As Vickie Gray recently tweeted, "Holding back your feelings doesn’t keep them hidden, it just makes your behaviour incoherent." Which reminded me of some pithy wisdom I first heard from either David Bradford or Mary Ann Huckabay at Stanford many years ago: "We're leaky."
When we try to suppress our feelings, we "leak" in all sorts of ways that send powerful signals to those around us. Our body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, eye contact (or lack thereof) and countless other non-verbal cues shout to the world "SOMETHING'S UP!!!" even as we mutter, lock-jawed, "Everything's fine."
Further, when it comes to sniffing out emotional signals, we make truffle pigs look like aimless wanderers. As a species we've evolved an exquisitely sensitive set of receptors tuned perfectly to the emotions of those around us. So not only do we convey emotions quite readily no matter what's actually said (even when we say nothing at all), but other people are much more perceptive than we typically realize. We're leaking, and we're fooling no one.
However, just because we can apprehend others' feelings doesn't mean we can comprehend them. As Joseph LeDoux has written in "The Emotional Brain," the neurological pathways through which we experience emotions are a "quick and dirty processing system." We sense something, but we can't quite make sense of it. We feel, but we don't understand.
And this is where things can get incoherent, as Gray notes, real fast. Nature abhors a vacuum, and we can't stand the cognitive dissonance that results when we sense another person's emotional state, but we don't understand the rationale for their behavior. So we fill in the gap and invent an explanation that removes the dissonance. Sometimes we're right, and sometimes we're very, very wrong.
The key, which Gray also notes, is simple: Don't hold back; let go and talk about our feelings. Of course, this is a hell of a lot easier said than done, particularly when we're tired, stressed, vulnerable, threatened, and/or experiencing feelings that we're reluctant to share, such as embarrassment or shame. So it's critical for us to practice. Talking about feelings doesn't come naturally to many of us, but just like public speaking, it's a learned skill.
Photo by Arden. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.