Friday, January 30, 2009

Repression of expression

"Never apologize for showing feeling. When you do so, you apologize for truth." -- Benjamin Disraeli.

Things haven't changed much from the Victorian era when Disraeli wrote that. We seem to go through periods where we lighten up and feel more free to express emotions, but it doesn't seem to last. Public expressions of feeling tend to make others uncomfortable and, in many cases, expressing them in more private spheres does the same thing. And I wonder why this is the case. I think it is for a variety of reasons.

The first possible reason is that, particularly in the case of negative emotions, it makes other people feel vulnerable. If anyone over the age of about 5 begins to cry in public, whatever the reason, people tend to look away and avoid the situation. With children, the adults in the vicinity will become annoyed. With other adults, they start looking for the exit. Absent blood and protruding bones, it doesn't appear that there is any situation where we accept tears in public - whatever the provocation. And we all accept this as true. In cases where the tears flow out of control, even in highly justifiable situations, the person will immediately begin to apologize for crying, which to my mind is absolute lunacy, although I've done it. It is as if one is denying the legitimacy of one's pain. Perhaps those witnessing it feel uncomfortable because it reminds them of our essential vulnerability as humans.

Anger, while slightly more tolerable than pain, still must be reined in for public consumption. It is expected to be contained in tight, quiet, restrained little bursts and, in most cases, followed by an apology for "losing it". It doesn't matter the reason for the anger, however justified, it must be kept to a minimum. Although I have noticed, after a lifetime of quietly not making waves no matter what, the odd occasional outburst does tend to get people's attention and show that you are serious. But it makes folks uncomfortable and it is considered impolite, so apologies must follow.

The repression of expression extends to the positive feelings as well. If we are happy or amused, we are allowed polite restrained laughter, but guffaws are simply not acceptable. Giggles are fine in moderation, but if one is frequently amused one is not taken seriously. Which is all kinds of too bad. Sometimes a good laugh is all that gets one through the hard stuff. And they are contagious. A giggling child will get everyone in the area smiling at the very least. And some of the best moments with friends entail laughing uncontrollably. Perhaps the restraint is expected because not everyone is sharing in the joke. Could it be jealousy? I honestly don't know.

Quite possibly the biggest taboo of all to express is that of affection and love. People get visibly uncomfortable with any mention of those feelings except within the strict confines of the family or romantic relationships. And this is really a mind blower for me. I've seen people avoided and made fun of when they express affection spontaneously. And I've thought and thought about it, wondering why that was the case. The only thing that I can think of is that it might make folks feel an obligation to reciprocate and that is the source of their discomfort. Either they do not return the feeling or they think that accepting it will require some sort of action on their part. Either that, or it is just that intense emotion intensifies the level of discomfort we tend to have around all emotions.

So, what's to be done? Currently, we seem to allow emotions to leak out in the presence of alcohol. If affection or tears bursts forth under the influence, they are quickly packed back up with the excuse of drunkenness. I've heard that in Japan you can even tell your boss exactly what to do with himself, sideways, if you have the excuse of being inebriated. But it seems sad to me that we have to have a crutch in order to express our feelings.

What if we felt both able to express our feelings and to accept others' feelings as they are, without any expectation of response or apology? What if we looked on it as merely an expression of honesty? I'm not sure, but I suspect that it would allow for healthier relations between people. There is a type of freedom in knowing where you stand with others. There is also a bit of fear that accompanies that freedom. Anger may be condemned. Affection may be rejected. But, if they be true emotions, they should never be apologized for.


mehitabel said...

I don't know exactly why, but my experience seems to be different from yours. I do see expression of emotions pretty freely around here, both among my group of friends and just in general when I'm out and about. At least, affection, sadness, elation, humor. Anger is a different story. I think unbridled, out of control anger is scary and worries people; controlled anger is easier to deal with.
Of course there are people who can't express any emotion, and I do try to avoid them!

Chris Tolomei (alicethelma) said...

I'm an extremely emotional person. In fact I tend to think of myself as one big ball of feelings. And because I don't drink alcohol, I don't have that crutch either. But lately I've been working on *acceptance* and going with the flow and trying not to get upset when things don't work $9.99 pillows at Ikea. ;-) It's a lovely post Natalie. thanks!