Dialogue on Suppressing Emotions

This short dialogue is my own work and only I’m responsible for any errors in it. However, it was inspired by other people’s work, and in particular see:



Justin: Hi.
Questioner: Hi. I had some questions about emotions.
J: OK.
Q: So you think it’s possible to change emotions, yes?
J: Yeah though it can be an involved process that takes a long time and people are often bad at it.
Q: I’m not sure how you’d change emotions. They seem to just happen, and if you try to not feel them then they’ll get bottled up and you’ll explode one day.
J: So I think there’s an important distinction that what you just said brings up. Changing an emotion is very different than trying not to feel the emotion. People often deal with their emotions by trying to suppress them, which involves stuff like trying not to feel the emotions. I think if you try to change emotions, you actually have the emotions and just try to introspect more, try to notice what’s going on while you have the emotion, what triggers it, that kind of thing. So the experience is very different than trying to suppress the emotion. Trying to change an emotion, as a first step, involves trying to experience the emotion with greater awareness and introspection and without judgment. You can read some details here, especially under the “How to Change Emotions” heading.
Q: Do you think suppressing emotions is bad?
J: I think it’s a bad life strategy because it has a high failure rate, and because it involves an ongoing state of internal conflict and unpleasantness. That doesn’t mean that I think suppressing emotions under any circumstances is bad. Like I think if you are approaching levels of anger where you might do something you seriously regret, then shoving your anger away until you cool off, or doing something that will help you blow off steam, like some vigorous physical activity or something like that, is way way better than just allowing the anger to keep building and ultimately doing something you regret. But that’s treating suppressing emotions as more of an emergency last resort than as a sustainable long-term solution. I think treating suppressing emotions as a last resort makes sense, but doing it in the long run doesn’t make much sense.

Part of the reason it doesn’t make sense in the long run is that having to suppress emotions indicates a conflict between ideas internally, and that’s something you need to resolve progress in a reasonable manner in your life and feel happy. Like suppose something involved with what you do at work troubles you morally. You can’t just shove that aside and be like “Well, whatever, I need the money”, because you can’t actually do something for 40 or more hours a week, have it be a primary life activity, have it be potentially something you identify with very strongly (as people often do with their work), and have major moral doubts about it. That’s not sustainable. You need to be able to “sleep at night”. So you need to figure things out, by doing careful introspection about your doubts, analyzing arguments, addressing points, getting external criticism if possible, etc.

BTW, even when used in emergency cases, trying to suppress emotions can be unreliable. There’s like, a big correlation between the people who have intense emotions strong enough that they need to try to reign them in by taking a bunch of deep breaths or whacking a punching bag, and people who find that such measures are insufficient to actually reign in their anger. Nonetheless, people still have some knowledge of how to reign in their emotions before they get out of control, such that they can look back at situations and judge that they could have acted better than they did given their existing knowledge but made some decision not to.

So anyways I think that illustrates the issue some. Suppressing emotions can be reasonable to try as an emergency strategy but is bad as a life strategy.

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