing too serious. Then after a few weeks of this, it all comes out at once. Pretty frustrating, isn’t it?
This will be a slight oversimplification, but it helps illustrate the concept. We can boil our feelings down to four core emotions: mad, glad, sad, and fear. There are nuances beyond these four words but ultimately, everything we feel comes out of one of those. You can imagine each one of those emotions (mad, glad, sad, fear) as having a well inside of you.
Experiences, memories, conversations...everything...puts various drops into those wells. Someone cuts you off while you’re driving - a small drop in the mad well. Someone cuts you off and slams on their breaks and you almost hit them...a drop in the mad well and a drop in the fear well.
Gradually, these wells will fill up - some faster than others - but without any emptying, they fill.
And this is where we get ourselves in trouble. We often speak of these feelings “overflowing” and it is with good reason. When the well is too full...every drop coming in has to go somewhere...and it starts to spill, overflowing...out of control.
The problem for me starts when the feeling comes into my mind and I dismiss it. “I shouldn’t feel angry about this…” I let the drop fall into the well and pretend it never happened. So when that last drop that sends it overflowing falls in, it’s more than just that one drop - it’s a build up of feelings that have sat dormant waiting to be released.
When we invalidate our feelings and refuse to express them in a healthy way, we fill the wells up. The key here is healthy expression. Maybe getting angry every time I get cut off in traffic isn’t warranted, but instead of shaming myself for feeling that anger - I should acknowledge that it made me angry. If something my wife says to me makes me sad, it would do me a great disservice to instead act like it did not affect me. I’m allowing the well of sadness to fill up, and eventually that’s going to start playing into other completely unrelated areas of my life. There has to be some release. I need to acknowledge that I’m sad. The well needs to be regularly drained.
For some people this starts in therapy. They come in and express a backlog of emotion that they often didn’t even know was there. “I didn’t even know I felt that strongly about this…” And this is part of the reason therapy works. But after acknowledging and experiencing that emotional release, what does it look like to be healthy?
We have to be willing to share our core emotional experience with others no matter how inane or pointless it may feel. We have to be willing to face the discomfort of being judged for having a feeling and acknowledging that it is real, and it is there, and it is affecting how we see ourselves and the world.
Letting the wells fill up makes us sick. Expressing our core emotional experience in a healthy way is the beginning of understanding our emotions and removing their mastery over us.
How have you let your wells fill up over the past week? How can you express these emotions to someone close in a healthy way?