O P I N I O N – M E N T A L H E A L T H
Shaerah Shamael Siddiqui
Stoicism in all its form teaches us self-control and self-awareness so that when life brings misfortunes, bad luck, or a series of ups and downs, we remain calm and endure rather than being maddened by rage or broken by grief.
And, although nowadays stoicism is perceived as being synonymous with indifference, apathy and suppressing your emotions to the point you convince yourself that you don’t feel them anymore, the ancient Greek philosophy—Stoicism with a capital ‘S’—doesn’t actually talk about any of that. Instead, it tells us to control our reactions to adversity—to see it not just as a pain but as a way to learn a virtue, so that we are not inclined to respond with violent displays of anger or grief. And if still those emotions arise, they should not gain complete control of our actions or cloud our judgement. Essentially, it is okay to feel but not to be driven by feelings alone.
The goal of Stoicism is not indifference; it is peace and happiness for oneself, free from the shackles of needless suffering, and a more fair and just world for others.
However, as the modern usage of the word ‘stoic’ refers more to silent suffering, rather than the acceptance of adversity and the attainment of emotional growth and development, the idea has led to cultural practices of emotional repression and has had very aggressive and harmful results.
For example, the Korean culture encourages people to suffer in silence. And Filipino health workers are noted to under-medicate those in pain as they consider suffering an opportunity to develop virtues. And traditionally, society expects men to be more stoic than women, seeing any behaviotur otherwise as a sign of weakness, so that men hesitate to seek help for both psychological and physical pain.
In today’s world, we are all caught up in a spider web of validating positive emotions only. We tell ourselves and other around us to always “be happy”, and in the age of social media, when our eyes are inundated with the highlights of people being happy, successful, cheerful, positive, we try to force the same on ourselves through being excessively positive when the truth is, life is all about the pain and the struggles. They are what makes us learn and grow and be better human beings. While chasing happiness only leads to disappointment and guilt when you inevitably fail to maintain that positive outlook.
What are the benefits of expressing negative emotions?
From an evolutionary perspective, we express emotions to help us in decision making and motivate us to take action. When human beings lived in the wild, negative emotions like fear could have been life-saving as it would propel humans to fight or run away when faced danger. And even now when we reside in cities, far from the dangers of the wild—fear, anxiety, and sadness helps us cope.
Suppose we are angry and we confront the trigger of our irritation rather than ignoring it. This can help us calm down and release stress. Similarly, mourning the loss of a loved one helps us move on. Feeling anxious about a performance or a test urges us to prepare better. We are more equipped the next time we face a similar situation.
Feeling angry or frustrated can also be a signal that something needs to change. And, if you ignore that signal and don’t change the situations or thought patterns that are the cause, you will continue to be triggered by them. That is because emotions are agents that guide us to what intrinsically has value to us. We feel pleasure as a reward for something we did right, and pain as a punishment for something we did wrong. Therefore, when we accept both sides of the coin, we are more likely to understand and work towards something that makes us feel connected to every part of ourselves.
Similarly, emotions allow us to understand and give room to people for understanding us, so if we don’t suppress our emotions and healthily deal with them, not only does it add up to the well-being of us and people around us, it can also allow us to form deeper connections with people. In fact, four studies show that it is by expressing negative emotions that we can build strong friendships and lasting relationships.
What are the impacts of toxic positivity and the suppression of negative emotions?
“The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.”
– Mark Manson, a self-help writer
The very moment we dazzle our mind with behaviours and sayings that push us to stay positive 24/7 like, “Everything happens for a reason” or “Happiness is a choice”—is the moment we deprive ourselves of learning, developing intelligence over that particular situation or preparation for the future.
There are multiple guides, quotes, and speeches to force us to keep up with the positive attitude, like, “Write down three things that make you happy” or “Think about how it could have been worse”. However, they mean nothing unless we can actually solve the problems in our life that prompted that negative attitude in the first place.
Moreover, we need to realise that in life we’ll never run out of problems to solve or struggles to face. They will always be there, only in better and hopefully more manageable versions. And it is overcoming those hurdles that will give us lasting satisfaction and happiness, not the chasing of temporary pleasures of doing what feels good at the moment.
But the latter is what toxic positivity is all about. It feeds us the idea that we need to rush towards what gives us a dose of dopamine by branding it as ‘self-care’. But self-care isn’t about what always feels good in the moment, rather sometimes it can mean confronting something you’ve always burrowed underneath your skin, preparing for that exam, accepting failures, mourning over a loss, and working hard on something you’re passionate about.
Instead, when we have all of this at the back of our head and still shoot for being positive, we are stuck in a loop of feeling empty and incomplete, because we denied half of ourselves in that process.
The culture of toxic positivity pushes us to a disappointment, shame, and guilt spiral whenever we feel negative emotions; leads to being dishonest with ourselves; feeling empty in the moment only to have those emotions come back in a much stronger and complex form.
A study from the University of Texas found that when we avoid our emotions, we’re actually making them stronger. To begin with, burying anger increases the chances of an emotional outburst, because, since it hasn’t been dealt with, the cause of the anger floats through one’s subconscious, waiting to find an occasion to explode. Similarly, holding back grief or sadness might cause one to tear up over the tiniest bit of inconvenience as a way of releasing all that pent-up emotion.
“Suppressing your emotions, whether it’s anger, sadness, grief, or frustration, can lead to physical stress on your body. The effect is the same, even if the core emotion differs,” says provisional clinical psychologist Victoria Tarratt.
As a result, suppressing emotions not only increases the chance of a later outburst but also tenses up the body leading to stress disorders, self-esteem issues, anxiety and depression. Even our memory can be affected.
More shockingly, though, the stress manifests physically as well in the form of decreased immune system function. A 2013 study by the Harvard School of Public Health and The University of Rochester showed people who suppressed their emotions increased their chance of premature death from all causes by more than 30%, alongside their risk of being diagnosed with cancer increasing by 70%.
Expressing negative emotions thus helps us understand our state of mind and allows us to make more empathetic decisions, which is a better outcome for ourselves, our health, and our surroundings. And it is by confronting our issues and our feelings head on that we can achieve self-control, self-awareness, and the tranquility of mind that the 2300-year-old philosophy of Stoicism had actually envisioned for us.
Shaerah is probably doodling something down regretting her fifth cup of caffeine intake and something stupid she said years ago. Send help at [email protected]