5 Ways We Shut Down Our Emotions Without Realizing It...and How to Stop
Updated: Dec 27, 2021
The other day I was listening to a podcast by Dr. Caroline Leaf, a cognitive neuroscientist who has dedicated her career to helping people live better by understanding the science behind why they think, feel, and act as they do. On her podcast, Dr. Leaf was interviewing Dr. Susan David on how to go from being emotionally fragile to emotionally agile; it's a must-listen for anyone who wants to build resilience in our crazy world, or at least stop bursting into tears while scrolling through their TikTok feed.
Both Dr. Leaf and Dr. David agreed that emotions are signposts, giving us important data that should not be ignored. We all know that suppressing emotions over an extended period of time can cause mental health issues, emotional explosions, even physical symptoms, but these good doctors were explaining how ignoring emotions can also just keep us stuck in situations we don't want to be in - which is its own kind of hell. Shutting down our emotions can be like driving down a highway and ignoring the exit signs: instead of taking a different direction when indicated, we just keep driving down the same sad, depressing stretch of road, not even knowing why the scenery is so drearily familiar.
How we shut down our emotions
Unfortunately, society has taught us not to honour our emotions and the vital information they are trying to convey. Instead of acknowledging, accepting, and actually feeling difficult emotions so we can move through them and then take necessary, wisdom-based actions, we often suppress them, even though it usually just makes them louder and more confused (and us unhappier). Here are five ways we may automatically shut down any emotions we perceive as negative or undesirable.
Use of mega-labels. When asked how we're doing, Level 1 is to automatically respond 'fine', even when we clearly aren't. But if you've made it to Level 2 - answering 'stressed' 'depressed' 'anxious' 'tired' or some other mega-term - don't pat yourself on the back for your honesty just yet. Dr. David explains that lumping complex emotions into big umbrella terms takes all of the nuance out of them - and thus takes away our agency to identify what is really going on, and change it. Imagine if you said, "I feel lonely in my marriage," rather than answering "depressed" to a friend's question about how you're doing. Imagine if you had the capacity to admit that disappointment and loneliness, even to yourself. Would you take action towards the future you want? Mega-labels are overused and make it difficult for us to identify what is really going on inside of us, and even more difficult to make changes. After all, there's not much you can do about amorphous 'depression' unless it's bad enough to warrant professional help, assuming that is an option.
Prayer. I have absolutely nothing against prayer; in fact, I pray often, attend church, and follow spiritual and religious leaders online - those who are real about the power of prayer to fuel clear thinking and decision-making, not those who present prayer as some kind of submissive cure-all and total surrender of personal agency. Having spent almost 16 years in a twelve-step fellowship that encouraged 'letting go' and 'abandoning yourself to God' and acceptance of every situation as being 'meant to be', I know the dangers of passively accepting unacceptable situations in the name of divine mandate. Prayer can be dangerous for people with codependent, passive, people-pleasing traits because praying for the strength to simply endure toxic situations, or praying to have negative emotions replaced with more acceptable behaviours like patience and forgiveness, can circumvent feeling altogether and block real healing.
Social media. We present a certain avatar to the world, an online identity that can come to feel more 'real' than our true identity. We are so invested in likes, followers, and the feeling of winning at life based on the fleeting dopamine hits that social media offers, that we feel forced to keep up the happy, shiny pretense on the inside, too. Appearing to be crushing it on our various platforms can feel rewarding, but can also block real communication and authenticity; when we genuinely need to express negative emotions that contradict the image we have spent so long grooming, we may feel guilty for even feeling them. Acknowledging anything less than perfection is just as likely to increase online popularity as demolish it, but we suspect that's not the case. Social media can lead us to suppress real-life emotions in a never-ending online/offline feedback loop.
Coaching and psychology. We have been taught that the way to success and empowerment in life, love and business is by accentuating the positive, whether it's affirmations on a white board or refusing to concede that failure hurts. Latching on to the affirmative can indeed have positive effects on mood and relationships, but not when we exclude or shut off emotions that need to be heard in an attempt to vibrate on a higher level, attracting wealth, or simply reflecting a self-image that society deems desirable. In my day they said 'never let them see you sweat' but the truth is, perspiration releases toxins, so there needs to be a way to let it out sometime.
Fear. When it comes to acknowledging our emotions and the important messages they have for us, the pressures not to are numerous. We may fear we are setting a bad example for our children if they see us cry. We may fear being labeled as a whiner or a non-team-player if we set boundaries around employers and work. We may fear being overwhelmed by an emotional deluge if we let the tiniest bit of anger, sadness or irritation slip out. We may fear a hit to productivity if we take time out to journal, to cry, or to process grief. We may fear being disliked or abandoned if we dare to express anger. In short, we're afraid of rocking so many boats that we stay in the shallows rather than dare to explore what's going on underneath the surface in the depths.
How to stop shutting down your emotions
After a lifetime of playing it safe, how can you let yourself feel again? The best way to get started is simply by noticing: notice what you are feeling rather than immediately jumping into an internal response such as 'I shouldn't be feeling that way; she really didn't mean it' or an external response, like immediately walking away to 'cool down' without looking at the real source of your frustration. Notice how you feel in different situations. Does your chest tighten up when you're around a certain person? Do you suddenly feel exhausted at the prospect of attending a certain meeting? Do you feel a flutter of happiness when you see a group of friends telling jokes in the parking lot, or does it make you feel a bit sad, nostalgic, or left out?
Practicing noticing your feelings does not mean you have to act on them! It doesn't mean that, if you have a history of lashing out in anger, noticing you are getting angry will lead to another shame-ridden outburst. Quite the opposite: noticing strong emotions rather than shutting them down allows for a space to in which you can look more closely at what the emotions are trying to tell you, so you can act wisely on the information.
We'll get more into this next time but for now, stay curious - about the world around you, and the world within.