Keeping A Lid On It

  • A particular message has been prevalent for some time in our society - it's good to express your feelings. Let it out. Be in touch with your emotions. It's been particularly aimed at males, especially in recent years with heforshe.org (thanks Emma) and the most recent wave of feminism and the gradual erosion of gender roles in our society. The argument is twofold, one that, although emotional repression can affect either gender, males in particular are taught from a young age to be a big boy, don't cry, all that jazz. Even the phrase 'be a man' is synonymous with stoicism and emotional control. The second part of the argument is that this leads to all sorts of mental health issues right throughout life, and is more likely to lead to abusive behaviours as an adult. Watch that jedi video from Pop Culture Detective on Youtube if you want a lengthier and Star Wars themed example.


    I can agree to some extent. I get that emotional repression can cause problems. I get that there have been some divisive gender roles in our societies. But there's a couple of question marks for me that I can't quite shake. The first one, is if abusive behaviour is the result of emotional repression, why are abusive people so damned emotional? I've had the misfortune of knowing a handful of abusive people and the one thing that characterised them was not a lack of emotional expression, but an excess of it. And in fact the reverse has been true too - the most compassionate people I've known have been characterised by a mastery of their emotions. You can't put other people first if you can't put a lid on your own needs.


    I would posit a different explanation - the childhood factor that raises the risk of later abusive behaviour is not a lack of emotional expression, but conflict. We've all heard that the abused are more likely to abuse, but also there's a TED talk about the effects of divorce on children that paints a similar picture.


    My second issue with the let's-all-rip-off-our-knickers-and-let-our-feelings-waft-in-the-breeze thesis is that emotions are the enemy of reason and logic. The entire scientific process is an effort to keep emotions out of truth, and there's a shit ton of data on how our emotional needs are continually skewing our perception of reality. Logic, fairness, honesty and integrity are all about your ability to put your emotions to one side and observe the facts. This is crucial to trying to be a less selfish person, affecting everything you do from the way you vote to your opinions on refugees to the way you respond to someone who's distressed or angry.


    Now I'm not saying all emotions are bad, you need some emotions to have meaningful relationships and to care about the distress of others. But being able to master your emotions when you need to, both externally and internally, is pretty damn important. 'Some emotions are good' does not mean 'most emotions are good'.


    Clearly this message is one that's become contentious in some modern circles, I'd be keen to know what any of you think.

  • In regard to your first question, I think it is precisely the fact that emotions were repressed that leads to an abusive person's lack of emotional control. Think of it like they repressed their emotions so long, that once they finally release it, they will thereafter release emotion more frequently because they lacked the time to develop self control of emotions, and feel that it is easier to release the emotion rather than repress it like they had done for so long.

  • Yes, that's a strong explanation.


    How do you go about teasing apart the effects of repression and conflict? As they so often happen together, I wonder if there's any way of figuring out whether the one is more influential than the other, or if each is responsible for a different set of ill effects.