Emotional expression


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laurel hardyThe study of Emotional Expression has a long history, which dates back to the 1870s with scientific investigations undergone by Charles Darwin (Darwin, 1872).  Darwin’s work emphasized the biological utility of emotional expression.  Thus, it contributed to the development of an evolutionary-expressive approach to emotion, which suggests that emotion exists because it contributes to survival (Oatley, 1992).  [Link to Tears] Emotional expression, emotional experience and emotional arousal have been conceptualised as three primary components of emotion (Kennedy-Moore & Watson, 1999), with emotional reflection as a secondary component, involving thoughts about the three primary components.  They regard emotional expression as having four central functions, the promotion of arousal regulation, self-understanding, the development of coping skills and finally, to help improve interpersonal relationships.  In 1999, Kennedy Moore and Watson defined emotional expression as: “observable verbal and nonverbal behaviours that communicate and / or symbolise emotional experience.  Expression can occur with or without self-awareness.  It is at least somewhat controllable, and it can involve varying degrees of deliberate intent.” 

Gross’s work highlights the importance of being able to successfully regulate one’s emotions.  Common regulation strategies include cognitive reappraisal, which involves interpreting a situation in positive terms, and expressive suppression, which involves inhibiting overt signs of inner emotional states.  His research, proposes that reappraisal decreases both emotional experience and behavioural expression, whilst having no impact on memory.  However in contrast, suppression decreases behavioural expression but not emotional experience, whilst actually impairing memory.  Thus Gross (2002), suggests that some emotion regulation strategies are more preferable in different situations, than others.  His 1998 process model of emotional regulation suggested that emotion may be regulated at five points in the emotion generative process (Gross, 1998) http://www-psych.stanford.edu/~james

1) selection of the situation

2) modification of the situation

3) deployment of attention

4) change of cognitions

5) modulation of responses

 Basically, Gross (1998) claims that expression plays a crucial part in the way we process emotions.  More specifically, it is considered to be important in reducing distress, which results from negative emotional experience.  

Expressive confidence involves the skilful production of situation-appropriate emotional expressions.  Individuals high in expressive confidence have been found to be in good control of their emotions, as well as experiencing and expressing positive emotions with family and peers (Gross & John, 1998).  These assets probably result in them being better liked by others, with whom they interact. In contrast, individuals high in negative expression are more likely to experience and express negative emotions, possibly with the consequence that they are less well liked.

 Emotional Expression: A Positive or Negative?

 Emotional behaviour can be said to play an important role in individual adjustment, social interaction and therapeutic success.  It is clear that neither expression, nor nonexpression, is universally beneficial.  Equally obvious is that neither is universally problematic.  No rules exist that instruct when one should use expression and how much.  The presence, and amount, of expression or nonexpression depends heavily of individual characteristics and environment.  It is the degree to which one can integrate their thinking and feeling that far exceeds the importance of how much one does, or does not express themselves (Kennedy-Moore & Watson, 1999).

Kennedy-Moore’s website: http://www.twbookmark.com/authors/32/2804/
Watson’s website: http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/depts/aecdcp/faculty/watson.html]

Emotional expression can have a variety of effects on social interactions, psychological well-being and physical health.  A popular, yet controversial belief held by cultures and clinicians alike is that failure to express emotion is psychologically and physically harmful.  Numerous empirical studies have demonstrated both mental and physical health benefits associated with emotional expression, as well as negative psychological effects, which are associated with inhibited expression (Pennebaker, 1995).  The process of consciously inhibiting emotional expressions while being emotionally aroused, referred to as expressive suppression, has been shown to be disruptive to communication.  Butler and her colleagues (2003) discovered that expressive suppression can reduce rapport and inhibit relationship formation between individuals.  More intriguingly so, their research suggested such suppression produced a uniquely physiologically stressful encounter for the individual engaged in conversation with the suppressor.  For example, an increase in these individuals’ blood pressures was observed. 

 In sharp contradiction, empirical support exists to illustrate how non-expression, which simply means a ‘lack of expression of emotion’, is preferable (Laird, 1974).  Expression can intensify distress and unrestrained emotion can have destructive influences on interpersonal relationships (Tavris, 1989).  Both expression and non-expression, which have the encompassing title of “emotional behaviour”, can be regarded as overt manifestations of emotion (Kennedy-Moore & Watson, 1999).  These may or may not correspond to hidden processes, such as emotional experience.  For example, an individual may refrain from expressing emotion, despite experiencing a lot of it.  This may occur because they dislike expression, or sometimes they may not even be given the opportunity to express their emotions.  Alternatively, individuals might overtly express themselves a great deal, whilst experiencing only a small amount of emotion.  Principally, current thinking supports a hierarchal model of individual differences in emotional expression. 

 Emotional Expression in Relationships

 Emotional expression is necessary for the development of “emotional intimacy” (Kennedy-Moore & Watson, 1999).  However, it can be risky.  In 1992, Pennebaker explained how three weeks after the San Francisco earthquake of 1989, while 80% of the local residents said how they wanted to talk about the quake, less than 60% actually wanted to hear about it.  The relationship between expression of emotion and well-being is particularly complex.  For example, some couples feel better after expressing their anger towards each other, as they experience greater satisfaction through managing to resolve their conflict (Kennedy-Moore & Watson, 1999).  However in other cases, this expression of anger makes couples feel worse, as they end up firing hurtful remarks at each other, which are aimed to hurt, rather than resolve any issues.  Emotion Focused Therapy, which was first introduced by Johnson and Greenberg in the early eighties, has recently been suggested to be “…one of the most major advances in marital and family therapy in the last decade” (Journal of Marital and Family Therapy).  It is a short term structured approach to couples therapy, which has been split into nine stages (Johnson & Greenberg, 1994). It works on initiating new ways of interacting between partners. 

Emotional expression has been suggested to be the link between internal experience and the outside world, and hence carries enormous practical and theoretical importance.  In normal everyday life, expression refers to the way in which people communicate experience and influence relationships.  In terms of therapy, emotional behaviour provides important information about how clients are feeling, how they are managing their feelings and how they are relating to their therapist (Watson & Greenberg, 1995).

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