It seems most Americans like to think of themselves as thinking beings who happen to feel. But research into the human brain shows that we are instead feeling beings who are able to think. I believe our failure to recognize this causes untold frustration and the current epidemic of people being diagnosed with depression.
Culturally, we tend to adopt the stoicism of northern Europeans. In my family it was expressed as, "not showing yourself in public". This meant one should not get emotional or air emotional issues in public. We often hear people saying to people in emotional distress, "Keep a stiff upper lip" or "pull yourself together". I've watched someone crying at the death of a loved one while people trying to comfort them by patting them on the shoulder and saying, "there, there, don't cry". As a culture we are uncomfortable having emotions in public or seeing other people express them.
Stoicism considers "negative" emotions to impair logical thought. Some emotions which might be considered negative include; anger, jealousy, fear or grief. We are taught to hold in our emotions or to deny them outright. This is simply not human. Humans emote. To deny the very essense of what we are is simply not natural and contributes greatly to modern mental illness.
The American culture is actually a tapestry of many different cultures, all of which have their own values and rules. Some cultures within America may allow a greater expression of emotions while some may be even more restrictive than the mainstream. All of these influences will affect how tuned in you are to your own emotions and it is important to consider them.
Families, too, have their own rules about emotions; to what degree emotions can be expressed, which emotions can be expressed and who can express them. Perhaps Dad can express anger, but no one else can. Perhaps Mom can cry, but no one else can. Perhaps no one is allowed to cry because it is interpreted as "weakness", but everyone is allowed to be angry.
Gender roles further complicate the picture. Men are typically not allowed to express fear or sadness. These emotions are considered "weak" and/or "feminine". Women are typically not allowed to be angry. This is considered "strong" and/or "aggressive". The outcome?
When men are scared or sad they may express it as anger. (This is called "anger as a secondary emotion" because anger is not the primary emotion, it is being expressed for another emotion, i.e. fear.) If their anger becomes violent, they are diagnosed with "anger issues". If they stuff all their emotions until they become a seething volcano, what do you expect? Repressed anger erupts in violence or turns inward into depression. If it turns outward into violence, we send them to "anger management" classes. If it turns inward into depression, we send them to the doctor for antidepressants. We are violating nature at every turn. The only way a man can be a fully functioning healthy human is to be allowed to express all of his emotions. Men should be able to say, "I fear you are going to leave me when you do that" instead of blowing up and being aggressive and controlling. Then we can honestly, openly deal with the fear which is actually present rather than an angry outburst which is not even the issue.
I have heard many people, including therapists, mistakenly say that anger is always a secondary emotion. They maintain that anger is never a legitimate emotion, it is rather a substitute for some other emotion. Anger may even portrayed as a "bad" emotion. (And if anger is a "bad" emotion, men who express anger must be "bad" too? What a Catch-22 that is. You can't express any emotion except anger, but if you express that one you are "bad". Not fair.)
I think that anger may sometimes be a secondary emotion. However, I also think that anger is a legitimate and necessary emotion of its own and serves a very, very important function. Anger is our self defense. It is what makes us stand up and say, "Hey! You can't treat me like that!" It is how we detect and protest injustice. Many people equate anger with violence, hence its bad name. This is simply wrong. Anger is simply an emotion. It can be quiet and sane or it can be violent and scary. That is a choice. But anger is not violent in and of itself. Living without it causes untold problems of its own. Let's look at gender roles and women for an example.
Women are allowed to cry and express fear, but heaven forbid they get angry. When we take away a woman's anger, we take away her ability to defend herself. We take away her ability to fight back or express her distress in an honest, open manner. So her anger gets turned inward and becomes depression, or it seethes out slowly as nagging, whining, bitching or passive aggression. Women should be allowed to say, "I really get mad when you do that!" Then her partner can address what's actually going on. (I'm reminded of Whoopi Goldberg in "The Color Purple" spitting into her abusive husband's lemonade. The situation does not change when she does this. Since she says nothing, nothing gets addressed. Change does not occur until she stands up to him and tells him how angry she is and walks out on him.)
There is such a strong taboo against women being angry that I have often seen women smile the entire time they are trying to deliver a message that they are angry about something. This dual message ("I'm angry you are treating me this way" and "Everything is lovely") not only confuses people but compromises their perception of the woman as strong and confident. These are two more things which women are not allowed to be, so the woman smiles to deny them.
What are the effects of denying some or all of our emotions?
In our brains, the sections which produce emotion are more ancient than the thinking parts. Feeling came before thinking. And for a good reason. Our emotions act as a radar. Through them we experience the world around us and gather information about it. They detect "blips" in our world, they produce "intelligence" about what is happening around us and they filter this "intelligence" back to the thinking parts of our brain. These feelings, or intuitions, are then communicated to the brain where we make decisions about how to react.
What happens when this information is suppressed or ignored?
The logical brain we are so proud of is compromised. How can we make logical decisions if our "intelligence" is faulty or missing? When I was younger I stuffed my emotions, or denied they even existed. And I stumbled blindly through life making stupid decisions. Only as I get older have I undone this programming and begun to tune back into to my emotional radar. How does one do this? It's tricky, but well worth the effort.
Tuning Back Into Your Emotions
Emotions are not usually logical or verbal. They are usually just feelings we experience in our bodies. Some emotions are expressed as punctuation rather than words. I may experience a "!" or a "?". It is a feeling of alarm "!" or an alert that something has happened which does not make sense "?". A "!" may indicate I should be on guard. A "?" may arouse my curiosity or alert me to pay more attention to discrepant information.
The experience of other emotions may be more corporeal. When I'm angry my gut tenses, my teeth clench, my chest tightens. Sorrow may be experienced as heaviness in the chest, my eyes tearing. Fear hits me in the stomach like an electric bolt through my gut and may cause my "hackles" to rise or my skin to tingle.
What purpose does this serve? Just to make me uncomfortable? Yes, exactly. What??? We want to uncomfortable? Yes, we should. This is how we are supposed to work. But somewhere along the way, Americans seem to have adopted the notion that we have a right to be happy all the time. This is utter nonsense and denies 90% of the human experience. Humans are not designed to be happy all the time, else why do we come with tear ducts and a fight-flight-freeze response? Why should we want to be uncomfortable? Because discomfort moves us to act. And lack of action results in feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and ultimately, depression.
Anger tells you something is happening which is unjust. It should provoke a defensive reaction. Sorrow tells us we have experienced a loss. Fear tells us we are in danger. And envy alerts us to needs or desires. Jealousy may communicate to us that something, or someone, we love is in danger. (It may also alert us to our own insecurity.)
Being in touch with our "negative" emotions can have positive benefits. I've noticed the more I am aware of discomfort the more I am aware of comfort. When I am attuned to my emotions I'm more aware of how the warm sun or the cool breeze feels on my skin. I'm more aware of the smell of mint or the sound of wind chimes tinkling. The sound of laughter and the smell of fresh baked bread are more tangible. And since I've learned to stop and attend to emotive messages I've become much more aware of why I act the way I do. I'm also more aware of why other people act the way they do.
People who spend a lot of energy suppressing emotions they deem unpleasant, abnormal, negative or wrong end up reacting to things without knowing why. I see this a lot in trauma survivors. They suddenly go off on someone, burst into tears or have panic attacks without ever knowing why. This can make one feel out of control and crazy. Other people may make derogatory remarks about your emotional instability (i.e. "hysterical", "explosive", "melodramatic"). Psychiatrists may diagnose and medicate you (i.e. "Bipolar Disorder", "Borderline", "Histrionic").
People who spend a lot of energy suppressing emotions and memories may also end up having dreams or nightmares. Your body and brain will find ways of getting what they need in spite of you. If you deny what you feel or know during the waking hours your brain will work on it at night when you are asleep. Your brain will fight to communicate to its thinking parts emotions it has experienced and memories it has stored. Somehow it knows these are important bits of information necessary for our survival, even when we try to "outsmart" the process by ignoring or denying them.
Being aware of all of your emotions is the definition of "mindfulness". Unfortunately, many people are taught that "mindfulness" means manipulating your emotions to drown out unpleasant feelings and replace them with pleasant feelings. This is absolutely incorrect. Mindfulness is being aware of whatever feelings you are having and listening to them. Responding to them. Experiencing them. Knowing and understanding them. Sit quietly and listen to what they are telling you. Doing so may be scary or painful if you have repressed a lot of unpleasant memories or feelings. You may have to start with small bits at a time. You may have to take a break when it becomes too much. But only by tuning into and honoring them will ever be at home in your own body.