Think back to a recent incident that made you feel intensely angry or sad. You probably told some (or many) people about what happened and shared your feelings with them. We share our feelings in this way because doing so is supposed to reduce their intensity and make them easier to manage.
But does it really help?
A new study in the journal Emotion, entitled "To Share or Not to Share," examined this very question. Karen Brans and a group of researchers at the University of Louvain in Belgium followed participants for a full week after a real-life incident left them feeling either intensely angry or sad. Each evening, participants completed self-reports indicating how often they shared their feelings about the incident with others, and then completed questionnaires and rating scales that illuminated the immediate impact of doing so (whether they felt better after sharing) as well as the delayed impact (whether they felt better about the situation a day or more after sharing).
The researchers found that sharing angry feelings led to both immediate and delayed beneficial effects—but that sharing sadness led to positive effects that were limited and that emerged only later on. Specifically, people who shared feelings of anger felt an immediate reduction in the intensity of those feelings. They also felt more able to manage the incident and more empowered days later. Sharing feelings of sadness did not bring about an immediate significant reduction in emotional intensity but did make people feel less "stuck" later on (i.e., they were less likely to feel that "nothing could be done" about the situation).
This study was the first to look at how sharing behaviors impact people over time, and as such its findings were interesting. However, I believe the study has a critical omission that renders the findings less useful than they could have been. Specifically, the researchers measured the quantity of sharing behaviors but not the quality—they asked participants how often they shared their feelings but not about the nature of the responses they received.
Neglecting to gather such information is a critical problem because the payoff we get for sharing our feelings with others hinges almost entirely on the quality of the response we get. If the other person listens well, shows empathy, and validates our feelings, we are likely to feel much better, both in the immediate aftermath and later on. But if another person just sits there while we spill our guts and their only response is to mumble “Bummer,” we are unlikely to feel much better.
Without measuring how satisfactory sharing experiences felt to the participants or how comprehensive the emotional validation they received was, the researchers could not make the vital distinction between the impact of sharing our feelings with emotionally validating good listeners, sharing them with bad listeners, or not sharing our feelings at all.
Empathy and emotional validation are vitally important relationship skills that lead to stronger, longer lasting, and more satisfying friendships and relationships as a whole. (See The Three Relationship Skills You Have to Practice).
Further complicating matters, in some situations, sharing anger and sadness can backfire and make you feel even angrier and sadder, without the anticipated relief one expects when venting their feelings.
5 Tips for Getting the Most out of Sharing Your Feelings
When considering whether to share your feelings with a specific person consider the following:
- Is the person a good listener? Give thought to whether the person has listened well in the past, whether they maintain eye contact when you speak in person, whether they make "supportive sounds" when you speak in person or on the phone (oh, wow, gosh, tsk, sigh, etc.), and whether they avoid checking their phone when you're at the most dramatic part of a story.
- Is the person supportive? Or are they the type that says things like, "Just to play devil's advocate for a moment," and then take the other side. Ideally you should choose someone who will see things from your point of view, at least when you're sad and looking for empathy.
- Can the person offer empathy and emotional validation? Does the person tend to "get" how you feel? It's important that someone you open up to not only sees things from your perspective, but is capable of expressing these perceptions as well. When someone can convey back to us an accurate understanding of how and why we feel the way we do, it has a powerful positive impact on our state of mind.
- Is the person likely to make the talk about them? Some people are quick to offer support, but even quicker to follow it up with, "I know exactly how you feel—the same thing happened to me!" and then go off talking about themselves. Make sure to choose someone who's willing to stay focused on your experience while you're in pain.
- Is the person loyal? When we're hurting, the desire to share can override our decision- making about whether the person is likely to keep our confidences and respect our privacy. Don't forget to give thought to whether this person is likely to be as discreet and loyal as you expect and need them to be.
Sharing your feelings with others will be much more helpful if you follow these guidelines and choose the right person when you're trying to recover from emotionally upsetting incidents. But keep in mind that in many cases you can also 'treat' your own emotional wounds—so check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).
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