When I was growing up, there was a popular expression among adults: children should be seen and not heard. This particularly applied to showing emotion, more so if you were a boy.
As a result, many young people I grew up with found it difficult to properly express themselves, which often lead to aggressive and violent behaviour as boys in their teens struggled to understand and regulate their thoughts and feelings.
For those less inclined to lash out, bouts of anxiety and depression would be common. Emotion has been a part of our human makeup far longer than language – to expect people to continually suppress their mental states is bound to cause problems.
I remember a conversation with a friend who had a tendency towards aggression. He was a talented footballer and had trials with a few professional clubs. After signing to one, however, it didn’t take long for him to be struck off the youth programme because of his volatile nature.
It was sad to see – he really could have been something special. One evening, we were both with some friends at a park and I asked him, “You’ve got an amazing chance to make something of your life. What’s going on?”
He replied, “I’ve got too much going on in my head, and I don’t know how to be any different. No one will help. They see me as a bad person, so I just accept it.”
Having grown up under hard circumstances, this was a rare instance of vulnerability shown by my friend. His expressions were usually limited to indifference and aggression. If he was sad, he’d drink to forget the cause of his sadness.
I felt so sorry for him, as his life could’ve been so much better if only he was able to open up to people who could provide support and guidance.
In this part of the world, there’s a similar view towards showing emotion, although there seems to be a different motivation, namely that emotions are seen to dilute our rational thinking, reasoning and mental performance.
In a conversation with Dr Eugene Tee, an emotions researcher, he suggested that it’s important for Malaysians to realise the value of expressing themselves.
In his book, Of Bromances And Biting Cute Babies (co-authored with Dr Tsee Leng Choy), it’s suggested that when people suppress their emotions, they tend to feel fewer positive feelings and experience more unpleasant emotions. Over time, they can feel less supported by friends and family, become depressed, and have a bleak outlook of their future.
This ties in with the warning offered by sociologist Brene Brown, who advises that it’s not possible to be selective in the feelings we suppress. When we force our negative emotions to the back of our mind, we also suppress positive feelings.
When we consider that emotions are a big part of what makes us human, it’s little wonder that, when we don’t engage with them properly, it can cause all sorts of issues. For as long as we feel unable to process our emotions in a healthy way, both individuals and society are bound to pay a heavy price.
Perhaps one of the reasons why depression and anxiety are so prevalent among young people today is because there is no accepted outlet for the genuine expression of feelings such as sadness, fear, anger and inadequacy.
Malaysians need to develop greater compassion towards themselves and to know it’s OK to not be OK, and that many of those we walk past in the streets and shopping malls are burdened with similar struggles when it comes to processing their emotions.
Life is often uneasy and relatively unfair for all of us. Everyone has their traumas and tragedies. But one of the best things about our common humanity is that we can each relate to the challenges of another, and be able to lend a helping hand or listening ear when needed.
Of course, culture plays a significant role in how we engage with feelings. But when we strip away the layers of nationality, custom and tradition, we are ultimately beings who feel and so continually pushing away our emotions can present powerful consequences regardless of who or where we are.
And for those who say that they get on with life just fine without feeling the need to express their emotions, it’s great to have such mentally strong people who remind us of the enduring human spirit.
On the other hand, many of us who do struggle from time to time remind us of the vulnerable side of humanity, which allows for those much-needed qualities of community, compassion, love and understanding to flourish.