Should a man suppress his emotions? More precisely, should he contract his muscles (facial, vocal, etc.) to avoid displaying an acute emotion he has judged as bad in order not to look hurt, angry, sad, afraid, excited, exhausted, intimidated, disdainful, etc.?
Science Vs. Experience
According to the scientific literature, emotion suppression is a relatively maladaptive emotion regulation strategy. Its habitual use is linked to anxiety and depression (Schäfer et al., 2017) and impairs well-being (John & Gross, 2004), cognitive functioning (Richards & Gross, 2000), and relationship formation (Butler et al, 2003). Suppressing emotions diminishes our happiness, makes us forget what was actually going on while we were stifling our emotion, and causes troubles connecting with other people on an authentic emotional level.
Furthermore, emotion suppression is a relatively ineffective emotion regulation strategy because it starts regulating the emotion when it is already in full effect, which requires a lot of effort and often sets in too late (Sheppes & Gross, 2011).
Have you ever tried to suppress your nervousness when you were really nervous? Emotion suppression upsets the body with a stress response (Gross, 1998), including increased activation in the amygdala and sympathetic nervous system (Cheng et al., 2009), thus amplifying the emotional reaction. The more we fight being nervous, the more nervous we get.
Another major problem of emotion suppression is that it focuses the mind on a negative emotion. By suppressing a feeling of anger, we start worrying about feeling angry. This attaches us to the emotion and heats up our mind. In addition, we start tensing our muscles, which costs energy.
Still, there seems to be something valuable in stoically forcing the body to express rational pride rather than irrational emotions—staying cool in the face of adversity. A real man does not get angry and a real man does not cry, right? In the video below, Jocko Willink and Echo Charles discuss the warrior’s approach to emotional self-control.
God, I love this clip (pardon my emotional expression). Here are the key points:
- Don’t express negative emotions by complaining or making excuses; it’s a weakness.
- Separate your feelings from your behavior; act like a winner, no matter how you feel.
- Don’t react emotionally and don’t let your emotions out on other people.
- Don’t lay your cards on the table by letting other people see how you feel (Machiavellian mindset).
- In cases of deep grief or severe trauma, you may have to express your emotions to restore mental health.
- In everyday life, STIFLE your emotions; by keeping them inside, you learn to manage them.
According to the scientific evidence, following this advice of not only verbal but also muscular emotion suppression may make us anxious and depressed. Moreover, does stifling our emotions not stifle us altogether? Does it not turn us into slaves of our frontal cortex, slaves of our overthinking mind, slaves of our self-inhibition?
For Jocko, the discipline to suppress emotions is a matter of freedom. But what about the courage to express emotions? Can emotion expression not be a form of freedom, too? Shouting out hatred, punching out anger, crying out sadness, shaking out fear, or dancing out joy—some people experience cathartic expression as supreme self-liberation and would argue that most stifling is actually done out of a fear of being vulnerable.
Do Your True Will!
The Mindcoolness approach to emotion regulation is, as always, doing your True Will, which can mean one of three things:
- Emotion suppression is one of your core values because you want to appear masculinely stoic at all costs. (Be aware that this may be an ego issue.)
- Emotion expression is one of your core values because you want to appear uninhibitedly authentic at all costs. (Be aware that this may weaken your will.)
- Emotion suppression/expression is but a tool to do whatever is in line with your core values. (This is what I think Jocko has in mind and what I will now discuss further.)
Emotion suppression, even though not optimal for your bodymind health, can be useful in competitive situations: If you get knocked out in a fight because you showed pain or fear, you probably failed to do your True Will. If you lose a million dollars in a poker game because you showed excitement or worry, you probably failed to do your True Will. If you did not close a business deal because you showed anger or disdain, you probably failed to do your True Will.
Although stifling your emotions can be necessary in heated situations as a short-term solution to achieve your goal, other situations may afford you to express your emotions, say, by creatively expressing your inner life in an artistic way, by letting off steam on your heavy bag at home, or by being delighted to see your girl again after three months. However, only if your default first response is spontaneous emotion suppression can you choose whether ensuing suppression or expression is more useful—and more true to your will—in your specific situation.
Toward Healthier Stifling
To suppress your emotions in a healthier manner, consider it a pragmatic self-control exercise, keep it brief, and bundle it with adaptive emotion regulation strategies: learn to accept whatever emotions come up, learn to reappraise emotional situations, and learn to redirect your attention to solving the problem at hand. With enough practice, these strategies may eventually substitute all effortful suppression. Of course, hardening yourself through deliberate exposure to emotionally challenging situations (facing fears, etc.) is key here as well.
If you judge an emotion as bad, you can even learn to become aware of your judging consciousness and accept the judgment itself as a whim of your mind. And if you separate your feelings from your behavior to do what you truly want to do, you can learn to focus less on how you feel and more on what to do next: taking action trumps worrying about emotions.
If you find yourself in a situation where you must stifle your anger to complete your mission, consider that bottling up your anger for a while conserves it, which enables you to meditate on it later and to ultimately attain greater acceptance. You can tell yourself that it strengthens your emotional immune system, but ensure that your expressive suppression is deliberate, strategic, purposeful—not reactive, impulsive, compulsive.
Also, beware of stifling muscle contractions becoming habitual patterns of impulsive reaction, because chronic emotion suppression is both mentally and physically debilitating. The line between stoic self-mastery and neurotic self-inhibition is alarmingly thin.
Now, finally, does a real man cry? Only if he truly wants to; so no, probably not. But maybe his life taught him that crying can be a valuable tool for self-liberation or for communicating empathy: who are we to judge if we do not know his True Will? Similarly, does a real man get angry? Only if he truly wants to; so no, probably not. But maybe his life taught him that anger is a valuable tool for self-expression or asserting himself: who are we to judge if we do not know his True Will? (Well,…)
Butler EA, Egloff B, Wilhelm FH, Smith NC, Erickson EA, Gross JJ (2003). The social consequences of expressive suppression. Emotion 3(1), pp. 48-67, doi: 10.1037/1528-35126.96.36.199.
Cheng L, Yuan JJ, He YY, Li H (2009). Emotion Regulation Strategies: Cognitive Reappraisal Is More Effective than Expressive Suppression. Advances in Psychological Science 17(4), pp. 730-735, doi: N/A.
Gross JJ (1998). Antecedent- and response-focused emotion regulation: divergent consequences for experience, expression, and physiology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74(1), pp. 224-237, doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.74
John OP, Gross JJ (2004). Healthy and unhealthy emotion regulation: personality processes, individual differences, and life span development. Journal of Personality 72(6), pp. 1301-1333, doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2004.00298.x.
Richards JM, Gross JJ (2000). Emotion regulation and memory: the cognitive costs of keeping one’s cool. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 79(3), pp. 410-424, doi: 10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.520.
Schäfer JÖ, Naumann E, Holmes EA, Tuschen-Caffier B, Samson AC (2017). Emotion Regulation Strategies in Depressive and Anxiety Symptoms in Youth: A Meta-Analytic Review. Journal of Youth and Adolescence 46(2), pp. 261-276, doi: 10.1007/s10964-016-0585-0.
Sheppes G, Gross JJ (2011). Is timing everything? Temporal considerations in emotion regulation. Personality and Social Psychology Review 15(4), pp. 319-331, doi: 10.1177/1088868310395778.
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