This article came from Storied Mind Newsletter, written by John Folk-Williams. As I read the article, I thought, “My depression was mainly in my mind; I kept my emotions under control to the detriment of the well-being of my body, soul, and spirit. I broke that pattern when I called out to Jesus in anguish, despair, anger, and hopelessness. Once I told Him what I was feeling, He knew what to do about it.”
When I was learning about the experience of veterans with PTSD, I came across a video of a young soldier talking about his recovery. What he said captured a basic truth about the problems that many men have with their feelings, especially when living with depression.
He told about learning to let himself feel anger and fear as normal emotions rather than
as dangerous extremes he had to shut down. With PTSD and depression he had become wary of all strong feelings – all the time.
It had been a revelation for him to learn through therapy that it was OK to feel anger, fear and other deep emotions. Now he faced another question. What do I do with those feelings? How do they translate into everyday life? How do I behave with them?
The Difficulty of Holding Back Feelings
Like this young soldier, I grew up presenting a calm face to everyone and seemed to walk undisturbed through situations that left others reeling in anger, fear, confusion, tears or laughter.
I usually felt what most other people were feeling, but I didn’t want to show it. I had learned quite well how to suppress the outward signs of emotion. Although it seemed quite natural and effortless to me for many years, in fact, the stress of not showing feelings was enormous.
The strange thing is that the body has an excellent built-in system for regulating emotional responses. If you don’t tamper with it, feelings come and go fairly quickly, but if you consciously intervene you only sharpen and prolong the feeling that you are trying to hold in check. The effort is exhausting and deeply stressful. It’s no wonder that people like the young soldier who learn that it’s OK to be angry or afraid feel enormously relieved. They can finally release the physical tension and pressure of control.
The Cost of Control
Holding in feelings never helped me deal with them. I may have imagined that I was “in control”, but I always wound up more controlled by the feelings I was trying to hide. If I did “win” the battle and succeeded in keeping them out of sight, I got little in return for the effort.
Most often, I blocked myself from reaching out to anyone or deepening a relationship. Most communication comes through the nonverbal expressiveness of the body and its ability to reflect all the bluntness and all the subtlety of human feeling.
The only thing I communicated by constraining my feelings was that I didn’t want to communicate. That came across as: I don’t trust you enough to show you what I’m really feeling.
The Depression Effect
One of the worst things about my depression, in terms of emotion, was that it exaggerated the dangers of accepting feelings for what they were. I became convinced that there was something threatening about my emotions, that they could have a devastating impact if I were to let them loose.
Perhaps I believed this because depression feeds on isolation and kindles fear at the prospect that it could be broken by reaching out to someone. I can’t be sure, but again and again I hit a wall of depression when trying to speak with my feelings.
I became self-conscious, tense, hypercritical and remained as far as possible from the relaxation and trust that are so vital to a close relationship. Words about feelings don’t mean so much to my partner unless she can also sense the musical accompaniment of the feelings themselves in every gesture. Trying to hide my feelings was one of the most self-defeating things I could do, but shutting down was also the first thing I did when depressed.