Keeping our emotions close to our chest can often feel safer, but it isn’t always the healthiest way to move through life. This approach prevents us from discussing our needs (which can turn into a cyclical issue) and prevents us from truly connecting with others. Over the long term, bottling up emotions can even backfire in unexpected ways related to our mental and physical health.
Why We Tend to Bottle Up Our Emotions
There are many scenarios in which we feel compelled to suppress our feelings. For example, we may just want to get through the day, we tell ourselves we’ll deal with the emotion later, we think the feeling isn’t worth exploring, or we try to conceal our feelings in order to make a relationship “work.”
Ultimately, though, we tend to bottle up our feelings for one key reason: it seems easier and safer to do so.
“The reasons we sometimes—or most times—bottle up our emotions can vary, but they all seem to stem from a fear of vulnerability. Out of this fear, we react through self-protective emotional measures,” says Dr Colleen Mullen, PsyD, LMFT. “Bottling up emotions provides a false sense of emotional safety.”
She says that some people learn, as they grow up, that expressing their emotions isn’t safe. There are different ways this can play itself out in childhood.
For some, the parent is dismissive or minimizing their emotions, while for others, the parent is scared of their own expression of emotions or threatening to them. For others, it can be an early awareness that the parent is overwhelmed and doesn’t respond well if the child expresses their needs or feelings.
“Those children can grow up to be the adult who becomes stifled emotionally,” Dr Mullen says. “The stifling, or avoidance, of emotional expression ends up feeling like a fear of being told ‘no,’ abandonment, or being judged negatively.”
Why Hiding Our Feelings Can Often Backfire
Though bottling up our emotions can feel like a good plan in the short term, doing so can adversely affect us in the following ways:
Puts Strain on Our Mental Health
Chronic dismissal of our own feelings can ultimately impact our self-confidence. Over time, we may feel like nobody cares about our needs or desires and that our opinion or voice doesn’t matter.
It can also cause us to feel stressed, depressed, or anxious. In some cases, we may even feel deeply angry or rageful and develop feelings of resentment toward others.
Compromises Our Physical Health
“There is some evidence that bottling up your emotions can lead to physical stress on the body,” says Dr Mullen. “The stress caused to the body can lead to increased diabetes and heart disease risks. Other effects can be memory difficulties.”
Impedes Our Social Relationships
Healthy social relationships are vital to our overall well-being. After all, we are social creatures at our core. When we don’t adequately express ourselves, our relationships cannot grow in meaningful ways.
“Human-to-human contact can help balance our nervous system and allows for a broader perspective, protecting us from digressing into loops of fear and false beliefs,” says Shari Foos, MA, MFT, MS. “Most importantly, unless you are open and honest, how will you ever be seen and known? And if you are not known, how can you possibly be loved for who you truly are?”
Signs You’re Bottling Emotions
While in some cases we consciously push down our feelings, it’s common to do so without even realizing it. Some signs you’re not wholly expressing your emotions include:
- It seems like other people don’t “get you.”
- You’re not getting what you want out of time spent with others.
- You often experience somatic symptoms, such as an upset stomach or digestive issues, headaches, racing heart, and tension.
- You experience growing anger and frustration with the world and others.
- You develop feelings of resentment toward others.
If you think someone else might be bottling up their emotions, there are some things to look out for, as well.
“Signs that someone is bottling up emotions can be detected in choice words, tone, and body language. Some individuals may also unconsciously fold their bodies inward, wring their hands, tap their fingers or feet, dart their eyes, or shake their heads,” says Foos.
She adds, “Their response to being asked something as basic as, ‘tell me about yourself,’ might range from a simple ‘I don’t know,’ to an attempt to change the subject, shut down the conversation, or even leave the room.”
How to Get Better at Expressing Yourself
Expressing our emotions doesn’t always come naturally. Rather, it’s something that takes practice and dedication to honour ourselves. Over time, we can develop the skillset to process and express our feelings.
Dr Mullen says, “One of the best ways to become getting better at expressing yourself is to just say what you mean.” It sounds simple enough, but this will take practice. Start small and focus on positive feelings; over time, you’ll build that muscle.
It might mean saying things like:
- “I felt really loved when you cooked dinner the other night.”
- “I’m hoping you can help me out on Saturday with the project.”
- “I want to make sure you understand where I am coming from.”
- “I feel happy when we do things like this together.”
From there, you can graduate to expressing neutral or disappointed feelings. Some examples might include:
- “Sometimes I feel like you don’t hear me.”
- “I’m really disappointed that you are not going to help me on Saturday.”
- “I felt sad when you forgot about XYZ.”
- “I’m frustrated that I need to bring this topic up again.”
Written by Wendy Rose Gould