My client Katrina was raised in a home where there were no holds barred on expressed emotion. While this may sound freeing, it actually took a toll on Katrina. Let-it-all-out was rationalized as cathartic, relieving and truthful but created chronic emotional strife. One barbed expression fed off another, and the wounding exchanges escalated. Even body parts were attacked: ankles, smiles and thighs were described as thick, grotesque and fat. The environment felt unsafe. Katrina suffers from moderate anxiety and mild depression. She slips into extreme self-criticism and despair. But what troubles her most is the inability to control her anger.
Katrina “loses it” with her boyfriend if he does something that upsets her. She starts out with suppressed emotion that escalates in rapid fashion if he is defensive. Frustrated and feeling desperate, she loses her temper, cries or yells. “I know my outbursts are wrong—awful—but I can’t stop. It scares me how I explode and get out of control.”
High EE, or high expressed emotion, has been thought to exacerbate mental illness in families, specifically schizophrenia, but other forms of psychopathology as well. So how important is it, psychologically speaking to restrain from explosions or mean comments.
You may have heard, “Do not speak unless you can say something nice,” or “Those who guard their mouth and tongues keep themselves from calamity.” Cicero said, “We are in bondage to the law in order that we may be free.”
Cultural mores develop for psychological reasons even if they are experienced as oppressive. It is less about rigid adherence and more about a habit that can be broken if necessary. Restraint, (not repression) helps. This just means honor the feeling and channel it effectively. Protecting the self from shame or self-hatred and the other from hurtful attacks is useful.
Katrina is working hard to get a grip on the anger impulse. While the past influences the present, she is learning to master triggers with forethought, reflection, distancing and thought substitution. One can learn new styles of relating. Everyone has issues. Learning to manage your leanings provides a powerful tool. Rational (not irrational) self-critique combined with self-compassion is a good start.
Compassion for the self is sometimes harder to achieve than compassion for others. It is not about egocentricity or self-indulgence but rather a benevolent awareness that leads to a better, more stable self. Learning to trade irrational, extreme self-criticism for true insight and forgiveness is a worthwhile goal.
Healthier people experience “generativity verses stagnation,” to quote psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. Know your foibles and move forth with a gentle inner hand. This makes you more able and generous.