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:
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).
Copyright 2014 Guy Winch
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