How to Understand Your Emotions & Stop Suppressing Them

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Do Hard Things" by Steve Magness. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is it bad to suppress your emotions? How do you understand your emotions effectively?

Steve Magness’s book Do Hard Things attributes self-improvement and healthy toughness to the ability to understand your emotions. This is because when you ignore your emotions, you’re not allowing yourself to live life as fully as possible.

Check out how to understand your emotions so you can make good decisions and be mentally strong.

Understand Your Emotions

Magness claims that emotions protect us; they help us navigate the world. If you suppress your feelings and emotions, you’re suppressing your ability to navigate the world effectively. Old-school toughness tells you that you should listen to some emotions (like joy, pride, or anger) while ignoring others (like sadness or fear). Magness, however, claims that you should try to learn how to understand your emotions so that you can make better choices. 

Feelings give us important information that we should listen to, claims Magness. Instead of viewing emotions as things that get in our way, as the old-school version of toughness might advise, we should listen and try to understand what our feelings and emotions are telling us. When you understand why you’re feeling a certain way, you can use that information to make better decisions.

Understanding Toxic Masculinity and Old-School Toughness

The notion that toughness involves suppressing certain emotions is a key component of toxic masculinity, a set of harmful attitudes and beliefs about how men should think and behave. Though Magness doesn’t directly refer to this recently popularized term, he does point out that toughness and masculinity are often conflated, and many of his ideas reflect the discourse around toxic masculinity and how it’s harmful—for instance, the ideas that men should try to appear dominant, control others, and suppress their emotions.

Experts argue that masculinity itself isn’t toxic, it’s just that certain unhealthy manifestations of it are, and the stereotypes toxic masculinity reinforces are harmful to men, women, and society as a whole. For instance, society expects women to be kind, gentle caregivers and men to be tough, unemotional protectors. But men, of course, do have emotions, and many feel the need to suppress them or overcompensate for them to meet these unrealistic standards. Eventually, this can cause them to lash out, leading to violence and prejudiced behaviors.

In most cases, you’re perfectly capable of accurately assessing your feelings and what decisions you should make based on them—if you feel disgusted by the smell of a certain food, you don’t eat it, trusting your feelings to tell you that the food isn’t safe. But in times of stress or adversity, you more often misinterpret your emotions, which can lead to poor decision-making. For example, when you have a stressful day at work, you might be more irritable when you get home and get unreasonably angry at your loved ones. 

To better understand your emotions, Magness recommends that you label them. Labeling or putting a name to your emotions is helpful because it helps you interpret them. When we put a name to an emotion, we focus our attention on it, which allows us to examine it more closely. This can help you avoid simply acting on the emotion because as you examine it, you can better understand why you’re acting a certain way. For example, if you had labeled your irritability after a long day at work, you might have been able to put some space between the irritability and the anger that followed and stopped yourself from getting angry at your partner.

How to Label and Express Your Emotions

In Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown provides an in-depth look at the many different emotions humans experience—and which Magness says you should label. She argues that understanding your emotions will not only help you make better decisions in times of stress but also form deeper connections. Brown splits emotions into three main categories: 

Self-focused emotions: These emotions, which include sadness and shame, help us understand our internal mental states. Sadness is a painful emotion that helps us respond to and accept a personal loss in our lives. Most people are well-acquainted with loss and the feeling of sadness. Another common self-focused emotion, shame, is the feeling that you’re a flawed, inadequate, or bad person. Brown claims that shame is important to acknowledge because ignoring it only makes it stronger.

Externally-focused emotions: Instead of informing us about ourselves, these emotions help us understand our response to our environment. Anxiety, for example, is a concern about the future and our ability to handle it. When we aren’t sure what’s going to happen and fear it might be bad, we feel anxious. Another externally-focused emotion is boredom, which Brown defines as the desire to do something meaningful but not being able to. Boredom occurs when you’re understimulated and unsatisfied with how you’re spending your time.

Relationship-focused emotions: These emotions help us connect with or detach from others. When we feel angry, for example, we’re upset that someone or something thwarted our desires or disrupted the established order of things. Anger makes us want to lash out and sometimes hurt the person who caused the negative emotion. Compassion, on the other hand, is a positive emotion in which we feel empathy for another and try to ease their suffering. 
How to Understand Your Emotions & Stop Suppressing Them

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Here's what you'll find in our full Do Hard Things summary:

  • Why the "old-school" way we think about toughness is wrong
  • Why machismo ideals are harmful and ineffective
  • How to become resilient and versatile, and how to overcome adversity

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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