The Fine Line Between Containing Emotion and Stoicism

There are times when we need to contain our emotions. We learn the art of this growing up; from our parents when we were given the space to be frustrated in the moments of not getting something we wanted, from our teachers when we quickly realized that we were “sharing” them with 28 other children, from society in general. The ability to contain is what helps us get through difficult times – we inherently know we can’t be a complete mess around our co-workers and family members, even though we may feel like it. It is then, in our moments of alone time, that the tears come and we can release what has built up in our effort to get through a challenging day.

But what is the difference between containing emotion and being stoic? I have worked with many clients whom I would categorize as being fairly stoic in their emotions. It is almost like a tightness, a guardedness; not only are they containing emotions from others, they are also containing them from themselves. I had one client describe it as “Express emotion? In our house, it felt like I wasn’t even allowed to experience it.”

When we move from containment to stoicism, it has most likely been taught to us. Very often, it is homes in which we were taught or shown by example that emotions were meant to be private, at all costs.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Although it will initially feel like a violation to your system, it first starts with giving yourself permission to explore. First by going backwards and spending some time looking at how emotions were expressed in your family, and then by looking at how you can move yourself towards feeling a little looser in the emotions department. This will begin the process of giving yourself the freedom of the natural ebb and flow of emotion.

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Let’s Talk About Avoidance

Sometimes when we are feeling stuck, we tend to lean into some defense strategies in order to avoid an inner truth. We will talk around an issue, find excuses, sometimes we project our problems or insecurities onto others, we stay so busy we don’t have time to think about it. We resist. 

Avoidance allows us to stay at the surface. It allows us to stay away from something painful, it protects us from feeling rejected, hurt. It attempts to keep uncertainty at bay. It prevents us from owning the problem and solving it.

Recognizing our stuckness is the first step. Recognizing that we have spent time avoiding the issue is the next one. It is with these two realizations that we can make the conscious decision to dive a little deeper – to be willing to cross into uncertainty to where vulnerability lies. It is here that working through the pain (while gaining a greater understanding,) will also build our inner strength and sense of agency. It allows us to feel hope.

When we push past the false security of avoidance, we feel movement. This allows us to continue to follow the stepping stones to our larger goals; creating an inner sense of emotional health and well being.

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Emotional Suppression and What We Need to Know About It

There are times when we may suppress emotion. Sometimes that is a learned behaviour from childhood – becoming the favoured way of dealing with things; other times we may avoid recognizing our emotions and we use our defense mechanisms (like avoidance) in order to not have to deal with a painful event. In any event, when we suppress emotion we run the risk of:

  • building resentment. If you are unable to tell someone how you feel, this may build resentment. This type of under the surface anger can lead to having less favourable feelings towards your loved one over time.
  • displacement. If something makes you angry and you struggle to process or deal with it, you may take out that suppressed emotion on the people around you.
  • addiction. When we suppress our emotions, we run the risk of turning to something external to ease the pain.
  • a build up and release. Any time that tears come as a result of an emotion, we consider that a healthy way of releasing it. Build up emotions however can lead to uncontrolled emotion by way of an over-reaction.
  • mood swings or depression. Heavy emotions that don’t get processed sit with us; this can often lead to experiencing mood swings or the symptoms of depression.
  • physical ailments. When we suppress emotions, they can turn inward and create physical symptoms or illness.

We are much better served to lean into simply acknowledging our emotions. Observe the emotion, describe the emotion, not place judgement on the feeling. Perhaps you will say something, perhaps you will talk it over with a friend or therapist, perhaps you will go for a walk. When we simply allow our emotions to be, with the conscious decision to process, we cut down the tendency to suppress the emotion – leaving us with a grounded and secure feeling.

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A Way to Look at Forgiveness

Forgiveness is one of the more challenging of virtues. We hear that we are better for it; that when we forgive ourselves or others who have hurt us, we find peace. Very often, we have to push against the feeling that by forgiving we excuse the hurt. Forgiving is not about accepting the transgression but rather that it happened.

We must also reconcile with the myth that through the act of forgiveness, we invite the person who hurt us back in our lives. There are times when that does happen, but forgiveness isn’t the guarantee of that process – sometimes we choose to forgive and also choose to move forward without the relationship. Forgiveness gives us the gift of healing the wound of the hurt.

Forgiveness also doesn’t guarantee that we won’t get emotionally triggered or still feel pain and sorrow when reminded of the hurt. When we have forgiven however, we hold a greater sense of freedom from the wound; it doesn’t control us as it used to.

A lovely quote that can give to us a way of looking at this valuable process is “Forgiveness is not a line to cross but a road to travel. – Unknown” 

Forgiveness is a journey, with some pit-stops, perhaps a brief stay or two, sometimes a crossroad to face; albeit heading to the same place – peace.

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Lonely or Depressed?

One of the common themes that has arisen out of the isolating effects of Covid-19 is what appears to be an increase in symptoms of depression. Interestingly enough, an exploration into the effects of loneliness often gets people wondering if they are in fact depressed, lonely, or a bit of both.

I will always remember having to battle the loneliness blues my first year of being separated. Although I had decided to not date anyone for a year so as to concentrate on healing myself and my children, I began to notice when the blues would begin to settle in. Weekends now became time to fill and I began to notice that if I had had a quiet evening Friday, followed by a quiet day on Saturday….by 4:00 pm I was beginning to feel down. Armed with this awareness, I began to build my time instead of try to fill it. Sometimes it would be a spontaneous phone call to a friend to see what they were up to, other times, I would have planned to attend an event with someone. The summer of 2013, I think my sister and I visited music events at every fair in the county!

It was clear to me that my blues were not depression but rather loneliness as it would be alleviated the moment I connected with someone. Being around another person, laughing, chatting, enjoying a meal or an event together brought back the energy I needed.

We are better served to ask ourselves the question, “Am I feeling lonely or depressed?” so as to move forward accordingly. Even in the trying times of continued lockdowns we have the ability to connect with others, albeit in the most inventive of ways. As John Joseph Powell has said:

“It is an absolute human certainty that no one can know his own beauty or perceive a sense of his own worth until it has been reflected back to him in the mirror

of another loving, caring human being.” – John Joseph Powell

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The Destructive Forces of Resentment

I love this saying by Buddha and will often use it in session:

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are

the one who gets burned.” – Buddha

This type of anger is not what we would consider immediate anger – those rising up feelings that occur when someone says something to upset you for example. This type of anger is one that falls in the category of hostility or resentment. It is pent up anger, pushed down anger, anger that has been avoided, anger that we hold on to. Sometimes it is towards a person who has hurt us, other times it is anger that comes from a circumstance in our life that has not been resolved.

In any case, it is a destructive anger. And the only person we are really hurting is ourselves.  I also liken the hot coal to a stone in our heart; hostility and bitterness will create stones in our hearts, and therefore we carry the heavy load.

We are in a much better position to begin to explore our hurt, for that is really what resentment is about – we have skipped over the hurt to anger and it keeps us in a place where we avoid the pain, thereby avoiding forgiveness. I would say that perhaps it is time to let go of that hot coal and begin the tender care of our wounds. 🙂

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The Good Side to “Bad” Emotions

We often label emotions as either good or bad. We have certain emotions that we welcome such as joy, happiness, contentedness, peace – and those that we consider to be unwelcomed such as sadness, rejection, guilt, anger and so forth. Our attitude towards emotions are influenced by society, culture, our own experiences, and what we were taught about them growing up.

Emotions; however, are neither good nor bad. They just are. When we feel sad about something, we are meant to feel somber. When anger rises, something has most likely irritated us or we feel defensive. When we feel hopeless, perhaps the weight of something needs to be examined. When we feel guilty, perhaps we have made a mistake or perhaps we default there out of habit.

Emotions are meant to be felt. What we do with them after that is our choice. Recognizing the emotion is the first step in allowing a non-judgemental stance towards the feeling. The next step is to ask ourselves “What do I want to do about this emotion? How long will I allow myself to stay there? What action can I take to help process it?”

And sometimes, it requires us to recognize what emotion we are lacking in ourselves and we can then move to being proactive in achieving more of it. If joy is lacking, for example, how can we create more opportunities in our lives to experience it? The same can be said for connection, peace, etc.

Let us try to welcome emotions as a flowing presence; neither good nor bad – just as they are, meant to be felt.

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What is Emotion Contagion?

Seeing someone cry has the ability to make our own eyes well up with tears. When someone starts to get cross with us, we feel our own anger begin to rise within ourselves. When some is especially wound up in our presense, we can begin to feel the flutter of anxiety in our chest. This process is known as emotion contagion and it comes to us because of mirror neurons in our brain. Our ability to read another’s emotional state is an important way for us to improve our communication with others as we can:

  • use our own feelings to understand what our loved one is feeling. Being able to sense their sadness, grief, anxiety, surprise, joy, etc., allows us to reinforce our skill for empathy and therefore, compassion.
  • have shared experiences. Emotion contagion is what makes everyone at a comedy show start to belly laugh; feel edge-of-our-seat excitement on a roller coaster, or the awe of experiencing something new while travelling or exploring. It can also be a profound shared experience when grief becomes palpable (everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news of 9/11.)
  • create space for tough emotions. We have all experienced getting angry at our littles when temper tantrums abound or their behaviours appear unreasonable. Knowing that we will naturally match their emotions can actually help us contain our reaction – instead, we can choose to meet their chaos with calm.

Being aware of emotion contagion can help us to not only understand our own feelings, but it can give us permission to either ride along, or create the space for our loved one to find their own calm and sense of grounding. When we can be steady, we set the course for others to right their sails.

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The Companionship of Joy and Sorrow

I have come to appreciate this quote by Kahlil Gibran:

“Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.” 
― Kahlil Gibran

We spend a lot of time focusing on happiness. Granted, 40% of our contentedness comes from the activities we choose, and therefore becomes an important part of our active living. Sorrow may come to us in the form of a moment in our day, or part of a process as we are experiencing a loss. Our aim becomes not to live with one over the other, but rather to integrate. It becomes a matter of knowing that we can feel both moments of joy and sorrow in our day and understand that we can process each emotion to the extent that it informs us of our growth and healing.  It is okay to give ourselves permission to simply feel the emotion, whether it be joy or sorrow, and acknowledge its presence.

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Grief Revisited

One of the stages of grief is acceptance. When we have fully reached that stage, there is a feeling of integration of our loss; we are able to recognize that the bereavement we have endured also sits alongside the love we felt and the strength we have gathered through the process.

We can be moving right along, joyfully integrated, when a trigger upsets the apple cart. Sometimes it comes in the form of a dream, other times in circumstantial events that are happening in our lives, sometimes it comes as a re-enactment if a similar loss happens to someone close to us.

Grief revisits us. It can make us feel as though we are experiencing the loss again; perhaps less painfully but there nonetheless. It is when we are feeling vulnerable that we might question the work we have done in getting to a place of healing. It becomes important to recognize that grief has its own timeline and that it is a normal process that it touches us again when triggered to.

The steps we have taken to integrate loss and love are not lost to us in those revisited moments; rather it is a time where we can once again gather our strength, take a deep breath, and say “we got this.” 🙂

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