How To Contain Your Strong Emotions — And When You Shouldn't

7 Nov 2019

How To Contain Your Strong Emotions — And When You Shouldn’t

Being able to contain your strong emotions is an admirable and incredibly valuable quality

How To Contain Your Strong Emotions — And When You Shouldn't

Emotional control is a key component of success and achievement

Intense focus and mindfulness will help you power through a project. Feeling confident and passionate are advantageous when engaging an audience. And feeling pumped and ready to take on the world is imperative in competitive sport. But what do you do when, instead of controlling your emotions, your emotions seem to be controlling you?

I’ve always been an emotional soul

As a child, I was often told off for being too sensitive. I was never given any way to resolve this apparent ‘affliction’ so, over a period of many decades, I learnt to live with it. I laugh easily, I can always find something to make me giggle. Laughing and giggling haven’t been so much of a problem. But hearing or even reading something that touches my heart will still bring gentle tears to my eyes and sometimes deep sobs to my chest.

I used to get very embarrassed about this. However, on several occasions, people have told me they wished they were more in touch with their own emotions; that they admired my ability to connect so easily with my feelings. I eventually came to the conclusion that being able to contain my strong emotions and being able to show them are of equal importance.

There are many articles on this site about how to control your emotions

You can use an anchoring technique, challenge your thinking about a problem, change your negative self-talk. There are many other options you’ll find here. Just do a search.

I’ve been training, coaching and working therapeutically with people for over 20 years now. As I’ve developed my own wisdom about expressing emotions, I’ve found plenty of research to back up my observations.

Containing your strong emotions can be detrimental

It can undermine your very health and wellbeing. Let me illustrate this with a true story.

A few years ago, I saw a man whose wife had died after a 7-year struggle with cancer. He had four children ranging in age from 7 – 14. The company he worked for had referred him to me because of his falling work performance. His manager knew about my client’s bereavement and said the company, over the ensuing months, had tried various ways to help him come to terms with his grief. But none had been successful.

Sending him to see me was a last-ditch effort to assist him in getting his life back on track — and to avoid having to let him go. (So yeah — no pressure!)

The client was an immigrant. The only relatives he had in New Zealand were his wife’s sister and her husband. My client told me his oldest daughter had just had her first period, and he didn’t know what to do or say to her.

Although his daughter had previously been a diligent student, she’d recently been caught playing truant. The oldest boy was similarly ‘hooking’ school and was in trouble for poor conduct. These behaviours were completely out of character for his normally well-behaved and disciplined children.

As my client told his story, he became more and more anxious. He started blaming himself for all the things that were going wrong in his family’s life. I was shocked to find he hadn’t talked to any of the children about their mother’s illness or death. He was worried he’d become too emotional and make matters worse.

He felt he had to be strong for his family

As the tragedy unfolded into deeper levels of sadness I was overcome with emotion and began crying. Then my client started to cry too. It was the first time since his wife’s death.

We both cried for several minutes.

Then I asked him if he thought it was healthy to keep those emotions inside, and if he expected his children to ‘be strong’ in the same way, as well. He said he’d expected them to be upset and to cry, but they seemed to have been OK — apart from the behaviour problems he’d mentioned earlier.

I asked him a question

“What do you think your children are learning from your ‘being strong’?”

He pondered the question for a few moments. Then he realised he was probably teaching them that they shouldn’t show emotion either. With more reflection, he also recognised that maybe he was showing them that he didn’t care about his wife — their mother. He added that he was demonstrating that even though adults may be upset, they don’t cry — they put on a brave face.

I reminded him that children learn, primarily by example and asked if he intended to teach them how to avoid expressing emotion. Thinking this through, he announced that he was going home to talk to the children about their mother. He planned to tell them how much he’d loved his wife and how devastated he was about losing her.
He was going to enlist his sister-in-law to talk to his older daughter about her periods and ‘womanly’ things.

That was where the session ended as far as my client was concerned

However, I had issues that I needed to talk about in my subsequent supervision session. “Once again”, I thought, “my sensitivity has gotten me into trouble”.

I’d cried during a meeting with a client.

Worse still, I’d started crying first! My supervisor pointed out that I’d obviously achieved excellent rapport with the client; so that when I empathised so strongly with my client’s situation, by crying, he’d followed! In doing so, I’d allowed my client to finally express his own pent up emotions by weeping – a healthy and natural reaction to the death of a loved one. It was a useful way to think about what had happened.

What does ‘strong emotions’ mean to you?

Does it mean crying, getting angry or being visibly upset? Be honest now, is that what you thought of first? Because we all know that joy and happiness are strong emotions as well — feelings we’re not so concerned about showing. Emotions can be defined as strong feelings such as love, hate, happiness or fear. Many people also categorise them into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘positive’ and ‘negative’. How do we decide which emotions fit into each category?

variable emotions

Who says which ones are appropriate to show and which ones are not?

What we feel on the inside generally shows on the outside. So noticing changes in our client’s physiology is one of the primary sources NLP Practitioners use to determine what might be getting stirred up for our clients. Smiling, laughter and feelings of pleasure tend to accompany joy, love, and happiness. Emotions like hurt, sadness and anger produce different outward signs.

Some folk have considerable skill at hiding how they truly feel

They cover up ‘negative’ emotions by describing their behaviour as ‘being strong,’ ‘having a stiff upper lip,’ ‘being staunch,’ etc. It takes energy to do this, so they may tend to grow tired, stressed, anxious and even depressed if they do it for prolonged periods.

Some are also quite adept at convincing themselves that they are being strong for others. “I’m being strong for my family/ partner/ kids/ workmates,” they say. I’ve met whole families who individually are ‘being strong’ for each other, prolonging their collective grief by not sharing honestly how they feel.

Proclaiming that they are being strong is a lie

The irony is that they are only ‘being strong’ because they’re too weak to allow a natural emotional state to show!

They’re concerned that if people see the outward signs of their internal feelings, they’ll also feel embarrassed or — heaven forbid — make others feel uncomfortable.

Obviously, they just haven’t thought it through properly; by allowing themselves to express your emotions (appropriately of course), they give others permission to do the same. Think about the unconscious message that their lack of emotion sends. Does it say they don’t care or that they’re indifferent? Does it mean that they expect others to behave in ways contrary to how they truly feel?

Emotions can change quickly

Children often experience a range of emotions in a short space of time. A child might giggle uncontrollably one minute, and sob inconsolably the next. We consider them to be normal, healthy kids. A child showing no emotion would be cause for concern.

Why should we be different as adults?

I’m not suggesting we thrown our toys out of the cot or have a tantrum when we don’t get our own way; part of growing up is learning appropriate responses to the roller-coaster ride we call life. I’m merely proposing that it might be OK — and a healthy option — to express those emotions. They won’t go on forever.

After all, if someone tells us a joke we don’t laugh for hours on end about it (otherwise we’d be put in a special place and forced to wear a unique cardigan with sleeves that tie at the back!). We laugh, and then we stop. And maybe we smile later when — and if — we remember the punchline! It’s socially acceptable to behave in this way.

If we’re distressed about something, then why can’t we just be upset?

We prolong our distress by ‘stuffing down’ or controlling our emotional state, instead of expressing it. Isn’t the fact that we are capable of a range of emotions what makes life juicy? The labels we apply to our feelings are just that — labels. Anger is a label for one emotion that we often further designate as ‘bad,’ while feeling happy is described as ‘good.’

In fact, the belief in the principle of good and bad emotions is not a particularly healthy way of thinking. All feelings would wash over us in a short period if only we’d stop trying to avoid them or stuff them back down. We have made these so-called ‘negative’ emotions objectionable.

Feeling sad

What’s wrong with feeling sad occasionally?

After all, if we’d never experienced sadness, how would we know what happiness feels like? We would have nothing to compare it with! What if we could enjoy our sadness for a while? Now there’s a novel idea.

Sometimes we go to great extremes to avoid feeling anything. We drink, smoke, eat, work, watch TV, take drugs, gamble excessively or engage in other addictions that allow us to avoid feeling those unwanted emotions.

There’s incongruity

The paradox is that while we continue to avoid showing our own unwanted emotions, we are totally fascinated by the emotional lives of others. Like ardent voyeurs, we want to witness the heartbreak of a person who has lost everything in a house fire, the bereaved parents and other human tragedies.

The news media never fails to supply us with heartbreaking stories, and of course, the interviewer always asks the same ridiculous question; ‘How do you FEEL about what’s happened?’

We want to see the interviewee become emotional.

We want to feel moved

I watched a woman cry through an entire interview while she talked about how her husband had died after being stabbed.

Who would have expected any other response?

We almost yearn to be touched by people’s raw emotions. Is it because we see them so rarely? Or is it just because we’re afraid of our own?

That first session with my client heralded a major breakthrough

When he came back the following week, it was evident that he and his family had finally begun the grieving/healing process. They’d all talked and cried — together — every day for a week. The children shared what they loved about their mum. My client had explained his own sorrow and apologised for distancing himself from his own emotions and from his children.

He had succeeded in bringing his family back together — not by controlling his emotional state — but by allowing his natural sorrow to show.  After contacting his local church group again, he was receiving support from old and new friends. He was starting to get his life back on track and helping his children do the same.

The issue isn’t really how well you can contain your strong emotions

The issue concerns how accepting and acknowledging you are of all your powerful emotions. Then you can appropriately address the underlying issues and get back in control. Remember, all your emotions serve a purpose. Treat them with the respect they deserve. Then you’ll find them easier to release. Even the word emotion gives a strong clue as to what we should be doing. E – motion. Allowing emotion to move us and then move out!