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The British are renowned for their stiff upper lip – politeness, failure to speak out, not demonstrating their feelings. Is this an attitude which simply disappeared with the British Empire or is it still alive and well today? Is it harmful to keep feelings to oneself or does it make for a more stable society if feelings are controlled?
Ellen Kennedy-Moore and Jean Watson have proposed a ‘venting hypothesis‘. They suggest that venting in itself does not release pent-up emotions but particularly in the case of anger, can result in increasing emotional arousal. This suggests that keeping a stiff upper lip is often the right thing to do. James Pennebaker and others such as Hosie & Milne suggest the opposite; that expressing emotions is a healing experience; hiding anger can increase depression.
Our emotional processing model goes some way towards explaining such discrepancies. We distinguish the control of emotional experience (suppressing feelings, bottling them up) from control of emotional expression (not talking about or showing feelings to others), suggesting that trying to control or squash the felt experience of emotions is more fundamental and more harmful than controlling the emotional expression. It is more harmful to try to control the experience of emotions (thus cutting oneself off from a useful source of information) than to control the expression of the emotion, which may not be harmful, and at times beneficial.
There may also be different levels to controlling emotional experience. Factor analysis of the emotional processing scale suggests several different aspects to emotional control, distinguishing ‘dissociation’ (a more severe switching off or detaching oneself from emotions) from ‘suppression’ (trying to bottle up or reduce the emotion experienced). Repression is often thought to be a sort of unconscious, non-voluntary type of switching off emotional memories.
‘Reason in man obscur’d, or not obey’d,
Immediately inordinate desires
And upstart passions catch the Government
From reason, and to servitude reduce
Man till then free ….’
Milton, Paradise Lost