This is another casually written post in a series of posts written in the spirit of advice to my past self.

It's hard to remember exactly when I started to try to control my emotions. Probably I could not have been very old, only 4 or 5.

Learning to regulate your own emotions is an important skill in a person's psychological development. It marks a shift from relying on a parent or caretaker to soothe you to learning how to soothe yourself. It enables a person to go from a highly dependent baby to, eventually after many years, a somewhat independently functioning adult.

But I took it too far. This is both because I'm male and because I saw myself as smart and rational, and smart and rational characters in stories have their emotions under control.

On male emotional regulation, growing up I and other boys were taught that our emotions could cause harm, and we needed to control them to avoid causing harm to others. We could lash out in anger and, through physical violence, hurt those we care about. As we got older, we were also told that our sexual desires were dangerous and needed to be suppressed. And, yes, violence and sexual assault are bad, you need to not do those things. But our instructions were not "don't do bad things"; they were "don't feel things that might cause you to do bad things".

Additionally, boys and men police certain emotions among themselves. To be a Real Man you can't show fear or sadness or too much love. If you do show those emotions, they can only be shown in limited, permitted ways. Otherwise you're not a Real Man and will be subject to bullying to make sure you don't get the idea you might be a Real Man capable of doing Real Man things so you always remember you're a second class man.

On top of this, I added my own flavor of additional emotional control by trying to emulate characters in stories who were most like who I was told I was. I was told I was smart. Intelligence was my primary attribute. So when I watched movies and TV shows and read books, I identified with the smart characters. And smart characters like Data or Spock in Star Trek didn't show or even have emotions. So it seemed to me that, because I was smart, it was important that I also feel little to no emotion.

This was a terrible choice, though. I was actually a pretty sensitive kid and felt a lot of big emotions. But because I learned it was not okay to cry or be upset or be too happy or too sad, I fought a battle with myself to push my feelings down.

As you might imagine, this wasn't healthy. I was still full of emotion, and sometimes it would come spilling out, because most of the time it was bottled up and so out of reach that I couldn't even tell you what I felt like.

Suppressing emotions is an awful thing to do to yourself, though. It prevents you from understanding your own motivations, it causes you to sometimes act out in surprising ways, and it generally will make you miserable because you're in a constant battle to hide yourself from the world because you know, deep down, that the real you is not lovable or acceptable and if anyone saw it you'd be cast out to die alone in the wilderness.

Learning to live with your emotions is wonderful. The stress of trying to hide who you really are is gone. You feel loved and connected and accepted. Even if sometimes you feel things that are not polite to express, you know that the feeling itself is okay even if the actions it makes you want to take are not, and you can learn to redirect your actions without denying the feelings. It's a way to be content with your own existence.

How does one achieve this?

Well, some men seem to go in for things that teach you how to really be a Real Man, not the fake version of the Real Man policy you learned as a kid. This was not for me. I had no real desire to be a Real Man since I'm not about to go fight in a war or hunt for my dinner. That just didn't call to me. Others seem to like it.

What I found helpful was to find ways to notice and then accept me for myself. I found this in things like Focusing, meditation, Alexander Technique, and reading lots of positive psychology books to help me identify and understand the damage I had done to myself.

It honestly took a lot of work. I think it was a good 10 years from when I started to try to rectify my relationship with my emotions to when I finally felt totally okay about them. I don't say that to scare you off: there was incremental progress all along the way, so it wasn't 10 years of hell to get to the other side. But it is important to know it's likely to be a long journey with many unexpected twists and turns.

Now, my experience of this is very male because that's who I am, but there's a different but similar challenge with emotions for women. Women are expected to show emotion, rather than hide it, in certain ways to be a Real Woman. Even if you don't feel something, women may try to make themselves act as if they really do feel it because it conforms with social expectations.

Additionally, women are often asked to deal with men's emotions when they come out. Because we ask men to control and suppress their emotions, it falls on women to soothe men, and in part this is forced on them because men who are not soothed may lash out and hurt women. This is reinforced by our stories. Female characters in stories are often especially feminine and caring and are given value in relation to the way they use their emotions to either manipulate or enable men to feel loved and accepted.

This is just as fucked up as the male situation.

I don't know much about how women can best learn to feel their own emotions. I suspect the category of things that worked for me should work for everyone because they just come down to noticing what's going on in your body and mind and learning to live with what you find. But there's probably some version of relearning how to be a Real Woman that some women find useful. This is probably what's going on in those divine feminine workshops that seems like a parallel to men's retreats.

I bring up the female experience because when thinking about feelings and how we don't treat them as okay, it's important to remember there's differences between the male and female versions of the pathology. We cause lots of pain for ourselves and others by typical minding the other sex and failing to realize that they have a difference experience of expectations around emotions than we do. Alas, I can only speak from personal experience as a man, so my perspective is forever limited in that way.

(I've also not even touched on people who don't identify as male or female, but that's mostly because I don't know enough to say anything useful.)

So, if you feel like you sometimes fight your emotions, are afraid of what will happen if you let your emotions out, or feel like you're forced to preform emotions you don't feel, consider getting back in touch with what you're actually feeling. You may be surprised to learn that your emotions are actually okay to feel.

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I confirm this and I didn't have access to much of my emotions for a long time either. But my path is different. I think I avoided most of the pitfalls of suppressing emotions but there are some lessons on this path too. 

There are more and less adaptive emotional defense mechanisms. Repression and denial are not adaptive and the examples from the OP sound more like that. But altruism and sublimation are actually adaptive coping mechanisms, and I believe I did more of that. But there are problems that you can't avoid even if you have positively regulated emotions and I want to talk about those.

I grew up in a fostering, loving, and caring family and the biggest emotional conflicts were between us siblings. Strong emotional reactions were subtly discouraged, and I must have picked that up early. For sure, I'm good at emotional regulation, but if you are smart enough, you can often navigate difficult situations in ways that avoid stressors, to begin with. That's what I did. In some cases, this led other people to be stressed, e.g., my outsmarted siblings. Not nice, but I realized that only later. I didn't feel a strong urge to suppress negative emotions, and I remember situations where I cried, and that was OK, e.g., in my relationship. I never had difficulty expressing positive emotions like joy and happiness. So, negative emotions were very rare. Great, right? 

No. Even if you genuinely don't experience negative emotions - you just don't have them - this still has some problems:

  • You can't relate and imagine and mirror other people having them. It is really difficult to put yourself in their shoes. Sure, you can understand the difficulties of their situation in abstract terms like "having an abusive parent must be stressful," but you can't share the anger and pain because you can't go to that emotional place in your imagination. You miss that part of the mental map. 
  • If you eventually do get into a stressful or painful situation, you are woefully unprepared. 

(cutting it short for now, may write more later in thread)