Hide ‘n seek 

  • Why are we so afraid to express our emotions?

Why is it that we feel embarrassed to own up to our emotional experiences? What stops us from expressing our emotions with authenticity? What role does culture play in how we experience and express our emotions?

More often than not, the suppression of emotions comes from the conditioned mindset that a person who is emotive or expressive is weak and somebody who does not express them is strong and confident.

To understand the significance of emotional expression, the ill effects of emotional suppression, and how emotions are viewed across different cultures, Brunch spoke to psychotherapist and counsellor Udara Jayawardena, who was born and raised in Sri Lanka and now works in Australia, and registered with the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA), for her unique perspective across two very different cultures.  

Emotional suppression and expression across cultures 

Discussing emotions and their suppression and expression, Jayawardena stressed how important emotions are. “I feel that emotions are misinterpreted. Emotions are something that we are born with, just like our internal organs. And just like how our body helps us survive, our emotions help us survive too,” she shared. Jayawardena explained that an emotion such as fear, for instance, helps keep us safe, and ignoring such an emotion can put one’s life at risk.

Jayawardena compared the cultural norms surrounding emotional expression and suppression in both Sri Lanka and Australia. “Cultural norms and values play a critical role in how we regulate our emotions. In the Sri Lankan context, I feel that we have absorbed this cultural message that the expression of emotions makes you weak, while suppressing them makes us strong,” Jayawardena stated, adding that in reality, the opposite is true. She explained that in her experience, in Australia and most other western cultures, the expression of emotion is encouraged, as people view it as adding uniqueness and individuality to the person as a whole. “In Australia, a person who is able to express their emotions is generally seen as being authentic or honest, while somebody who suppresses emotions may be viewed as being impolite,” she shared. Analysing further, Jayawardena stated that in Sri Lanka, emotional disconnection, suppression, or detachment are all looked upon as being contributing factors for success.

“All cultures feel the same emotions and see them the same way. However, there are culture-specific norms that cause significant differences in how an emotion is expressed in one part of the world, to another. I call this the cultural rulebook of emotions,” Jayawardena stated. She shared that, for instance, the English language has a wide range of vocabulary that allows for great emotional expression. However, in the case of some languages, such vocabulary is limited, which impacts emotional expression. 

Parenting styles and its role in emotional expression/suppression

Delving into parenting styles in Sri Lanka, Jayawardena stated that most parents discourage the expression of emotions in children, either by dismissing it, or shaming children for being emotional, sometimes going so far as to ask children to stop crying. “What an authoritarian parenting style does is force the child to suppress emotions out of fear of punishment, or embarrassment. However, if a child does not express emotions then and there, it will come out in different ways in their adult life,” she shared.

In contrast, Jayawardena shared that throughout her experience working with schools in Australia, she observed that emotional expression is encouraged and as a result, children are not just expressive about their own emotions but are also understanding and respectful of the emotions of others. “I also believe that the level of psychoeducation in schools in Australia definitely furthers this level of emotional intelligence, and that Sri Lanka needs to bring in more psychoeducation into their school systems,” Jayawardena shared. 

According to Jayawardena, research has shown that a relaxed parenting style encourages children to express and regulate emotions in a healthy manner, while also nurturing a strong and positive bond with their parents, which then reflects in their adult relationships as well. 

Aggression and avoidance stemming from emotional suppression 

Discussing the ill effects of the authoritarian parenting style that can be observed in Sri Lanka, Jayawardena shared that it causes emotional suppression in childhood, which can then present itself as either aggression or avoidance in adult life. “For instance, if a child loses a pet, their parents can make statements such as ‘people lose much more in their lives’, which invalidates the emotional experience of the child,” Jayawardena shared, adding that every emotion expressed by the child needs to be validated by their parents. 

Jayawardena went on to share that repeated invalidation of emotions and continuous suppression of them, is one of the biggest contributors to various forms of aggression such as domestic violence, abuse, rape, and even murder. On the flip side, Jayawardena says that suppressing emotions in childhood can also cause avoidance in adulthood, where an individual may feel uncomfortable with emotional intimacy, have trust and communication issues, and feel detached from their own emotions. They will not be able to understand or respect the emotions of another person, and will avoid a person who is emotional. “Anger and avoidance both stem from unmet needs, unregulated emotions, and unresolved grief,” Jayawardena shared. 

The ‘boys don’t cry’ mentality and toxic masculinity 

Generally, all around the world, a boy, when growing up, is encouraged to be strong and to display that strength through suppressing emotions, Jayawardena stated, explaining that statements such as “boys don’t cry” can eventually lead to a wide range of mental health issues in men, as well as toxic masculinity.

“I have observed that men, especially in Sri Lanka and other cultures that encourage the suppression of emotions, appear to be emotionally disconnected and numb, often unable to feel their own emotions, or feel for another person,” Jayawardena shared. She analysed this “macho mentality” further, stating that it causes toxic masculinity that leads to emotionally abusive relationships and stonewalling, and sometimes the displaying of narcissistic traits and more. Men are generally conditioned to not express and especially not cry or become emotional. Over time, their psyche believes that the less emotional they are, the more attractive, confident, and successful they will be. “They begin to think that being emotionally absent is how they can show love towards another person, because this is what has been modelled for them throughout their lives. They forget that love is all about expressing emotions,” Jayawardena stated.

Jayawardena also added that the vast majority of men are taught to pursue materialistic success, and that while such success is important, they are almost never taught to pursue success within themselves on an emotional level. “The role of the provider, along with this macho mindset, deprives men from what is rightfully theirs the right to express. One can be a provider and still be able to express what they need and how they feel too,” Jayawardena shared. 

Grief, emotions, and substance abuse 

Discussing the process of loss and grieving, Jayawardena shared that grieving is the same whether you have experienced the demise of a loved one, a pet, or the loss of a relationship, and must never be undermined. “The healthy way to grieve is to feel, and then heal. We must never make remarks such as ‘get over it’ or ‘it’s not a big deal’, or ask somebody not to cry,” she added, saying that grief that has been suppressed or has not been dealt with, plays a big role in anxiety and depression. “Feeling and accepting emotions does not mean allowing emotions to control us, but rather, using healthy emotional strategies such as mindfulness, guided breathing exercises, or cognitive behavioural therapy to regulate them correctly without avoidance/suppression,” she shared.

Jayawardena elaborated that the suppression of emotions over extended periods of time can lead to substance abuse and addiction. “When a child has grown up being ashamed of their emotions, they often turn to substances in adult life as a form of escapism each time they experience a difficult emotion,” she shared. Jayawardena explained that this occurs because the child has grown up associating emotions to embarrassment and therefore, as an adult, they feel the same sense of embarrassment when they experience emotions. As a result, they try to escape reality through substance abuse, so that they do not have to feel ashamed.

“I also want to stress that if an individual is uncomfortable with the emotions of another person who is expressive, the issue lies with the person who is uncomfortable. They have not been given the right tools to regulate their own emotions and therefore, cannot deal with the emotions of another person,” Jayawardena shared. She added that most people who find themselves in similar situations often experience guilt for having expressed their emotions, therefore making the other person uncomfortable. However, Jayawardena stated that expressing emotions is a healthy practice and one must never feel guilty for owning how they feel.

Wrapping up the discussion, Jayawardena reiterated how we can begin to foster an emotionally healthy and secure society. “Start with your children. When you encourage emotional suppression, you may think that you are cultivating strength. In reality, you are simply growing a society full of wounded people.”