Springs of Emotional Expression
An important aspect of maintaining relationships and finding support in those relationships is being able to share our emotional experiences. Health psychology research supports this as being important, not just in the development of strong relationships, but also as important to our health. Check out the following quotes:
The research tells us pretty clearly that we can improve our physical health by talking with others about our emotional experiences. Likewise, holding in our emotions can lead to poorer immune functioning, and increased health problems.
Emotional expression is thus an important part of our overall well-being. At the Springs of Emotional Expression, you’ll find a discussion of two avenues for letting out emotions. In the Self-Disclosure section, we’ll focus on talking about ourselves and our emotional experiences in relationships. In Written Emotional Expression, we’ll explore how to let out our emotions through writing – a helpful alternative form of expression.
Self-Disclosure is a term that is used to refer to the information we share about ourselves with others. This information comes in all forms, from life experiences to personal circumstances, to feelings or reactions we have experienced, to sharing dreams and opinions. A key part of what it means to “self-disclose” is that the information we share with someone else is honest, real and genuine. In other words, putting on a social mask or presenting just our good side is not self-disclosure.
We can think about personal information in a number of ways. The Johari Window offers one way of looking at different aspects of ourselves.
The Johari Window is a large square divided into 4 quadrants. Each quadrant represents a different kind of personal information.
Look at the top left quadrant, the one with the word Open in the middle. That quadrant represents the information that we know about ourselves and that also is obvious to others. For example, when you see someone you absorb all kinds of important information about them: their gender, approximate age, skin colour, if they appear to be fit and healthy or not. You might also notice if they are wearing a wedding band, which might mean that they are in a committed relationship. If you talked with them, you might be able to determine if English is their first language, or even if they are from the prairies or somewhere else in Canada. All of this is information for which there is no privacy at all. Simply in the way we look, how we speak, what we wear lets others know something about ourselves.
The quadrant labelled Hidden represents personal information that is known only to us: our life experiences, our thoughts, feeling, dreams…all of that information is within you and it is this information that we share with others. We’re always making decisions about how much of this information we disclose to others. For example, you probably share much more of your “hidden” information with your partner or a close friend than you do with a colleague, and likewise, more with a colleague than you would with a new acquaintance. This hidden aspect of ourselves is the piece we’re focussing on when we talk about self-disclosure. But, the other quadrants are also important, because they also tap into personal information that influences relationships.
The quadrant labelled Blind refers to information that others know about us, but that we don’t know about ourselves. That may seem funny. You might be asking yourself: “How could someone know stuff about us that we don’t know?” If you think about it, you will realise that it happens all the time. Others pick up information about us that is blinded to us. For example, a colleague may point out to you that you drum your fingers on your knee when you’re bored in a meeting. That could come as a surprise to you. If you were not award that you did that, then that would fall into the category of Blind information. Now that you know that about yourself, you will probably notice it the next time you’re sitting in a meeting and drumming your fingers because you are now aware of it. Does it matter? Well, actually, it does matter because knowing that means that it has shifted from being Blind information to being Hidden information and you are able to control it if you wish.
The last quadrant titled Unknown refers to personal information that is known to no onenot even ourselves. It is information that is outside of our awareness but still may affect how we think, feel, and behave. Sometimes this type of information is called unconscious material, and what this means is that we can’t get conscious access to it. Some psychologists believe that everything that happens to us, indeed, all of our experiences somehow shape us. But, we are not always able to remember those things, especially the experiences we had in infancy or before we developed language and sophisticated thought. So that information gets stored in our memories and we don’t realise that it is even there. You might want to think of this as the mystery piece that may shape or influence who we are as individuals.
Benefits of Self-Disclosure
So now that you know about the different kinds of personal information that make up who we are, let’s move to finding out why it’s important to tell others about ourselves. As we saw in the introduction to Springs of Emotional Expression, researchers have been finding that expressing our emotions and disclosing our experiences leads to better health. There are also some important relational and personal awareness/growth benefits that come with self-disclosure.
The big message that we’ve tried to get across so far is that Self-Disclosure is really important for building and deepening relationships and for helping us to grow as individuals. But, the 65 million dollar question is … How much disclosure is appropriate???
Have you ever been in a situation where someone revealed too much personal information? Just imagine this situation: you get on a bus and sit beside someone who starts telling you all about the problems they are having at home or giving you details about their medical concerns, or…you get the idea. How does this make you feel? Are you likely to think that this is someone you would like to know better or do you want to get up and move to another seat? The main point is that self-disclosure needs to be appropriate to the situation. Too much disclosure or inappropriate disclosure can actually be harmfulto relationships.
Under-Disclosure is another problem: the exact opposite to Over-Disclosure! Keeping too much information hidden from another person can cause problems in an intimate relationship. Imagine that your partner comes home from work. He/she is obviously bothered by something but denies that there is anything wrong. You are concerned and ask what it is that is troubling him/her. Your partner brushes off your concern and says that “everything is fine”. In this situation, there is already an intimate relationship established and therefore it is appropriate and usually expected that personal information will be shared. Withholding such information from your partner or dearest friend, may actually cause problems in the relationship. The other person may feel shut out of your life or emotionally disconnected. The mutuality in sharing is compromised. Over time, that can be a relationship killer.
How do we know if we tend to under-disclose or over-disclose? Try the next four questions for some clues.
If you answered questions 3 and 4 with “c” or “d” , you are likely disclosing an appropriate amount of information in your close relationships, without your friend or partner having to do all the work! If you answered “a” or “b”, you likely have a tendency to under-disclose, and you may be limiting the amount of support others can give you, and/or how close your relationships can grow. To find out if your friend/partner would like to hear more from you, try asking them if they ever feel frustrated with how much or how little you tell them. It can be very hard to ask for this type of feedback, but it can also be an important step to helping a relationship to grow.
Knowing how much self-disclosure is appropriate in particular situations is kind of an art. This is partly because the guidelines about what is appropriate or not appropriate often vary by culture, sex, even age.
Being aware of the subtleties of the interaction is one of the keys to knowing how much or how little to reveal. There are gauges that can help you to determine the level of self-disclosure that is fitting in any situation.
Typically, there is a natural back and forth rhythm that occurs in the exchange of information. This is called the “volleying effect”. Remember that the sharing of more and more personal information happens gradually and over time.
The bottom line is that there are no hard and fast rules that can be applied to every situation. The most effective means of determining the appropriate level disclosure in a conversation is through paying attention to your internal signals and the verbal and non-verbal cues from others. The conversation should feel good and comfortable and natural for everyone involved.
Self-disclosure and openness. Retrieved, February 11th, 2004 from http://mentalhelp.net/psyhelp/chap13/chap13i.htm
Pennebaker, J. W. (1995). Emotion, disclosure, and health: An Overview. In Pennebaker, J. W. (Ed.), Emotion, disclosure, and health. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Petrie, K. J., Booth, R. J., & Davison, K. P. (1995). In Pennebaker, J. W. (Ed.), Emotion, disclosure, and health. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
A website on self-diclosure and other aspects of interpersonal communication: www.abacon.com/commstudies/interpersonal/indisclosure.html
Written Emotional Expression
We know that it is important to be able to express our emotions. Most often, talking about our feelings is something we do with trusted friends or partners. It isn’t always possible to confide in someone though – maybe you’ve moved to a new place and you don’t have anyone close to share with. Or, maybe the feelings are too hard to say out loud right now. Or maybe it’s not safe for you to open yourself to someone else in this way. The good news is that written emotional expression can have some positive health benefits!
Writing as a way of expressing ourselves is certainly nothing new. People have been writing in diaries and journaling experiences for decades. What IS new is that there is now scientific evidence that links written emotional expression to specific health benefits.
Many research studies have found that writing about emotional experiences has a direct relationship to well-being. Participants in these studies have been people suffering from many difficult health conditions including Cancer, HIV, depression, and Rheumatoid Arthritis.
In order to measure the effects of emotional expression through writing, researchers divide people into two groups. Each group is asked to write about a stressful personal experience for 20 minutes, either just one time, or 20 minutes per day for 4 or 5 days. The instructions given to each group differ: one group is asked to provide factual information about the stressful or traumatic experience. The other group is asked to express thoughts and feelings about the stressful or traumatic experience.
The researchers found that those who expressed their thoughts and feelings about a stressful or traumatic experience had a decrease in physical symptoms and medical visits, increased their immune response, and decreased viral replication. There were no reported improvements for people who simple wrote about the factual details of the event or experience. Isn’t that amazing???
And interestingly, the more emotion-laden the words used to express themselves, the more health benefits were observed.
Why might this be the case? What is it about expressing emotion that can account for these results? Well, what we know is that emotions are part of us – an important aspect of human functioning. We have feelings whether we like it or not. So, we have to do something with them. The leading researcher in this area, Pennebaker, suggests that it takes a lot of effort to suppress emotion. Suppressing emotion means pushing feelings away, or trying to avoid them or ignore them. That takes a tremendous amount of effort and energy. So much effort in fact, that Pennebaker speculates that the very act of dealing with emotions by not dealing with them creates physical stress. Holding them in or pushing them away is actually harmful to our body’s functioning because of the stress it creates. Getting them out and processing them lessens the stress on our bodies and improves functioning.
Often when something experience something as stressful, it usually means that there are a whole mix of feelings that kind of jumble up together. Emotional writing involves an effort to sort through all of those feelings, name them, and express how they are affecting you.
Not surprisingly, the most difficult emotions are usually the negative ones: Sadness, hurt, anger, fear, confusion, frustration, guilt, shame, embarrassment, humiliation, loneliness…maybe you think of others.
An example of written emotional expression
Every time I think of it I get a burning in my stomach. It’s like a never-ending story…story - that word makes me laugh. A story should begin with “once upon a time” and have a happy ending. This is not a story! It’s a nightmare!! A scary, frightening nightmare that I can’t wake up from! When I was a kid and had a nightmare, I would jump into bed with my mom. There was comfort in lying next to her. There is no one to comfort me now. I am so alone in this. Alone and scared. I keep thinking “What if I can’t do it? What if it gets worse?” Can it get worse??? My head is pounding as the thoughts race through my mind. I want to scream…I want to yell and stomp my feet…and demand that someone just make it stop. I don’t scream though – instead, I cry. That’s what I do most – just cry. Even as I write this the tears are streaming down my face. I can feel the hot streaks making familiar trails on my cheeks. My eyes are tired and burning. If only I could sleep…That would be great…perfect in fact. I wish I could just sleep and wake up and this would all have been a dream. But it is not a dream. It is my new reality and somehow I’m going to have to get through this. Part of me knows I can – but there is part of me that is scared to death. There are so many questions – so much uncertainty. Sometimes I think it would be easier to just close myself off from everyone and hide. That’s what I feel like doing – but I won’t…I can’t. I need to refocus…I need to…I don’t know what I need. I need someone to tell me that I’m ok – and that I don’t have to do this alone.
Written Emotional Expression Exercise
Now it’s your turn to practice. Think of a stressful or troubling time. It could be a situation at work, or at home, or in the grocery store. It doesn’t matter. But it needs to be something that bothered you and that created unpleasant feelings. Remember that research recommends 20 minutes of writing and that using more emotion-laden words has the most health benefits. Why don’t you try it now?
Lepore, S. J., & Smyth, J. M. (2002). The writing cure: An overview. In Lepore, S. J., & Smth, J. M., The writing cure: How expressive writing promotes health and emotional well-being.
Pennebaker, J. W., Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Glaser, R. (1988). Disclosure of traumas and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56, 239 – 245.
Petrie, K. J., Fontanilla, I., Thomas, M. G., Booth, R. J., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2004). Effect of written emotional expression on immune function in patients with human immunodeficiency virus infection: A randomized trial.
Smyth, J. M. (1998). Written emotional expression: Effect sizes, outcome types, and moderating variables. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 66, 174 – 184.
Smyth, J. M., Stone, A. A. Hurewitz, A., & Kaell, A. (1999). Effects of writing about stressful experiences on symptom reduction in patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis: A randomized trial.