Many of us hope for lives that imitate beer commercials, all happiness and fun. But that fantasy sets us up for disappointment because our lives have more than one dimension, and true emotional health is about experiencing the breadth and depth of our feelings and our lives.
The very nature of life means we will all face losses and difficulties. Yet many of us have been socialized from an early age to ignore loss and hide our real feelings. Most of us have seen the angry child dragged over to a playmate to hiss through clenched teeth, “I’m sorry.” Many of us were once that child. Not to say misbehaviour should be ignored; but we can be responsible for our behaviour without having to lie to ourselves and others about what we’re feeling.
Sometimes we learn to mask one feeling with another. The women in my family, for example, would express sadness but not anger; the men would express anger but not fear or sadness. I vividly recall the day my grandfather died, more so because it was the first time I saw tears in my dad’s eyes. He came out of the bathroom so sad and ashamed for not having “better” control.
Think of the stress and wasted energy many of us expend struggling to submerge our feelings instead of learning to express them in healthy ways, such as crying when sad or being assertive when angry. In 1992 The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reported that emotions are tied to our autonomic nervous system, which controls our heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, respiration, and perspiration, showing clearly that physical and emotional health are interdependent. A 1997 Journal of Abnormal Psychology study reported that not expressing feelings impacts our health and longevity.
Expressing feelings may be difficult in part because we’ve been trained to see certain emotions such as anger, sadness, and fear as negative. Often we’ve learned to repress these feelings by distracting ourselves with sugar, adrenalin highs, drugs, alcohol, accomplishments, and sex. Yet anger can be a great motivator for change. It was anger about the loss of clean air and water that got people lobbying for change through the environmental movement. Fear can have similar positive effects, causing us to step back from the abyss and live another day. Case in point: it was only when my mom faced a serious bout of pneumonia that she quit smoking.
Our dislike of certain emotions may be founded in life experience. We need only flip through the newspaper or listen to the news to see examples of anger or fear causing harm. Yet the feelings themselves are not the problem.
The challenge is to step towards emotional health and learn to experience and express our emotions appropriately. We need to become familiar with our emotions in order to express them well. A first step may be to reflect often on the question, “What am I feeling right now?” Another option may be to talk with someone who can listen without judging – a family member, friend, or a counsellor. Be wary of well-intentioned folks who quickly reassure or offer advice. An emotional support is someone who witnesses our feelings and encourages us to feel them, someone like the friend at my aunt’s funeral who hugged me and said, “Let the tears come?
If expressing your feelings with others is too intimidating, consider expressing them through writing, drawing, music, or even screaming into a pillow while in the bathroom with the shower running.
If the thought of expressing anger or sadness is just too much, an easier place to begin may be to express happiness. According to a report in the August 2003 American Journal of Psychiatry, discovering and experiencing our sources of joy may increase our emotional health. Further, a 2001 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology contends expressing positive emotions impacts on longevity.
For many of us joy springs from a smile, kind word, or touch from a loved one. So improving our relationship skills can only increase our joy quotient. Ask yourself, am I a good communicator? Am I interested in others as well as myself? Am I sensitive to others’ moods and emotions? Is there balance in my relationships where both people give and receive support? Am I playful? All of these questions point to learned skills that can lead to lasting and loving relationships, another indicator of emotional health.
For a more structured approach to emotional health, check out Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ (Bantam, 1995). Goleman uses research to point out how our emotional quotient (EQ) has a larger impact on living successfully than our intelligence quotient (IQ). It also shows how we can dramatically improve upon our EQ by focussing on five factors: knowing our emotions, managing our emotions, motivating ourselves in life, recognizing emotions in others, and handling relationships.
One last thing: in the closing scene of Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” (1979), Brian (Graham Chapman) and others about to be crucified are cheery and lustfully singing, “Always look on the bright side of life.” Is this an expression of emotional health or an irresponssible case of denial? To live longer and better, we need to be able to differentiate and know and express our true feelings.