Talking sense: why a stiff upper lip can never be good for our mental health

Posted: 25th September 2023

Research suggesting that not going on about our emotions is a valid treatment for depression feels like a backwards step for this therapist.

Astudy out this week will probably have the therapeutic community in a spin. According to this report, talking about our emotions may not be good for us. More than that, apparently stoicism – deploying the traditional stiff upper lip – yielded better results than talking therapies when it came to “curing” depression.

I’m a therapist, and this made me think deeply. First, the study was conducted on a very small sample of people, so I wondered how relevant it could be. However, it’s also true that it almost shocked me to think that maybe not talking about our emotions was healthier than talking about them.

Did these researchers have a point, I asked myself. Could it possibly be true that engaging a stiff upper lip might actually be a better way forward in terms of our emotional and mental health than sitting in a therapist’s chair?

Like most therapists, I think we can accept that therapy has moved on since Freud. We are now far more proactive in the therapy room. These days it’s all about group work and somatic therapy (the idea of emotions being held and felt in our bodies). We use eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), emotional freedom technique (EFT, also called psychological acupressure) and, soon, psychedelic visioning.

Therapy has always been exciting and potentially revolutionary. In the past we’ve lurched from Wilhelm Reich, who explored theories around “muscular armour”, through Lacan’s theory of unconscious desire and Melanie Klein with her “good breast, bad breast” concept through to Carl Rogers, father of person-centred therapy, and Fritz Perls with his Gestalt psychology.

This is why therapy is so compelling. It moves. It adapts. It changes. And that’s what makes it utterly fascinating and, hopefully, relevant. It’s a dynamic practice. Or at least it can be.

It has also moved on from the era of the stiff upper lip, which probably came in to play when it was helpful in encouraging men to go in to battle, five-year-olds to go off to boarding school, women to give birth with no pain relief, or Boers to trek across South Africa wearing head-to toe black wool in temperatures in the high 30s.

Maybe just getting on with it uncomplainingly when you are told to cross enemy lines and get gunned down was necessary back then – or at least certain people thought it was. You don’t build empires by talking about your feelings.

But we don’t do that any more. We are empathic, feeling creatures who take our emotions – ranging from misery to joy and everything in between – with far more seriousness and attention. We give birth listening to whale music. Men get to talk about their feelings without being ridiculed. This is a good thing.

For, if we suppress our feelings, where do they all go? In his book When The Body Says No, trauma specialist Dr Gabor Maté talks of the way many illnesses occur in people who have suppressed their feelings. “Bad” things happen, he writes, when emotions are not expressed and traumas are not worked through. In his experience a certain “type” of person gets cancer and fibromyalgia and many other physical diseases.

Maté believes these could stem from unexplored and denied adverse childhood experiences (ACE). Many medical people have a lot of time for these theories – the idea that a person with back pain who has absolutely no explanation for it may well actually be emotionally traumatised and this pain resides in their body. If we hide it behind a stiff upper lip, how will we release that pain?

This is reflected in films and television. Angry people in on-screen dramas are often depicted as overweight and red-faced – and we all know what this implies.

I’ve also had many clients suffering body pain who tell me they have been to doctor after doctor and no one can find out what’s wrong with them. Often, after a course of therapy, their pain is alleviated. I am no physician, and I am certainly not claiming to be, but I can see that therapy can work to help our physical malaise.

For example, one man who had experienced the tragic loss of his beloved wife but couldn’t cry, consistently had styes in his eyes. They “magically” cleared up once his tear ducts were opened in therapy and his pain flooded out.

However, I also believe that sitting in childhood pain for years on end does not actually help. If we spend hours, days and years going over and over and over our pain, how do we alleviate it? We don’t. We just stay in it, with the therapist following the client’s lead like some sort of passive spectre witnessing another’s pain but not actually helping heal or transform it.

Therapy should be more than healing. It has to be transformational. In order for this to happen, there has to be movement, intention, a sense of a positive future.

Not having a stiff upper lip doesn’t mean to say we evacuate our emotions whenever we choose. While it may feel good, just splurging our inner selves all over everyone doesn’t actually help, because it hasn’t moved anywhere. The feelings just circle round and back we go in to our depression and anxiety. We need to engage with this depression and anxiety as a valid part of us that needs attention. If we ignore it and push it away, it just takes up residence somewhere. But if we become overly invested in it, it also takes up residence somewhere.

The key is to tell ourselves a different story. We need to strengthen our positive neural pathways (the power of positive thinking, in a nutshell) and weaken those that tell us bad things about ourselves.

A stiff upper lip does none of these things. It just tells us to “man up”, which, in itself, is a term so old-fashioned no one uses it any more. What we really need is to soften, to engage, to learn acceptance and then to head towards a brighter future where feelings are accepted but not overindulged.

Source: Talking sense: why a stiff upper lip can never be good for our mental health | Lucy Cavendish | The Guardian

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