What’s the Healthy Way to Express Feelings?

Four yellow smiley faces express different emotions

Psychologically, people tend to struggle with a false alternative. On the one side, they bottle up their feelings. On the other side, they express their feelings, but in an indiscriminate way.

Mental health professionals have largely failed their patients/clients in this area. Few if any mental health professionals encourage emotional repression in their clients. The great majority tell their clients to, “Express your feelings. Don’t bottle them up!”

Seemingly good advice, right? Especially if you’re a repressed person who never acknowledges or expresses your emotions. But this advice raises an obvious and important question: In what context, and manner, do I express my feelings? The answer: In a context where it serves your rational self-interest to do so; and in a context where you have had a chance to assess to what extent, if any, your feelings are reasonable and conform to objective reality.

That’s a mouthful, to be sure! And it is not always obvious which contexts are appropriate and which ones are not.

If you feel, in a certain moment, like your spouse is uncaring and inconsiderate, then you had better not accuse her of such unless you are prepared to defend it—and live with the consequences, since words do have consequences.

Otherwise, it might be best to keep your mouth shut until you think it over. This is not repression, as many psychologists would claim. It’s simply good judgment. The same applies to your colleagues at work, or your children, or anyone important to you.

The alternative might be to go ahead and express your feelings, but say something you know you can stand behind such as, “I’m puzzled as to why you invited the Smiths to dinner tonight, without talking it over with me first. You know I don’t always like spending time with them, don’t you?” Choose your words carefully, while remaining honest and forthright. You’ll feel better about yourself, and others will be more likely to listen. When you want to be heard or understood, it’s in your self-interest to look at things from others’ point-of-view. Choose your words based upon what you would want to hear if the tables were reversed. It’s not enough to merely express your feelings and then count on others to automatically respect them.

The root issue here is reason. Make sure that you engage in thought before expressing your feelings. Feel your feelings and talk about them when it’s objectively appropriate. Make sure you think carefully about their validity and when it’s appropriate to express them.

Don’t become a therapy monster. A therapy monster is one of those people who starts out emotionally repressed, and then—from months or years of going to therapy—starts running around expressing every last feeling, with no apparent concern for explaining the feeling’s basis in reality. Such people act like they are entitled to their opinions—merely because they feel them, and for no other reason at all! The world would be better off with no therapy at all, or no emotional expression at all, than with “self-expression” of this kind.

In short, follow this principle: Be aware of your emotions. Express them when you are sure they have at least some solid basis in reality, and think about how to express them before doing so. The more important the issue, the more thought you need to put into it.

Your motive should not only be kindness or consideration towards others, although that is fine as a secondary consequence of enjoying self-esteem. Your primary motive should be the self-interested goals of being heard, understood, and respected by those whom you value.

It’s absolutely fine to obtain help from a therapist. But hire a therapist who puts reason and objective reality above blind adherence to emotions.

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