Giving Perfectionists Permission to Feel

July 2, 2009
While it’s sometimes necessary to “keep certain emotions out of sight (when we’re on the street), it’s harmful to try to keep them out of mind (when we are alone).”

NOTE: This post  is reprinted with permission from Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph D, author of The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life.

One’s suffering disappears when one lets oneself go, when one yields — even to sadness. — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Imagine Main Street if we didn’t rein in our emotions. Rude comments tossed at a passersby who fails to meet our unrefined esthetic sensibilities; obscenities running wild each time our expectations are frustrated; an uninvited growl and then a leap at a sexual object walking past. The rules of the jungle — the product of impulse, impatience, and untamed power — would launch a hostile take-over of our concrete jungles. Fortunately, we learn to suppress our base instincts, to civilize our uncivilized urges — to hide our raw feelings and tame the ignoble savage.

Social ties would not hold, things would fall apart, if our emotions were always exposed. For who among us has not had an indecent feeling toward our colleague or best friend, that, if revealed, would endanger a partnership or relationship? Have we not all, in our minds and hearts, transgressed, violated in our imagination the most sacred commandments that hold our society intact — lusted after our neighbor’s partner, felt enraged enough to hurt another? So we become socialized and learn to impose emotion controls, issue restraining orders on our feelings. There are clear benefits to concealing some emotions, but there are also costs: like most human interventions with nature, the socialization process produces side effects.

While it’s at times necessary to keep certain emotions out of sight (when we’re on the street), it’s harmful to try to keep them out of mind (when we are alone). Holding ourselves to the same standards in solitude, denying ourselves the permission to experience unwanted emotions or feel indecent feelings when we are alone, is potentially harmful to our well-being.

We are told that it is “improper” to display our anxiety when listening to a lecture, so we suppress any form of anxiety when we’re writing in our journal. We learn that it is indecent to cry while sitting in a streetcar, and so we hold in our tears even when we are in the shower. Anger does not win us friends, and over time we lose our ability to express anger in solitude. We extinguish our anxiety, fear, and anger for the sake of being pleasant, nice to be around — and in the process of getting others to accept us, we reject ourselves.

When we keep emotions in — when we suppress or repress, ignore or avoid — we pay a high price. Much has been written about the cost of suppression to our psychological well-being. Sigmund Freud and his followers have established the connection between repression and unhappiness; eminent psychologists like Nathaniel Branden and Carl Rogers have illustrated how we hurt our self-esteem when we deny our feelings. And it is not only our psychological well-being that is influenced by our emotions, but our physical well-being as well. Since emotions are both cognitive and physical — effecting and being effected by our thoughts and physiology — suppressing emotions influences the mind and the body.

The link between the mind and the body in the field of medicine has been well established — from the placebo effect to the evidence tying stress and suppression with physical aches and pains. According to Dr. John Sarno, a physician and a professor at New York University School of Medicine, back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, headaches, and other symptoms are often “a response to the need to keep those terrible, antisocial, unkind, childish, angry, selfish feelings … from becoming conscious.” Because there is less of a stigma in our culture against physical pain than against emotional dis-ease, our subconscious mind diverts attention — our own and others’ — from the emotional to the physical.

The prescription Sarno offers to thousands of his patients is to acknowledge their negative feelings, to accept their anxiety, anger, fear, jealousy, or confusion. In many of the cases, the mere permission to experience one’s emotions does not only make the physical symptom go away, it alleviates the negative feelings as well.

Psychotherapy works because the client allows the free flow of emotions — positive and negative. In a set of experiments, psychologist James Pennebaker demonstrated that students who, on four consecutive days, spent twenty minutes writing about difficult experiences, were happier and physically healthier in the long run. The mere act of “opening up” can set us free. Pennebaker, supporting Sarno’s findings, recognizes that “Once we understand the link between a psychological event and a recurring health problem, our health improves.” (p.9)

While we do not need to scream while walking on Main Street, or shout at our boss who makes us angry, we should, when possible, provide a channel for the expression of our emotions. We can talk to a friend about our anger and anxiety, write in our journal about our fear or jealousy, and, at times, in solitude or in the presence of someone we trust, allow ourselves to shed a tear — of sorrow or of joy.

Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., author of The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life, is the New York Times bestselling author of Happier. He taught one of the most popular courses in Harvard’s history, and he currently consults and lectures around the world to multinational organizations, the general public, and at-risk populations. He obtained his Ph.D. in organizations behavior and his B.A. in philosophy and psychology from Harvard.

For more information, visit www.talbenshahar.com

©2009 Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D. Reprinted with permission.

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