What’s wrong with feelings?


Original text©Karen R. Zimmer

Today in the clinic, we spoke about happiness and the expression of feelings.

Every culture has its own way of dealing with emotions. Italians (and French) for example, exteriorise a plethora of wide-ranging humours in more or less bombastic ways. Danes and other scandinavians don’t.

This is, of course, a generalization. But let’s just take the weather as an example. Everybody, in every country, talks about it. But in no other area are the differences between countries more obvious than when people discuss the sky’s appearance and ambient temperatures.  Italians are notoriously dissatisfied with their weather conditions, yet we know that the number of sunlight hours in their part of the world is far superior to our Scandinavian scores. In the far North, people virtually don’t fuss about rain, snow or hail – even though, objectively, their conditions are dire in comparison to their Latin counterparts’.

In this part of the world (Denmark), you could ask a person about current freezing temperatures, gale winds and sleet pouring down from the skies, and they might say something like: ‘Yes, it’s a bit on the chilly side today. But we had sun last week, and we’re moving toward Spring (red: in three months’ time)’. In Summer, when my friends and family go swimming in water which reaches 18 degrees on a warm day, they find it ‘dejligt friskt’ – delightfully refreshing …

Are we suppressing our dissatisfaction, or do we feel it less acutely?

Generally there is low acceptance of ‘brok’ in our Scandinavian latitudes. Brok is a Danish word, which encompasses the expression of everything from frustration to sorrow, anger and disappointment. Emotions tinted with negativity are best avoided, it seems. People experiencing, and especially expressing  this range of emotions risk being treated with measured skepticism. If and when we allow ourselves to voice dissatidfaction, as understandable and warranted as it may be, it is commonly followed by some utterance which nullifies the negative.

The Danish ability to say: ‘Pyt’, is one of those ‘negativity nullifiers’. Pyt is the shortest but most phenomenally expressive word for ‘no matter, or ‘let it go’.

It’s quite philosophical, really. It reflects a constructive option for dealing with painful or otherwise potentially bothersome experiences. Hoever, if you follow this lead at any turn or corner, you may be able to live without too many ups and downs, but you risk taking some of the punch  out of life. At this point of my stream-of-consciousnes thinking process, I have to ponder the significance of a perfectly even-keeled emotional life versus acutely felt mood shifts: what do these mean in terms of emotional range and strength?

I belong to a human category that embraces a certain amount of peppered feeling strewn over an otherwise even-keeled life. I do applaud and strive for the reigning in of extreme emotions, but for me, the ‘pyt’ approach has to be compatible with feeling and expressing sentiments as acutely and clearly as possible, while balancing behavioral propriety with the needs of the times.

In traditional Chinese medicine, it is understood that stagnation in body and mind – one of the breeding grounds for imbalances – needs an outlet to be regulated. We can dissolve the stagnation by, among others, truly acknowledging the emotion that caused it, or by a reaction of some kind that diffuses its ‘charge’ (rebellion, confrontation, simply talking about it etc.) A Shiatsu Master, whose teachings I attended, once told us how this German friend of his entertained a few people at his Brazilian wife’s expense. He explained to them how her cooking was brilliant, but the cleanup afterwards harrowing. He had hardly finished his sentence when she landed a solid slap on his cheek, turned around and stalked away on her high heels. Her husband, looking nonplussed, said: ‘I guess I deserved that. She’ll be all right in a minute.’ And she was. Soon she joined the party again, as if nothing had happened, and she got her apology. Reacting as she did, she resolved a potential stagnation before it could find a place to rest inside her. In Denmark, her reaction would be aberrant behavior. In France, she would be recognized for her ‘aplomb’. That is how different we are, and how differently we handle emotions. 

Maybe the global melting pot will make these polarities melt and mingle. I can only encourage a ‘warming’ of cultures to each others’ respective strengths in handling life’s curveballs, for the benefit of all. Sometimes a little restraint is in order, at other times, letting it all out is better. 

Back to the issue of happiness and its expression. Happiness, along with Love, is in a category of its own in the family of emotions.

If we feel happy, do we let others know? In Denmark, my experience is that this emotion also is kept rather private and subdued. I don’t see people bursting out laughing in public settings and birthdays, dinners and oter festivities can unfold entirely without a single fit of laughter. Of course, we are entitled to keep our happiness all wrapped up in ourselves, and to protect it from others’ scrutiny. But if we do, we deprive our surroundings of the opportunity to share something truly positive with us, and ourselves of a chance to experience happiness more fully:  by exteriorizing happiness, we contribute to adding color to our and others’ lives.

To some – but maybe a lesser – extent,  the same is true of other emotions, although care has to be taken to modulate the more negative kind.

I believe that expressed emotions are an essential ingredient for moving society and creating a fertile ground for emotional and intellectual life. The Arts, where emotion is in the high seat, have always held the role of revolutionizing thought patterns and ideas, of moving minds and uprooting previously fixed concepts.  Also in danish society, the most interesting thinkers and the most applauded public figures are people who throw about them strange, funny, corky and antagonising strains of thought, without restraint.

Regarding the internal experience of happiness, it is a beautiful thing – but it is a pity if it is not made obvious to our fellows  – be it out of fear of rejection or ridicule, or force of habit and cultural heritage. To me the next step up seems to be that we start noticing high happiness levels on the street, in people’s faces, in their stride on the pavement and their ability to hold doors for each other, pick up fallen bikes from the sidewalk and give a shopper with two items priority over fully laden carts at the supermarket.

I also believe that the Danish ability to cultivate temperance, let go and relent is important in limiting our emotions’ ability to run haywire, but at some point it can become a burden rather than a bonus.  I am quite adamant that a little ‘haywire’ once in a while also is a prerequisite for letting Joy find its fullest expression in other contexts, and that this full expression is something we need to allow ourselves in order to contribute to an even happier society of tomorrow.

It’s all a matter of degrees, in the end. and even restraint may need to be restrained at a certain point …

Because we owe it to ourselves and others to offer our true emotions as an extended hand, which may be taken or rejected – especially when these emotions can contribute to more mutual exchange, connection and understanding. Life, to me, is most interesting  when we trust our fellow human beings with what we bear in our hearts, and see what happens.

Note: These thoughts came up after a client discussed a talk about the importance of society allowing feelings, by Lars Muhl.





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