“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” — Sigmund Freud
Have you ever had someone tell you to “Just get over it”, or to have a “Stiff upper lip”? Most of us have at one time or another, which is usually the last thing we want to hear.
We may have had our heart handed to us from a narcissistic discard, or gotten tangled up with a “friend” who found pleasure in pouring salt on an open wound.
We may be battling a health diagnosis or other stressful life transitions that require less kitschy sayings and more empathy.
These type of lowbrow quotes get used, overused — and even praised — for confusing emotional stoicism as strength. Just because we have a “stiff upper lip” doesn’t mean we’re emotionally strong.
Being subjected to social or gender stereotypes regarding our emotions lessens emotional strength, it doesn’t build it.
This can condition us into toxic positivity — always looking “happy” or falling into the “just get over it” mindset where we wind up numb to our own emotions, let alone the emotions of others. Or, we find a couple of go-to emotions such as anger or apathy to protect a bruised Ego and to keep others at arms distance.
If you hear ‘get over it’ often enough, you may start questioning whether they’re saying this to help you, or themselves.
I get it that it can feel awkward if a person doesn’t know how to support you or approach you (or themselves) if experiencing emotional pain. So, sticky situations and uncomfortable emotions wind up getting swept under the carpet.
…..”Just get over it.”
If we are inexperienced in dealing with the emotional pain of others, it’s often because we’re inexperienced in dealing with our own pain.
Gender stereotypes regarding vulnerable emotions usually start in childhood and are carried with us, for good or bad. For example, most caregivers tend to coddle girls if they get hurt. Boys? Not so much. Boys may get a pat on the head, asked if they’re OK, and sent on their way.
According to Dr. Peter Levine, a psychologist whose practice focuses on trauma, ..”If hyperarousal is the nervous system’s accelerator, a sense of overwhelming helplessness is its brake. The helplessness that is experienced at such times is not the ordinary sense of helplessness that can affect anyone from time to time. It is the sense of being collapsed, immobilized, and utterly helpless.”
Thus, some who have experienced a painful event, or repeated events, may learn to have a “stiff upper lip”, to suck-it-up, move on, or get over it. If told this often enough, or shamed for feeling emotionally vulnerable, they may emotionally collapse, and start feeling helpless.
Toxic conditioning is how we learn to snuff our emotions and become stoic — numb and disconnected from what we’re actually feeling inside.
This is where socialized gender expectations regarding emotions can start…
…and end with emotional stoicism.
For example, findings from a study by Wong et al. (2017) report that traditional masculine ideologies (those who push away vulnerable feelings such as shame or fear) are reported as having poorer mental health. Earlier studies by Levant and Richmond (2008) state that while there is no single type of masculine ideology regarding emotions, Western societies often emphasize masculinity as achievement-driven, emotionally stoic, and avoiding anything that could be seen as weakness.
Recent studies by Neilson et al. (2020) further discuss the negative impact on veterans battling the effects of PTSD when conforming to traditional masculine ideologies which under-emphasize emotional pain.
The pattern seen is about pushing away emotions and conforming to gender stereotypes that encourage emotional stoicism, resulting in poorer overall mental health.
When Emotions Are Denied
When emotions are denied, they tend to crop up in other self-destructive tendencies. Kids may become outwardly rebellious. Teenagers may start hanging out with “the wrong crowd”, ditching school or dabbling in drugs. As adults, these self-destructive tendencies can shift to toxic relationships where a person may get tangled up with emotionally unavailable partners, in narcissistic situations or other addictive habits to avoid the pain.
The goal: to continue feeling nothing; numb.
….”Stiff upper lip.”
Other self-sabotaging behavior may include pushing away those who care about them out of self-preservation. They may experience push-pull adult relationships as normal from having had their emotions dismissed as a child.
When our emotions are denied earlier in life, the pain is carried with us, often unresolved. Each toxic situation we encounter adds on to existing pain.
We become vulnerable to experiencing more pain and continuing to self-sabotage as a familiar go-to behavior pattern.
The One Thing Needed
There is a lot of great information out there that offers advice and tips on how to build our emotional health, or ways to overcome emotional stoicism. However, before any advice has a chance to work, it boils down to one simple point:
You have to want to learn to feel.
Easier said, than done.
Learning to feel means shedding misconceptions and programming that are counter-intuitive to our inherent need to feel. We must eliminate mis-beliefs and self-sabotaging behavior patterns that keep us stuck feeling numb, stuck in a cycle and disconnected from our emotions.
According to Abraham Maslow, man’s greatest goal should be to …”become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”
This requires the capacity to feel — to experience emotion on all levels, including emotions that have been stuffed down, ignored or sidestepped over the years.
It’s never that simple, though. Aiming for self-actualization can be painful because we’re required to dismantle everything learned to keep emotions at bay in order to survive. This also means building a healthier version of ourselves that tosses out survival mode for vulnerability.
…not an easy process.
Emotional well-being is achieved in a step-wise manner. For example, because Maslow’s Hierarchy builds upon each need from one to the next, we are at the mercy of meeting earlier needs before we can advance.
If we haven’t had our safety needs met earlier in life, we may feel stuck, struggling to trust ourselves and others, or feeling that others can’t be counted on. This negative conditioning affects the quality of our relationships until a place of acceptance and self-reliance are met that allow for us to flip the script in our favor.
If we weren’t handed safety, trust, or security in childhood — we now have to learn to provide these needs for ourselves in adulthood.
Or, if our belonging needs went unmet earlier, then we weren’t offered consistency, love, or a sense of belonging in childhood. The challenge is now learning to be our own best friend, to stop betraying ourselves and to make necessary habit changes.
…thus, eliminating self-sabotage.
Humans have a natural tendency to avoid pain and maximize pleasure. We are hardwired to revert back to what is familiar, even when it’s toxic as hell to our emotional well-being.
Positive change requires the pain of what’s familiar to outweigh the fear of the unknown.
We can’t change memories, events or pain that have impacted our lives. They’re a done-deal. We can’t sweep them under the carpet or pretend they don’t exist because we would only be lying to ourselves, which keeps toxic conditioning in full-swing.
We can’t resort to intellectualizing our pain, or denying it’s there because all this does is make us intellectual and still emotionally numb.
We have to jump in — with both feet, and sometimes without a lifeline. We have to be our own lifeline and depend on our own inner-strength. We have to make the choice that we’re not going to stay emotionally stuck, complacent, numb or a product of our earlier lived experiences.
We have to learn self-forgiveness. And we have to be prepared to stumble, and to revert back to what’s tried-and-true, but what has overstayed its welcome.
Only then, can we appreciate a new direction.
By allowing ourselves to feel, we’re creating awareness, building acceptance and taking responsibility for our lives…on our terms.
Levant, R. F., & Richmond, K. (2008). A review of research on masculinity
ideologies using the Male Role Norms Inventory. Journal of Men’s Studies, 15, 130–146.
Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.
Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper.
Neilson, E. C., Singh, R. S., Harper, K. L., & Teng, E. J. (2020). Traditional masculinity ideology, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptom severity, and treatment in service members: A systematic review. Psychology of Men and Masculinity, 21(4), 578–592
Wong, Y. J., Ho, M. R., Wang, S. Y., & Miller, I. S. (2017). Meta analyses of the relationship between conformity to masculine norms and mental health-related outcomes. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 64, 80 –93.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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