We all do it. We hide our emotions. We also hide our feelings, which can be understood as those thoughts we have (and sometimes vanquish, or ignore) about our emotions.
Beginning at the definitions, some clarity to distinguish emotions from feelings is helpful. Put most simply, your emotions are physical sensations of the human body. Think of a catch in the throat, a blush, a knot in the stomach, a stinging, teary, squinting, of the eyes. Now think of how many times a day we either ignore, suppress, or squash any awareness of these physical sensations — also known as emotions — in order to move our day forward.
The definitions also have time differences. How you physically feel, (an emotion) is usually temporary. How you mentally feel (a feeling) about that emotion is longer term.
In the most basic analysis, an emotion is physical, a feeling is psychological. Of course, there is overlap.
Let’s say Mary and Joe go to Uncle Ben’s funeral. Mary feels bad, even weeks later, that she didn’t cry. Joe feels relief that he did, but hopes no one noticed. Joe felt the catharsis he needed, but not the human connection he may have been capable of had he felt free with his emotions.
Mary, on the other hand, feels like she may be judged as “uncaring.” Her damaging “feeling” is due to her regret that she might feel, or be seen, as cold.
Torn between not wishing to be seen as “emotional” or “cold,” Mary has sublimated emotions over complex layers of social expectations. Joe, has done the same, but in a different, manly, “role.”
Man up, or pussy out
Men, especially, are discouraged from expressing emotions of sadness, sorrow, regret, or compassion. Women are socially programmed to monitor, but not entirely suppress, these same emotions as they are often associated with nurturing of others.
Men are not discouraged from expressing emotions of anger, outrage, impatience, assertiveness, and/or aggression. Where, as you probably recognize right away, women are actively discouraged from expressing these same emotions. They risk being labeled as “bossy”, or “bitchy” or something like a “Karen” if they do express what they feel.
Simply put, we teach small children their “acceptable” levels of expression, often according to gender. The human body, however, did not evolve for male or female people to have wildly oppositional emotions or feelings. Instead, there is a broad spectrum, a wide continuity of all emotions from hurt to elation.
Every human body deserves the freedom to honestly express their emotions, and the feelings they have about those emotions in healthy outlets.
How suppression affects oppression
Knowing all of this is true, as most members of society are aware in the present century, what does it mean to how we can view the role that suppression of emotions has to do with oppression? Most people already agree that strict and punishing gender roles, (or racist roles) have to go. However, most people lack the mindful requirement we would need to check those moments when we ignore our programmed behaviors.
Collectively, when we police others, and when we police ourselves to censor some emotions and feelings, we do a disservice to our humanity. Collectively, we are unconsciously coding to others what is “acceptable,” and what is not.
This is a microaggression against the authentic self, but only affects real damage when the collective accumulation of it eventually has an impact. Think, for example, of those people who may hide their sorrow or outrage when their political candidate loses. Think of how they may bury a feeling, which then is seismically re-routed into racism, violence, or general incivility to others.
Most resentment, for example, can be traced to people not being able to be vulnerable, and up front, about their perceived mistreatment. (We instead must “know our place” and swallow our pride). But, allowing expression of vulnerability, listening, and empathy, goes a very long way toward avoiding resentment.
It happens on both the left and right. But rather than seeing “sides” we need to examine our shared humanity, and common ground. We do have to look at rigid roles, and self-policing of our emotions and feelings.
Here is one wonderful fact about reforming suppression.
A feeling that is reinforced from infancy can vanish overnight with the right awareness, knowledge, and critical thinking efforts. Let’s say, you were taught unconsciously, that “They” are all lazy and shiftless. Or, that “women” are all illogical, and emotional.
All humans fall prey to confirmation bias, and that is really what we need to know first about every human interaction.
With inside knowledge that all humans have varying feelings and emotions, and express them to varying degrees, you can begin to collect specific bits of evidence that dispel your programmed memes of “otherism,” informed by unconscious bias.
Another good example of this is the trope of the “strong, silent, type.” It used to be accepted that some men were “stoic,” and this reflected their strength, and control. Now, neurobiology and psychology have revealed that ignoring, or stuffing an emotion, is the equivalent not of removing it, but of simply displacing it. It is still within the individual — likely on an unconscious level — a repressed emotion disrupts our lives.
Nurturing communities where people are encouraged to have and express authentic feelings, however, creates a safe space. As corny as it may sound, the necessity is that we “are free to be you and me.” It is an idea that has been conceived for decades, to be as humanly safe as we can be so that those moments when we grit our teeth and just “deal with it like a man,” or “remember you are a lady,” are moments we must stop and reconsider.
Calling out name calling
Public shame and ridicule are attempts to control others by making them feel “less than.” Feeling more like a pussy, sissy, pansy, or “homo” because you are bullied as one, is effective in keeping people “in their place.”
It serves, however, in a larger social context, to preserve the inequitable status quo. It is a temporary control, often ineffective, and usually damaging.
Many of us would love to see the retirement of name calling on all sides. Calling someone a B word, C word, N word, or other, doesn’t endear you to them. Telling a person that they are a “dick” informs someone that you see them as arrogant, or cruel. Calling someone a “pussy” might help describe that you think they are cowardly, or weak. “Pansy” is more gender neutral.
Add racial, or cultural overtones and it gets much worse, very fast. If I say you are a lazy, illegal B word, or that he is a N-word pussy, I have “expressed” a feeling, perhaps, but in an entirely counterproductive way.
Expression, then, can be as damaging as suppression, if misused.
This type of name calling is disastrous when it comes to addressing issues such as race and gender. And, if we can’t address race and gender, (human to human relationships) how on Earth are we ever to be able to address bigger relationships, such as dominating capitalism, or dominating resources, nature, and the inter-dependent web of life issues such as pandemic and climate crisis?
Name calling as means of expression, often backfires because people want genuine human connection and social status. They will begin to see those who shame as the bullies, as the new scapegoats.
One wonders if there truly is a way out of this vicious circle.
The way out of a vicious cycle into a compassionate circle
The only way out for human beings is for us to continue to seek our inter-dependent, common ground.
The way out of the war between the sexes is to quit seeing our differences as “less than,” and begin to celebrate them as strengths.
The way out of race wars is, similarly, not to erase the differences between Black culture and White people, but to acknowledge the fact of one human race. Then, embrace race, but reject racism.
The way out of class, and culture wars, is the same. Quit constantly trying to find your role as higher class, lower class, or conservative, or liberal, but go first to your humanity.
Rigid binary thinking is for Amoeba, not complex human organisms.
Learn to identify your emotions. Learn to identify your feelings. Learn the nuance and differences in time, place, physicality, sense, sensation, and more.
If all nearly eight billion people could all at once identify our common humanity, we could quite easily save the rest of the planet upon which we depend.
It will happen when we work together, with the wisdom of not just knowledge, but empathy and compassion. It will happen when we recognize that knowing our role is knowing we are human, and knowing our place, means belonging to a place that sustains life through cooperation.
For most of us, we need to claim the privilege to call that role being a human in a place called Earth.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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Photo credit: Christyl Rivers, Portland 2020