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3 Ways to Know When to Show Your True Emotions

At home, at work, or on the phone, there are calculations you need to make.

Emotions serve many functions. They provide you with inner cues about the way a situation is affecting you, and they give you a way to signal to other people whether you like or dislike what they’re saying or doing. But we’re not always sure when to let our emotions show.

It’s definitely easier to determine whether to share your inner states with the people who love and accept you. Sometimes we also feel comfortable sharing our feelings with total strangers. How many times have you lost your temper with a faceless voice at the other end of an 800 number when you’ve been kept waiting or given poor service? You’d probably never allow rage to overcome you the same way in a face-to-face interaction—but you’d still be more likely to become furious with someone you didn’t know at all than with someone you know you’ll see again.

Within your circle of close friends and family, there’s more likely to be a green light for revealing your true feelings. As you extend beyond that circle, the situation is murkier. If you were up all night arguing with your romantic partner, and your eyes are still puffy and red, do you let your co-workers know what's really going on? Or do you cover it up with under-eye concealer and a false smile? What if a co-worker or boss says something that upsets you, and you feel tears start to well up? Do you race to the restroom or let the waterworks flow? Experiencing or indulging negative emotions at work might also affect your productivity. No matter your job, it’s harder to concentrate when intrusive emotions of sadness, rejection, loss, and hopelessness crowd your conscious awareness.

Researchers who study emotion regulation are interested in the factors that determine whether and how we compartmentalize intense feeling states and allow ourselves to move on with our daily lives. In part, getting hold of your emotions becomes easier as you get older. It should come as no surprise that Wuppertal University’s Peter Zimmerman and Alexander Iwanski (2014) found that middle-teens have the poorest control over their emotions. In middle adulthood, people better control their negative emotions such as fear and anger, though they seem to do so in ways that lead them to avoid confronting their feelings—and they are less likely than younger people to seek social support when they’re sad and angry.

As you get older, then, you may be better at keeping your feelings to yourself, but this may not always be the most adaptive strategy. The ideal is to find a balance between holding back and expressing your feelings in accordance with the situation. The Zimmerman and Iwanski study suggests that middle-aged adults err on the side of holding back (though not all adults do so by any means).

At work, holding back may be beneficial. Whether you’re dealing with managers, customers, students, or patrons, you’re going to be more positively regarded if you wear only positive emotions on your sleeve. The cost of holding in negative emotions, also known as emotional labor can, however, stress you out.

Michigan State University researcher Fadel Matta and colleagues (2014) showed that when managers are unfair and uncivil, their employees experience negative emotional reactions that, in turn, can lead to unproductive work behaviors. Employees who are good at emotional regulation are better able to withstand an unjustly harsh supervisor, particularly if they can somehow manage to appraise the interaction in a positive or, at least, less negative manner. In general, however, unfair treatment creates employees who feel nervous, distressed, and angry. They find such treatment more upsetting than unfair treatment by co-workers because supervisors hold so much power over them—it’s not exactly easy for you to confront our boss unless you’re not worried about losing your job.

Now, let’s return to the original question of figuring out how, and when, to show your true feelings.

If you’re in a work environment in which you feel supported, understood, and fairly treated, the chances are that you’ll also feel safer about allowing your feelings to leak out when you’re overwhelmed by them. I don’t think that the Matta, et al. study implies that you can do this every day, but on those occasions when you're having difficulty controlling feelings (such as the morning after a breakup), you will be less likely to fear reprisals.

Among your close friends and family, the situation is obviously different: You don’t risk being fired by parents or siblings just for getting mad or showing distress. However, you might find yourself left out of certain family gatherings if they fear that you can’t be trusted to behave in a reasonably mature way. As in the Matta, et al. study, though, as long as your family “supervisors” treat you fairly, you’ll probably be less likely to act out at your sister-in-law’s bridal shower.

We can conclude that three factors determine whether and how to show your true feelings:

  1. Your own ability to regulate your emotions. The better you understand yourself, including your emotional triggers, and the better you're able to cope when those triggers set you off, the more likely you’ll know whether it’s okay or not to vent.
  2. Your feeling of safety and comfort in the situation. If you believe you can trust the people around you, showing your true self will be far easier than if you’re afraid of harmful consequences for taking down the mask of social nicety.
  3. The extent to which you feel accountable. The reason it’s so easy to act out against an anonymous voice on the phone is that you feel little compunction to be nice. This can prove counterproductive (no one wants to help a customer who’s insulting), but it might make you feel that you’re off the hook. The more you stand to lose, the more likely you'll keep your feelings to yourself.

Ideally, you can find enough emotional release through the use of coping strategies so that you can manage your emotions in situationally-appropriate ways. As mad, frustrated, disappointed or anxious as you might feel, it is possible to find fulfillment by recognizing, accepting, and eventually expressing your emotional needs.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014


Matta F, Erol‐Korkmaz H, Johnson R, B

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