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The Reserve of the British

Watching the scenes in the US election with crowds of people turning up at election centres demanding to have visibility of votes being counted and noticing that some of the members of the public were armed, it got me thinking about English people and our very English reserve.

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Shhhh, we're British

When the British look to America quite a few of us find it hard to understand how someone like Donald Trump is selected as President. Policies aside, we just don't elect leaders that are anything like Donald Trump. He's brash, he's loud, he certainly isn't British so why are the Britain so different and well, so reserved and dare I say, unemotional. And if the British are unemotional, what does that say about us as a nation? Are we brave or emotionally stunted?

We have to look back in history to understand our national psyche a bit more. The British stiff upper lip attitude was actually confined to a very short period of British history, from around 1870 to 1945. Before this, the British were far more in touch with expressing their feelings and generally a more emotional bunch.

The Great British Stiff upper lip

In recent times we've all moved towards being a bit more relaxed about displaying emotions and society is encouraging people to talk about their feelings more generally, but there is still a heck of a lot of suppressed feelings out there. And suppressing feelings only leads to one thing, pain being internalised and that isn't good for any of us.

Have you ever thought about some people can become angry really quickly and just seem to snap super quickly. It could be because they are suppressing feelings and emotions constantly so those feelings are manifesting themselves as anger. Feelings need to come out, whether that's being upset or happy. Sometimes a good cry is really all you need and that is the case for men and women. Men crying is still seen by some, as socially unacceptable and that feels so sad to think of. Crying releases so many emotions, it's our bodies natural release so when we suppress it, we are not fully expressing ourselves.

The British are still perceived as less emotional than other nationalities and there does seem to be cultural differences in emotion between East and West, say. For instance, Japanese people report feeling more guilt, shame and indebtedness – as well as more feelings of closeness to other people – compared to Americans and Europeans, who report experiencing more anger, irritation and pride.

Let those emotions flow

Generally speaking, being able to regulate your emotions in these ways is a positive thing, and essential in some situations, who has't suppressed an emotion when your boss has made yet another unfunny joke. However most psychologists see suppresssion as the worst strategy of the bunch.

When you try to suppress an emotion, much like when you try to suppress a thought, it can have the opposite effect, and it’s likely that the emotion will come back even stronger later on.

There’s mounting evidence that suppressing your emotions comes at a cost. Suppressing your emotions feels unnatural and requires physical effort. Studies have shown that when tests are carried out to suppress emotions, blood pressure rates increased when volunteers tried to hide their feelings. There have been further studies that have shown that emotional suppression can also impair your memory. There's also the added cost of people that you interact with finding the whole emotion suppressing process a negative experience.

A quarter of British people believe that showing their emotions is a sign of weakness

A recent poll by the mental health charity Mind revealed that four in five British 18- to 34-year-olds admit to putting on a brave face when they’re anxious, and a quarter believe that showing their emotions is a sign of weakness. This is something we all need to work harder on. Emotions are one of the most natural parts of being a human being. The allow us to show others around us what we think of them, whether that is good or bad. Emotions are a key element of being a human so let's embrace our emotions if we can.

Emotional suppression can occasionally have an upside. Sometimes in certain situations showing stoicism and determination to carry on in the face of difficult situations, is a really valuable tool. Emotions can be contagious; expressing panic and distress in some situation can be really harmful. Think of an accident situation and how suppressing emotions can be useful in this situation.

Used wisely then, the stiff upper lip can be a powerful tool in your emotional toolkit. It’s just often not the best tool so make sure you have others in there as well.


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