The process of expressing emotions is divided into a few steps. One must first be aware of the sensations, label them as an emotion and then interpret the emotion and its impact. Being aware of emotions implies controlability, as the individual can choose, whether or not to express the emotion experienced. An individual can also choose to partially share his or her thoughts and emotions. The degree of expression varies according to the individual and the situational factors.
Society teaches us when it is appropriate to express feelings and when intense emotions need to be kept masked. Masking inner emotional states can protect the individual from criticism or rejection. It enables the avoidance of misunderstandings and feelings of shame. The experience of emotion is influenced by social rules of conduct. Social norms serve as an existing standard of emotional expression. One will let oneself be carried away with the emotions, if one does not fear social condemnation. The existence of social norms only helps to regulate emotions, it does not determine them nor does it guarantee full compliance. The decision, whether or not to express an emotion lies in the hands of the individual. Emotion regulation is also determined by the individual’s convictions of what is right or wrong and the way in which the individual wishes to represent him- or herself to others. The current belief in the clinicians’ world is that emotional expression is healthy. The following will summarize the benefits of emotional expression.
Putting emotions into words allows a deeper understanding of the meaning behind the emotional states. The capacity to recognize what one is feeling provides the ability to choose a suitable behaviour. Experience of emotion motivates the individual to act in a certain way that will maintain the presence of the affect or will change it. Awareness increases coping ability. By expressing our emotions we do not only communicate to others how we feel but also enable and motivate others to respond to our needs. The empathy and care, which are received after the expression of intense negative emotions, provide us with comfort and calmness. It can therefore also indirectly have physical health benefits such as lowering the blood pressure. Emotional expression also has cognitive benefits. The process of expressing emotion requires the formation of coherent memory structures, deep processing and better organization of the emotional memories. Expression of emotions also improves the working memory (Klein, 2002).
Questions that we may receive from others may cause us to pause and analyze our emotions, which can produce many new insights. Expression of emotions enables self-understanding. Emotional insight is adaptive as long as the individual is not overly preoccupied and focused only on his or her inner affective states. Obsessive analysis of emotions can be overwhelming, reduce concentration and the ability to cope with the challenges of life. Furthermore, emotional expression enables emotional growth (Kennedy-Moore & Watson, 1999). The ability to verbalize emotions improves communication skills, the ability to empathize with others and understanding of social feedback. Emotion expression allows self-growth when it expands beyond the expression of self. It requires active processing. An individual who says “I am nervous” without thinking why, analyzing the consequences of the emotion and learning from the situation that aroused the nervousness will not enhance self-growth.
Another benefit of expression of emotions is that it provides a sense of intimacy and connectedness with others. Expression of emotion involves revealing part of the self. It enables the development of emotional ties with others and the ability to let others get to know our real self. Expression of emotions can build relationships as others also become more comfortable sharing themselves with you. Emotional expression, especially of negative emotions, portray to others that we trust them and in a sense depend on them. It thereby strengthens the relationship and promotes a sense of care, empathy and intimacy (Lippert & Prager, 2001). By sharing our emotions we may also discover new information about others such as the way they felt in a similar situation, what they did or that you are not alone in experiencing that emotion. Realizing that your emotional reaction is common might raise the level of self-acceptance and self-insight.
Open communications is the core of healthy relationships, but there is also the possibility of being too emotional or too open. Frequent and uncontrollable emotional outbursts can lead to alienation and overwhelming feelings of the partner. Being too emotional elicits negative evaluation and criticism from others. A balance between expression and non-expression is a good recipe for a healthy and supportive relationship. In choosing for emotional expression one must consider not only how it will affect his or her own emotional state but also how the emotions will impact others.
Expressing emotions is most valuable when it occurs in the right context and with people who care about us. If others care about us, their reaction will be positive, supportive and an expression of acceptance. Sharing your emotions with people who do not care about you and who have no interest in helping nor in fulfilling your needs is unwise and very unconstructive. It can elicit criticism, avoidance, ridicule and in worst cases manipulation of the exposed vulnerability. It is therefore important to consider the context and the people who are present in your surrounding before you express your emotions. In that manner you could reap the beneficial fruits of emotional expression.
If you would like to know how to assertively formulate your emotions and needs to others download my free guide. It contains 10 assertive techniques that will guide step by step in express yourself verbally and non-verbally, which you can used in different contexts and especially in conflicts.
Kennedy-Moore, E., & Watson, J. C. (1999). Expressing emotion: myths, realities and therapeutic strategies. New York: The Guilford press.
Klein, K. (2002). Stress, expressive writing, and working memory. In S. J. Lepore & J. M. Smyth (Eds.). The writing cure: How expressive writing promotes health and emotional well-being (pp. 135-155). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Lippert, T., & Prager, K. J. (2001). Daily experiences of intimacy: A study of couples. Personal Relationships, 8, 283-298.