Observing vs expressing emotions

Rose White

Anyone have thoughts on expressing vs observing emotions? Many of us have trouble regulating anger, fear, or sadness. Sometimes we judge the feelings, sometimes we block them, sometimes we analyze them.

Some of us are hesitant to express an emotion (like sadness) for fear that the sadness will not stop. Or have had experience where we tried to express anger and then it sparked a kind of rage storm.

Some of us grew up with caregivers and siblings whose feelings determined how the day would go and were seen as facts, everyone had to bow down to the one with the biggest feelings. This affected our own abilities to regulate.

So sometimes expressing a feeling can lead to that emotion growing. And that can be uncomfortable and might even lead to us venting inappropriately (or appropriately).

Observing an emotion would be a neutral non-judgmental way of experiencing the emotion, but without expressing it. This is mindfulness, I think, and a technique for reducing overwhelming feelings, especially shame.

I’m exploring if observing an emotion is generally “better” than expressing it, for your own well-being. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this topic if you’d like to share.
This is really short, not the proper due for a good subject (probably all of the above apply to me and then some, as how one 'feels' when they are busy surviving becomes the bottom of the priority chain). But I really adore The Feeling Monster below:

It's a great article because it shows how not even being able to properly understand what the emotion by definition means also prevents people from sharing. And the fear is bridged (eg for students/ children with teachers, they can let the teacher know how they feel, then why). But I think it applies just as equally for adults also. (As they said these 'soft' skills aren't so soft!)

I think in a way it's analagous to the number system (not referencing SUDS, just 'how are you feeling today?"), or even code words. A bridge without having to know specifically where the difficulties lie (which for me is helpful). A different method, and teaches and nurtures emotional intelligence. This little guy would help me!

Emotional safety is priceless and healing.

ETA, I think because we can't be sure of all the huances observing others' emotions- what is in their hearts and souls- we can be wrong. Or rather, I could be wrong. What I see may only be the tip of the iceberg or incomplete or misinterpreted or a cover emotion. So I would learn more from my own experience, I think, and feedback.

Good topic! 😊
Last edited:
Like I said to my T, this is the thing where people with PTSD are most like Psychotics. Psychotics spend time practising getting facial expressions etc right in front of a mirror. We spend time figuring out cues to tell us others emotions.

Because we don't use our prefrontal cortex to understand others emotions. (to varying degrees). Without that we have a hard time with subtle emotions. We use other methods to gather information. I think it also has roots in executive dysfunction as well and the fact sometimes we have to think about using the right amount of eye contact etc. with people we are talking to.

The emotion I struggle with is Sad. Put my cat to sleep - cry for the first time I remember in my adult life. My dad passes away? Two minutes of tears tops. That was when I started to really suspect something was wrong with me. I should have grieved - not just cried for two minutes listening to his favourite song. But I couldn't.

That's where the observe comes in - we observe to try to learn, but its difficult to learn without understanding.....
Observing before speaking/acting is definitely a good thing. Then the question is, we’re observing to what end? To patronize ourselves? To get it over with? To tell ourselves it doesn't matter? I do think there are times when a message from the heart has to be taken seriously. No real point in feeling if it never changes anything.

There's an interesting line in The Screwtape Letters, something about, if you can make a human feel without acting, then over time they'll do less acting, and eventually they'll do less feeling.
I've debated about putting this here or even if it is an appropriate response, but just ignore it if I'm way off...
I was an observer. Showing emotion in the home I was raised in was a huge no-no. Even if I didn't shed years I was still labeled the Crybaby. When I became a parent myself I wanted to establish a completely secure, stable, safe environment for my children and it was important that they view me as a sincere, genuine person. I also wanted them to feel free to express their creativity, their opinions, their ideas, and their emotions. To create that kind of home I had to come out of hiding. I certainly didn't tell them about my past, but I began expressing my own creativity, ideas, etc ..including my emotions. If mom was free to laugh and cry and grieve and feel sad and to even talk about it, then they could, too. We learn through what is role modeled for us.
My childhood home modeled both extremes. Dad had no filter and his emotions were all over the place. Mom was like an angry robot.
I get this. I guess I was thinking of modeling appropriate behaviors. In my home my mother had to show no emotion, while Daddy Dearest threw raging violent tantrums. Neither was healthy. Sometimes it's a wonder my kids aren't drooling lunatics.
@Tinyflame I love the feelings monster! That is awesome!

I was blahblahblahing a day or so ago on how my t has to work really hard to not show emotion because when she does I shut down. Which was a really depressing thing to realize about myself.
Over time she's come to think that it's because the minute she shows emotion I feel like i have to stop talking/sharing/showing and instead switch into caretaker mode and take care of her because I'm responsible for how she feels.

Ya - one thing in therapy that shocked the crap out of me. 😳
Then add in my bar for stress is so high that half the time I'm eternally confused by why people get upset over simple things (like, y'know, people dying horrible deaths around me LOL ) and that keeping myself calm kept me and others alive and you get Emotions=bad things.
Work In Progress I guess.
When I became a parent
It *does* seem that becoming a parent is a fast track to understanding the need for (or one’s own lack of) emotional intelligence.
And the fear is bridged (eg for students/ children with teachers, they can let the teacher know how they feel, then why).
This seems especially important, I like how you highlighted
Emotional safety is priceless and healing.
It’s so true! And I’m thinking that maybe adults can get by with merely observing their emotions, but a child has to become familiar with these uncomfortable feelings and give them names in order to seek social help with managing them—*which they need*—children need that modeling and support and non-judgment.

And adults who didn’t get that need it too but may not realize they need it and end up partnering with other emotionally stunted/disabled people—because that’s what’s familiar to their psyche. And the therapeutic relationship and reparenting helps us learn emotional intelligence—often through first learning to name and then express emotions *to a safe person* (usually T). Once we get that down, if we want we can try observing, and sometimes that’s the optimal thing to do when overwhelming emotions flood our systems, I think.
I’ve always found a way to express my emotions. The problem was it was very often self-destructive, or at the very least counterproductive. Cue obsessive and relentless exercise, various forms of SH, finding imaginative ways to hate myself etc. There was an involuntary element to the expression oftentimes, because of my lack of awareness of what was going on for me internally. But even when I dissociated from situations, it seems a lot like the emotions were simply put on hold, or deferred.

Learning to observe my emotions (recognise there was an emotion, be able to roughly identify it, and then not freak out about it) was immensely helpful. Yeah, mindfulness stuff. Crazy helpful for me.

That observation then helped me identify other forms of expression that were far less problematic. And discovering that if I observe them, some emotions don’t need expressing, they sometimes just need space.
Over time she's come to think that it's because the minute she shows emotion I feel like i have to stop talking/sharing/showing and instead switch into caretaker mode and take care of her because I'm responsible for how she feels.
I have a different take on that for me. I have to figure out what emotion they are displaying - and why. It just doesn't register automatically.

Probably the reason the phone scares the hell out of me. I have no visual cues to emotions.......