At least, when I was in my late teenage years, it seemed like it was exactly what I needed to succeed in my social endeavors.
I’d learned through trial and error that a good poker-face, a soft-spoken voice, and a relaxed demeanor made me look more confident, and, for lack of a better word, cooler.
While it seemed like a foolproof plan at the time, I ended up making a mistake that slowly drained my energy, and ultimately affected my mental health, until I eventually learned more about my HSP Trait and sensitivities.
Unsurprisingly, it turns out pretending to be numb to the world in and around you results in gradually feeling more numb.
Concealing emotions, instincts, and opinions requires willpower and energy, a limited resource whose poor management can result in negative health symptoms.
Two studies by Richards & Gross (2000) and Richards, Butler & Gross (2003) describe the cognitive consequences of concealing feelings. According to the three researchers, expressive suppression negatively affects memory, attention, and moral reasoning.
This cognitive load is one of the three explanations given by the study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: ‘The social costs of emotional suppression: A prospective study of the transition to college’ (2009), reveals a strong association between expressive suppression and lower social support and satisfaction.
At this point, you may be wondering if concealing emotions could be considered hiding your sensitivity?
But being a Highly Sensitive Person does not only mean feelings and emotions are processed more intensely; everything from instincts to creativity falls on the broad spectrum of sensitivity.
For that reason, I do consider hiding my own emotions the same as hiding my sensitive side.
But there’s a balance to be reached between oversharing and bottling things up.
What helped me was realizing that sensitivity is a trait resulting from the interactions between genome and environment and, there’s no reason not to embrace it as one of the things that make me, well, me.
I’m willing to bet you wouldn’t want to be associated with people who would bully someone for their physical appearance, intelligence, or spirituality.
Sensitivity falls into a similar category: while not as apparent as height or eye color, it is a trait that follows us from birth until the end of our life.
If you were to find yourself in a situation where you have to conceal your sensitivity or risk being judged and ostracized, I would recommend walking away from the situation.
But let’s go back to ‘The social costs of emotional suppression […]’ (2009).
While the cognitive load of concealing feelings can result in negative health consequences, there are two more reasons why expressive suppression leads to lower social satisfaction and less social support.
By hiding your internal state from the people you care about, you reduce the amount of information your interlocutor has about your current emotional experience.
While sharing our thoughts and feelings can be an uncomfortable process, countless social bonds rely on knowing about an individual’s emotional state.
For example, “displays of distress elicit sympathy from others” (Eisenberg et al., 1989; Labott et al., 1991) and “shared positive and negative experiences can facilitate social bonding” (Collins & Miller, 1994; Kowalski, 1996).
Additionally, the 2009 study introduces the concept of ‘emotional leakage.’
People rarely succeed in completely suppressing their feelings and behaviors. For that reason, the people close enough to notice that an individual is suppressing may perceive the suppression as disinterest.
I’m certain most readers will either recognize themselves or a loved one here: insisting “Nothing’s wrong” or “It’s fine” when it’s obvious it isn’t, puts a strain on the relationship.
Although this suppression could be an attempt to protect a relationship from potential conflict, it only shows a lack of trust that often results in hurting what you were trying to protect in the first place.
So why do we do this?
Humans evolved to give more importance to negative stimuli rather than positive.
Psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson hypothesized that our brains evolved to routinely make three mistakes: “overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources.”
This negativity bias works wonders to survive in the African Savannah, but it’s not the best way to promote healthy relationships.
When it comes to our relationships, the negativity bias can cause us to blame ourselves whenever someone close to us seems a little abrupt.
This is especially true for Highly Sensitive People who may quickly jump to conclusions and over-analyze the situation.
Ultimately, we worry opening up to others about what bothers us could be turned against us.
While there is no way to know what the other person will do with the information we give them, it’s important to be mindful that we are hard-wired to overestimate threats.
Moderation is key, and we should try to remind ourselves that we often perceive the world, and others, as more threatening than they are.
Once again, there’s a balance to be reached between bottling things up and oversharing.
However, if you consider yourself a sensitive person, then hiding it from your loved ones will only damage your relationships, and ultimately your health.
Today, I still display the relaxed demeanor, soft-spoken voice, and poker-face I practiced during my teenage years.
But if I find myself in a situation where I have to choose between my poker-face or making an effort to communicate what’s troubling me, or what I’m happy about, I’ll always make the effort.
How about you? Do you hide your emotions from the people you care about or do you express your emotions?
Interested in this topic? Listen to The HSP World Podcast Ep. 2: Are HSPs More Slow To Open Up and Show Their Sensitive Side?