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The problem with suppressing emotions

“When you react, you let others control you. When you respond, you are in control.” - Bohdi Sanders

Welcome to blog #56. Today's post is a quick one of the dangers of not dealing with emotions properly i.e. emotional suppression. In short I am pitching to you why you need to be emotionally self-aware which is the first quadrant of emotional intelligence.


Imagine this scenario, two colleagues are behind the doors in a glass office. One is shouting the other is stunned almost wondering what is going on. You find out later that there was a minor misunderstanding but the shouty colleague lost their composure. The shouting episode, like a ballistic email is an example of an emotional over-reaction. Emotional over-reactions make people look unstable, petty or childish. Worse still you can look like an aggressive bully. Either way, it is likely a result of a lack of emotional control. If lack of control is seen in one dimension of people’s lives it might permeate the others - work, home, and other relationships.

If you overreact, you might gain people’s obedience if in a position of power, but rarely is it a long-term solution to building relationships. More commonly it will distance you from others. According to researchers, 5% of people are mood purists and believe that emotions should be expressed in their natural form, for good or bad. Most people, however, try and curb their over-reactions. Emotional expression varies from culture to culture and therefore you should consider context too.

For trivial things, preventing overreaction is easier. You might choose to use distraction - focus on something else until you move past your feelings. For more significant emotional feelings the two main options are to 1) Suppress your emotions or 2) identify and classify your emotions, then rationalise them to responding appropriately. I am convinced that the second option is a better way to deal with your emotions healthily.

Why do people suppress their emotions

When faced with uncomfortable situations, particularly where we lack control, we may try and suppress our emotions instead of facing them. In practice this means trying to dull our response to someone by exerting control over our willpower - 'biting your tongue'. This might be a great shortcut to a seemingly calmer state, but it is not really dealing with the problem.

People might choose this option as it is often quite mentally challenging (i.e. a lot of effort) to face their emotions head on. Facing your emotions head on, might make you face uncomfortable or inconvenient truths (e.g. you aren't as good as you thought you are, your beliefs aren't correct etc). It might mean you need to change something that requires a lot of effort, or it might shatter the story you tell yourself - your identity. This is deeply mentally challenging, and many people prefer to shy away from that kind of reflection. You might for example, suppress your emotions when a loved one is unwell, a close relationship is breaking down or your job no longer feels secure.

The problem with suppressing emotions?

Not facing your emotions head on is storing up trouble for later. This is a classic short-term ease leading to long-term pain. Whilst you might be able to overpower your feelings, emotions are not only related to your brain. Emotions also impact your body, and therefore suppressing your emotions might mean your body is subject to stress hormones for longer - your brain pretends that those feelings do not exist. This leads to long-term health issues. According to research, common symptoms of emotional suppression are high blood pressure, immune suppression, lethargy and ulcers.

Physical health issues are not the only issues that result from suppressing emotions. It will lead to relationship issues too:

1) Suppressing emotions might lead to you being insensitive to or find it difficult to engage with the negative emotions of others. Imagine a situation where your friend’s child is seriously unwell and your reaction isn’t genuine enough, That, will come across as a lack of empathy.

2) You will miss out on an opportunity to state your opposition to something, or highlight in a calm way that something is not right.

3) It makes you quite unrelatable and distant. Healthy emotional expression, both the ups and downs breeds closeness. We all feel emotions, so not sharing it with people might be seen as a choice to exclude someone from your inner thoughts.

So what?

How is this all relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways I want to leave you with before we pick it up next week:

1) Emotional over-reactions are where people cannot control the impulse to do something in the presence of strong emotions. It leads to relationship damage and might contribute to negative perceptions about you.

2) Whilst people can use distraction as an effective way to brush off trivial issues, stronger emotional reactions require either emotional suppression, or working through the emotional feelings to respond appropriately.

3) Emotional suppression is a short-term fix, and like all short-term fixes can lead to both health and relationship issues down the line.

Thank you for joining. Next week - 'Self-awareness. A language for emotions'. Don't forget to sign up to the subscription list.

Other blogs in the emotional intelligence series


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