Until emotions are expressed, they aren’t fully felt
I turned over the idea in my mind for several days: maybe, if I donated a kidney to him, my son would still be alive. As I pondered the idea, it stirred something in my chest. I certainly felt it bodily. Sitting in a Waffle House with my wife, I turned to her and said, “I have struggled with something. Can I tell you? I’m struggling with the idea that perhaps I should have donated a kidney to Barry.”
The flood waters opened, right there in the Waffle House. I did my best to stifle them. After all, no one wants to watch a total stranger weeping into cheese grits. But whatever I had felt before was nothing compared to what I felt when I expressed my struggle out loud.
It happens in your body
There’s a reason we call emotions feelings—you literally feel them in your body. Think about what you literally feel when you get angry. Heat in certain parts of your body? A tightening of your throat? Perhaps a ball in the pit of your stomach? Every emotion has a physical component.
Less obviously, the physical component can arouse the emotion. Though there has been some controversy around her results, Harvard researcher Amy Cuddy has pretty convincingly made the case that consciously chosen body language can affect your feelings of confidence.
Even older research supports the idea. In 1988 German psychology professor Fritz Strack conducted an oft-referenced study in which participants were asked to either hold a pencil between their teeth (making them use the same muscles they would for smiling) or between their lips without touching their teeth (making them use the same muscles they would for frowning) while viewing cartoons. Note that they were not told to smile or to frown, but simply instructed to hold the pencil a certain way.
The teethers scored the comics as significantly funnier. It seems that just using smile muscles raises your mood.
It happens in the classroom
I see this play out in the classroom all the time. Beginning speech students learn that though the information in a speech matters, speaking is more about the transfer of emotion than the transfer of information. (Without going into a lot of detail about it, just note that speaking effectively enhances information with emotion, increasing its impact and making it more memorable.) I encourage them to make use of some of the oldest technology known to humans to make their points with their audiences: storytelling.
Almost every semester, someone tells a meaningful personal story that leads to tears in front of the audience. Tears are not the goal, but it happens. When it happens, it often surprises the student.
“I had no trouble when I wrote the speech, and even when I rehearsed it,” one student said. “But when I delivered it to an audience, it got way more intense.”
It doesn’t have to be out loud, though. Since our son died, I have, of course, experienced waves of grief arising at unexpected moments. Those waves come most predictably, though, when I talk with someone about him or when I write about him. Writing this piece on Medium brought the grief to the surface as strongly as the day of his death.
It happens in life
So why would you want to stir those emotions? Wouldn’t it be better to just never say or write anything? Won’t that keep them from arising at all?
That has certainly been a common belief, especially among men of my dad’s generation. Dad served in World War II as a paratrooper, captured at the Battle of Anzio leading to 18 months in conditions of deep deprivation in a German POW camp. He kept all his experiences bottled up inside until he was in his 80s. A counselor at the Veteran’s Administration told me Dad had the worst case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder the counselor had ever seen.
Dad finally began talking about his experiences, and found it hard, like experiencing the trauma all over again.
But after finally expressing his complex emotions around that life-shaping period, he experienced the peace that follows a storm for the first time in his life. He died not too long after, but with a measure of contentment.
He found that through talking. I find it more often through writing. In any case, I think this is a significant realization that you can verify for yourself and benefit from.
As Brene Brown has pointed out, you can’t selectively numb. If you try to numb pain, you also numb joy. Life is about feeling. Feel it fully. Express your thoughts. It may be as simple as keeping a journal. If so, keep it. You may fully feel the pain when you do, but you’ll also fully feel joy.
Just don’t keep it bottled up. The world will be poorer if you do, and so will you.