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Why it's good to show your emotions

Suppressing natural emotions can have dire consequences, says David Servan-Schreiber

by Psychologies

Tom had had a successful career… in the Mafia. He’d been a millionaire, had any woman he wanted, rubbed shoulders with influential people. Yet when he came to see me after a lifetime of alcohol, drugs and crime, he was like a lost child who needed direction. To succeed in his world, he’d had to learn to block off his emotions, and he didn’t know who he was any more.

Tom told me about the time when he was a new recruit and he’d agreed, for a substantial sum of money, to cut his best friend’s ear off, because he owed money to the Mafia. As he pinned his friend down, he repeated mechanically: ‘It’s nothing personal, Jimmy, it’s just business.’

Back home, he collapsed into bed and stayed there for two days. When he recovered, he swore to himself that he’d never let himself get emotional like that again. He never did cry after that, and moved rapidly through the ranks of ‘the family’. But after years of this life, he couldn’t sleep at night unless he had a few drinks, and his only real pleasure came from prostitutes or cocaine, or both. At 55, broke and alone, Tom started to recognise the Faustian pact that dominated his life: having cut off his emotions to block out the pain he inflicted on others, he was no longer able to experience the kind of wholesome pleasures essential to growth.

After a few months of trying to listen to what his heart was telling him, Tom finally rediscovered his lust for life. He described the warmth of a child’s smile, something he’d never noticed before, and the tears he shed when a young woman whom he’d protected from the Mafia said to him, ‘Tom, no man has ever done what you just did for me. I’ll never forget that.’

‘It’s better than winning a hundred grand at poker,’ he told me.

How many of us have fallen into the same trap as Tom, without realising it? A manager who no longer cares about the devastating effect on someone of losing their job, who tells himself that the redundancy cheque is more than reasonable compensation. A doctor who bows to pressure from the family and forces an old lady into a retirement home, even though he knows that staying in her own home is the most important thing left in her life. How many of us are suppressing the emotions that make us human? That attitude may have helped us climb the corporate ladder, or to gain status at work or among our friends, but it has also cut us off from the consequences of our actions.

Nowadays we are discovering how our behaviour with those close to us often leads us to cut ourselves off from our feelings. Yes it is only through contact with our emotions that we can become whole, and fulfilled. That’s the lesson I learned from Tom, and I try to apply it every day of my life.

Photograph: Jack Hollingsworth

More inspiration:

Read Women are too emotional. Really? by Jane C Woods on LifeLabs

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