When we are feeling a great deal of emotion we tend to believe we can hide this emotion by repressing how we are feeling. We act stoic or uninterested in an attempt to not show the seething resentment we are feeling. The problem with this strategy is that your partner is feeling this. Emotional contagion is a part of the human experience. Since we can’t really hide our feelings why not openly express them?
How Emotions Get Pushed Away
Emotions are nervous system reactions to external stimulus and internal thoughts. They are not something we can control. They happen when we don’t want them to. For example, I may want to show how excited I am about my partner’s big event but I’m feeling overwhelmed by how much is on my plate that week. In that moment, I put on the supportive partner face and say how glad I am that we are going to this event. Deep down what is really happening is fear about being able to fit in another activity that week. My partner asks if it’s okay and I say it sounds great. She looks at me suspiciously and asks if I’m sure. I say, “I’m sure”.
How often does this happen? We act like things are good when in fact they are not. We do this to appease our loved ones, and to not disappoint them. However, in doing this we have to push away our own feelings.
What would it be like, to be honest with ourselves? To acknowledge how it feels to add another event and then to go the next step and let our partner know. Instead of overriding our internal experience we face it.
Our Loved Ones Know
The problem with this strategy is that people know. Someone who is around you all the time will pick up your emotions even when you are a master at masking them. They can feel your emotions.
In her book, The Influential Mind, Tali Sharot, explains how emotional contagion works.
How does emotional transfer work? How does your smile generate joy in me? How does your frown create anger in my own mind? There are two main routes. The first is unconscious mimicry. You may have heard of how people constantly mimic other people’s gestures, sounds, and facial expressions. We do this automatically—if you move your eyebrows slightly upward, I will likely do the same; if you huff, I am more likely to puff. When someone’s body is expressing stress, we are more likely to tighten up ourselves because of mimicry and, as a result, feel stress in our own bodies (Sharot, 2017).
These types of nervous system responses to other’s emotions are mostly unconscious. But it shows that hiding our inner experience is not possible.
When we start to be fully honest with ourselves we open up the possibility of greater intimacy with our loved ones. We acknowledge what is happening inside of us and we let the people we love know how things feel.
When we start to feel overwhelmed at our partner’s announcement of something she needs to go to that week we try to hide this feeling. If we can shift into our vulnerability and let her know that we are feeling overwhelmed then this experience can be met with compassion and understanding. Maybe your partner can help take something else off your plate so that you feel less stressed. Maybe she understands that this isn’t the best week for you to go to this event. She may also feel rejected and angry when you express being overwhelmed. Regardless of what happens, you are being honest with your partner and not trying to hide your experience for her sake. Since she will have an idea that you’re hiding anyway, why not choose honesty?
How This Shows Up In My Life
I live with an amazing partner that has highly attuned emotional awareness. I cannot hide my feelings from her. At times this is really annoying but ultimately it has helped me commit to full emotional honesty. Her empathic awareness has helped me become a better man. I can’t say I’m always willing to let her know when things don’t feel right but my intention is to do just that. There are times when I fail at this and I think it limits the intimacy between us. When I do express myself she often meets me with understanding and an appreciation for being real with her.
I express my emotions with kindness while being tuned in to her experience as well. I don’t go into aggression and blame my partner for feeling anxious or overwhelmed. It is being honest while taking full responsibility for my experience.
So I encourage you to stop worrying about your partner’s feelings and work towards more intimacy by speaking what is true for you. At some level, they are going to know you are hiding what is really going on anyway.
Sharot, Tali. (2017) The Influential Mind: What The Brain Reveals About Our Power To Change Others. New York, NY. Henry Holt and Company.
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