Expressing Feelings Safely

Anita McKone

The following article is intended to be read in conjunction with ‘Fearless Psychology and Fearful Psychology: Principles and Practice’, which explains more about the subtleties of emotional expression and emotional suppression and how these function in the healing process.

Most people have fears that if they express themselves emotionally ‘bad things’ will happen, either to themselves or others. There is no doubt that human society is not generally a supportive place for feeling your feelings, and this can make it appear that expressing feelings is dangerous. It takes a degree of courage to both feel painful, vulnerable and difficult feelings, and deal with others’ possible negative reactions. Listening to yourself takes a degree of faith in yourself – that what lies within is not ‘evil’, and that knowing and expressing how you feel will lead you to a better, more integrated place.

When you allow yourself to feel deeply and express your feelings, there are three factors that could make this practice unsafe for yourself or others. All of these factors can be addressed, however, and it is therefore possible to express your feelings in ways that feel genuinely meaningful to you, while doing and experiencing no harm.

Physical Considerations

From a purely physical point of view, all feelings take a certain amount of energy to express, and the healthier your diet, the easier it will be for your body to recover well from the effort. Many chemical substances, such as adrenalin, are used while expressing emotion, and eating well will help you replenish your supplies of important nutrients.

Expression of anger is the feeling most likely to cause physical damage to you and the people and objects around you.

Sometimes when you are angry the urge to smash whatever is handy is very strong. But smashing windows, for instance, is both dangerous and expensive. So it is wise to set up or know of a space where you can go where you can express the physical urge to hit, scream or throw things without causing harm.

Then, while focusing your mind on the person or thing that is making you angry, you might use an axe to turn a log into woodchips, you might shred cardboard boxes against the edge of a table, you might use a squash racquet against a mattress, you might punch a punching bag or cushion. You might kick a ball repeatedly against a wall, or have a series of balls ready to ‘drop punt’. You might have a supply of cheap items of crockery that you are happy to smash. Use your imagination to work out what suits your circumstances.

She is angry! Image: Efua Ayim-Korankye.

You do not have to have ‘equipment’ to be angry, however. Doing some version of an ‘angry gorilla’ – clenching fists, raising arms, bending knees, tensing core muscles tightly and screaming defiance – works very well in many circumstances (again, in a private space away from others). If you have physical injuries that need to be protected, work out what muscles you can tense strongly – just tensing your core muscles while bearing your teeth can be enough.

Screaming repeatedly will eventually cause damage to your vocal chords, giving you a gravelly voice that takes time to heal. To avoid any damage (and create less noise if this is necessary), try screaming or swearing without engaging your vocal chords, in a loud ‘whisper’. You may need an occasional loud scream but ‘whisper screaming’ will soon start to feel normal and an easy way to express yourself.

Social considerations – Your projections

It is worth remembering that a large proportion of your emotions are projected. This means they were caused by earlier events in your life, but were suppressed at that time, and are being stored ready to ‘jump out’ at inappropriate times. So, an avalanche of feeling may be triggered by a relatively minor event, or your feelings from past events may be projected onto completely inappropriate objects, events or people (such as your children, spouse or friends).

It is therefore safest for others if you listen to your own feelings in private as much as possible. It’s not possible to never dump on someone else, and sometimes your learning process will involve ‘doing it ugly’ and then feeling your feelings about this later. You may also use the support of someone who can listen to you without reacting (and who can hear and reflect your deeper feelings) while you talk or rant about something in your process of getting in touch with how you really feel. This person is unlikely to be the person whose behaviour just triggered your emotional reaction.

Continually dumping on others and not taking the time and space to really feel what is going on for you will lead to increasing levels of conflict between yourself and others. Children are particularly vulnerable to emotional damage when their parents project that their children are threatening them and thus treat them unreasonably, unfairly and with other of forms of violence.

If you love and listen to yourself by letting yourself cry, feel afraid, be angry or feel pain in a safe space away from the people who have triggered your emotions, you will find out what your feelings are really about and no longer have to project them onto innocent others. You will also gain insight into when other people are genuinely abusing you and gain the courage to act in nonviolent ways that support you to get what you need.

Social considerations – Other people’s projections

To varying degrees, all humans are scared of people expressing strong emotions. This may be because their own parents/significant adults/peers directly frightened them out of expressing their emotions as children. Otherwise, it may be because they associate emotions with the highly dysfunctional and often dangerous expressions of feeling that their parents/significant adults/peers have demonstrated in the past. (So for instance, if you have been repeatedly threatened with extreme violence by someone in an insane rage, or punished with hatred for no reason, you will fear the expression of anger or hate, even when it is not directed at you and even when the anger or hate have a reasonable cause.)

When people are scared of emotions, but don’t want to feel this fear consciously, they will project onto you that you are doing something dangerous when you are simply crying, evidencing fear, obviously in pain or getting angry in ways that pose no threat to anyone. They will therefore try to interfere with you feeling, expressing and learning from your feelings. Sometimes it will be individuals that interfere, sometimes it will be social institutions, such as educational or economic structures (which may demand that you work robotically under orders) or psychiatry (which uses drugs and mental tricks to suppress emotions).

It is therefore very important for your own safety that you find a supportive space for you to express your emotions. You may ask a partner or child to be understanding while you go and have some feelings in private. You may decide to leave relationships where others are continually making you feel unsafe if you show your feelings or choose to spend time feeling them. You may choose a psychotherapist or friend who is genuinely comfortable with being with you when you are expressing emotions, and who does not to seek to interfere or ‘get you into a better space’. You will naturally get to a better space when you have felt enough feelings, and while you may sometimes feel overwhelmed by emotions, it is best to trust that your own mind/self will act for your self- preservation and work out how to balance everyday tasks with releasing your suppressed emotions. Far better to risk ‘overload’ than continually suppress yourself, thus increasing the internal emotional tension, and increasing the likelihood of severely negative outcomes (including illness, drug taking or physical suicide).

In summary

Emotional expression undoubtedly has some risks attached. But there are many things that you can do to make it safe. Most particularly, the more time you can spend listening to yourself in a private space (where no-one will be hurt by your own projections, and where no-one will be triggered into interfering because of their own projected fears) the better off you will be. And if you can help your children and others around you to gain a safe space for their own emotional expression, this is even better.

The more you feel, the more you give yourself the chance to heal, integrate and learn by experiencing your real life – your powerful, insightful emotions.

18 October 2017