From the moment that we are born we express ourselves through crying and raw, unfiltered emotions. We are expected to scream, cry, and yell to get our needs met and to communicate. So why does our society expect that to stop?
A friend of mine was having the bad day to end all bad days this week. She was frustrated, emotional, irritable, and essentially an emotional wreck. It would have been easy from the outside to assume that she was simply working too hard and to suggest a load of one-size-fits-all self-care clichés.
Instead, after talking, she said that she was feeling better after having screamed into a pillow for a while. She suggested that the only thing that she needed was a good scream and it got me thinking.
In western society, in particular, we expect people to restrict and constrain their emotions to a ridiculous degree. In Britain in particular, we are expected to keep calm and carry on, have a stiff upper lip, be collected, polite, and respectable at all times in public. We go through our lives heavily policing and monitoring our emotions and our external reactions to things, we exhaust ourselves, constantly repressing our feelings.
We could easily pretend that it’s just how we expect adults to behave. We expect a level of self-control and emotional regulation at all times in all situations, as adults we should be capable of that surely? However, we start training our children to suppress and restrict their emotions from an incredibly young age. How many times have you heard a parent tell their child they’re too old to have a tantrum when they’re still only five years old?
How many parents have said “stop getting worked up, you’re not a baby?” as if babies have some sort of monopoly over certain emotional expressions. Why is it that we don’t allow our children to express themselves in ways that feel natural to them? Why do we praise literal babies that don’t scream or cry as much as other babies?
This systematic emotional repression is not a universal human trait. From my personal experiences with West African and Sri Lankan cultures, screaming and sobbing when you are upset or distressed is the norm. When I first heard the wailing of a West African woman, I was scared. I assumed that something terrible must have happened because I had never heard an adult express themselves in such a way.
I asked my friend from the same village what was wrong, what had happened? He gave me a relatively mundane explanation and couldn’t understand why it all seemed so alien to me. When I explained how we handle distressing situations in England, he was as baffled as I was. He could not understand why anyone would wilfully dilute their emotional responses to situations, and from that point on neither could I. I couldn’t answer his questions because they were now my questions too.
When my friend told me that the act of screaming had made her feel better, I began to think about all the times I wished that I could just scream. I’ve even considered driving somewhere remote to scream into the emptiness but was stopped by what-ifs. What if some poor soul was walking their dogs and came across the weirdo screaming in the woods?
What if someone I knew happened to be there? What if someone found out I’d done it and thought I was bizarre? How have we become so conditioned to retain composure that we cannot even express ourselves when we think we are alone for fear of not actually being alone?
We have seen a surge in diagnosed mental health issues in the past ten or so years, but we know that for many, many more year’s people in this country have struggled mentally. If we genuinely want to become a society that values mental health and mental hygiene, we need to reevaluate how we teach our children to express themselves.
If you want to cry, you should be able to cry, no matter where you are or who you are with, it should be normal. If you want to scream to release pent up emotions, you should be able to without fear of judgment. If you want to jump up and down and stomp your feet for a moment, why shouldn’t you?
I think that changing our attitudes towards emotional expression is really important in helping to maintain mental health, not just for ourselves but for future generations as well. These things always take time to evolve and change but here’s my challenge for you: This week, if you feel like you have pent up emotions, scream into a pillow. If you feel like you want to cry and find yourself choking back the tears, check yourself, let yourself cry. It’s OK to show how you feel.