John and I sat in my office making an agenda for the day’s Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy (RO DBT) session. He looked nervous and fidgeted with his pen.
I said, “Hey, what’s up?”
“I cried in PUBLIC! … at med school,” he said distressingly. “I was sitting in my genetics class and we were talking about some genetic defects that kids develop, and I just started sobbing in my seat. It was horrifying, and I felt sooooo embarrassed.”
I looked at John and said softly, “Sounds like you emotionally leaked.”
For overcontrolled (OC) people who tend have a lot of impulse control, showing a flood of emotion externally and in a situation where others can see it, might be very uncomfortable or shame provoking. Emotional leakage happens when an OC person’s self-control has failed and their inner feelings are revealed and expressed more intensely than preferred.
Emotional leakage isn’t a problem per se, except when it’s followed by self-criticism. There’s nothing wrong with showing people what you are feeling on the inside! Actually, research* shows that people who openly express their emotions are more trusted and feel better connected with others, even when the emotion is a negative one.
Self-criticism following an emotional leak is usually due to a rule that a OC person has about how and when to express emotions. Such as:
- It’s only okay to yell and be angry at home
- Don’t cry in public
- Never show fear at work or to a boss
When one of the rules is broken, self-criticism erupts.
The task for John is to recognize that expressing what he feels isn’t a sign of weakness or failure, but a sign of psychological health. Thank goodness that medical students feel emotional about their work. It probably makes them better doctors who are more able to relate to their patients’ concerns and illnesses.
Go ahead, get your feels on.
* (Boone & Buck, 2003; Mauss et al., 2011; Feinberg, Willer, & Keltner, 2011)