On expressing feelings: Emotional honesty has its limits

Posted8/16/2020 6:00 AM

Many writers and speakers in the mental health field -- myself included -- have stressed the importance of being aware of, honest about, and open with the emotions we experience. If we are sad, for example, we must share our sadness as part of our working through it. Or if we are excited, we want to be free to express our excitement to the fullest. And, if we are angry, we need to fully express that anger or run the risk of doing harm to ourselves and perhaps even those around us.

A good deal of our emphasis on such awareness, honesty, and openness in our emotional lives is in direct response to a culture which too often insists that we repress, ignore, mask, or deny our feelings. Most of us were not raised with any positive understanding of the role of emotions in our lives, let alone with a sense of how to constructively express them.


It is certainly far healthier to express feelings than to attempt to deal with them the way most of us are taught. Yet our legitimate concern in the mental health profession with emotional expression has sometimes led people to assume that just "letting it all hang out" is somehow the best approach.

Though there have been some who have argued for such an attitude, I'd like to raise a cautionary voice based on my experience as a therapist. I believe there are a number of factors which must always be taken into account when we consider how to deal with our feelings.

First, we want to be aware of the situation or environment in which we find ourselves. For us to throw up our hands in exasperation may be fine at our desks, but might be rather dangerous while speeding down the Tri‑State. We may laugh out loud with a group of friends at a party; it would be less appropriate (and inconsiderate) when a friend whispers a joke to us during a lecture we're attending. Where we are needs to be a factor in how we express our emotions.

Second, let's consider the other people involved. It may be appropriate to express to our spouse, "Sometimes I get so frustrated I wish I wasn't even married" (provided, of course, we go on to explore these feelings and work to resolve whatever issue or situation we are frustrated by). On the other hand, we wouldn't want to say to our 3-year-old, "Sometimes I get so frustrated I wish I didn't have children." There is no way a child can understand such a statement or how to respond to it (except perhaps by feeling frightened, guilty, and angry).

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We also have to take into account what sort of relationship we have with the person (or persons) we are expressing our feelings too. It is probably OK to share with a co-worker that we sometimes just hate coming into work. I'm not sure that we'd want to make the same statement to our boss. It's just not something most bosses are willing to hear, and they are in charge (or at least they are as long as we want the job).

Third, it is a good idea to consider what impact this emotional expression has on us. We may decide to take a stand and let another person know exactly what we feel, but we should be ready to pay the price. There are some times when it makes sense to say, "Yes, I do have some strong feelings about this, but it is not worth it to me to express them publicly at this time."

Finally, we need to honestly question our motivations for expressing emotions at a particular time, to this particular person, in this particular way. Are we using our expression of feelings as a weapon -- to strike back or get even ("I hate you! How does that feel, huh!")?

Are we using emotions as a defense -- hoping that because we have strong feelings about something others will not push us to deal with it ("Let's not talk about it. I don't want to get upset.")?


Or are we just letting off steam because it feels good ("Well, I just need to say it; I feel better; I'm sorry if it bothers you.")?

Perhaps a way to pull all this together is to say that emotions can be expressed both destructively and constructively, depending on our taking into account these considerations. When we express our feelings 1.) in the right place, 2.) to the right person and with sensitivity to their needs and the limits of our relationship, 3.) when we are aware of and willing to deal with the consequences of our expression, and 4.) when we are aware of our own motive, then our sharing of feelings can be constructive for ourselves and others. If we just dump our feelings wherever, whenever, and on whomever we want to, it is likely that the consequences will be destructive.

Finding a middle ground between hiding all our emotions and just dumping them isn't easy. But since we're blessed -- or stuck -- with emotions whether we like it or not, we might as well work on learning how to deal with them.

• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaracare Counseling with offices in Naperville, Downers Grove, Geneva, and throughout the North Shore. His book "Mix, Don't Blend: A Guide to Dating, Engagement, and Remarriage with Children" is available online.

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