Self Expression

Emotions and meanings are not fully experienced unless they are expressed. Sensation and contact occurs at the surface. Expression is not complete unless it comes to the surface. The eyes, the face, the mouth (including the jaw), the throat, and the arms are the main conduits of self-expression.

Speech, at its best, is a union of ego and body. Words and word choice (voluntary) represents the ego, and voice quality (involuntary) represents the body. Most modern democracies pride themselves on free speech, but increasingly, what is meant is free word choice. A loud or emotional voice is considered inappropriate in many forums. Untrue statements are fairly easily detectable by a discrepancy between the words and the voice, but few people are able to do this because we have been conditioned to ignore the voice quality. A great deal of deception happens over the internet because it is much easier to lie when a keyboard and not the voice is used. Of course word choice can be at the service of feelings but mostly word choice is aimed at affecting the reader or listener.

Self-expression is certainly biological, if not only biological. One definition of psychology is biology plus expression. Ideally, in self-expression, heart mind and belly are together. Honest and felt self-expression helps maintain one's integrity apart from the effect on the other person. However, honest self-expression is unexpectedly powerful in relationships. Often, early experience of having self-expression punished or ignored instills a hesitancy to express anything that is not 'certain to work.' Without early positive experience it is very hard to weather those adult occasions (hopefully infrequent) in which expression is punished. But what can come to be understood is that self-expression is an end in itself. It supports the life process.

Self-expression also requires freedom. That is, both a reasonable amount of actual freedom to act in the world and an internal sense of freedom to act are required. Actions are part of self-expression. If there is no intention or willingness to act at all, self-expression becomes at best, an intellectualization. A mental or verbal reservation is not adequate expression either. For instance, if a person facing a demand he or she does not wish to comply with, says as much to themselves or others, but complies anyway, he or she is then at war with themselves. The salutary and harmonizing aspects of self-expression are only available where stated beliefs and actions line up.

Self-expression is not just blurting everything out that comes to mind. In any situation, especially when several people are involved, there may be several things to express. For instance annoyance for a person's actions and respect for a person may be both expressed in a measured but sincere expression. This is what tact is: truth and empathy together. Putting the truth off to later just sets a mold in which there never seems room for one's own truth. Taking other peoples likely reaction into account can figure in final expression, as long as the self is not essentially negated.

Self-expression is more a matter of quality than of quantity. It does not seem possible to achieve the same effect of full-blown self-expression with any quantity of partial 'leaking' type expression. That is because the value of self-expression is in the unifying of the person. 'Leaking out' what one really means, or hinting, may pass along the 'idea' but it is fragmenting for the person. Some people leak hostility on an almost continual basis. The expression never seems to resolve. This type of choked or incompleted expression is just one type of 'mis'-expression that gives self-expression a bad name. Below are some others.


Intoxication: Alcohol is known for changing or increasing expression, but not in a helpful way. The problem is not, as commonly thought, that people say what they don't mean. When intoxicated, people tend to express what they really mean, albeit distortedly. Rather alcohol disinhibits the expression but simultaneously deadens the feeling (both the feeling intrinsic to the expression, and also the feeling of guilt for feeling that way!). This allows for the expression because the unwanted feeling isn't there. When sober, the person usually disavows the expressions because again they are unable to handle the feelings that would arise. Some people seem to be emotional when intoxicated, but the feeling is superficial (sentimentality), unrelated to movement or action.

Vehement Emotions: Vehement emotions, usually anger or fear, appear suddenly, are coupled with high arousal, are not very amenable to soothing, persist for a time even if triggering events have ended, and afterwards the person repudiates the emotions and cannot or does not integrate them, even in a more moderate form. These are actually minor dissociative episodes, from approach-avoidance conflicts or past trauma. Vehement emotions are not constructive expression, there is a stuck or repetitive quality about them. If they arise in therapeutic work, they may have a role in bringing the dissociation 'into the room', but attention should be directed away from the content of the narrative, and into contact with the body and with the present.

Acting out: This is behavior that is driven by repressed feeling that occurs without 'unrepressing' the feeling. It discharges tension and allows the repression to be maintained. The term comes from psycho-analysis, where it was applied to an increase in self-destructive behavior in the life of a client when things 'heated up' in analysis. From this, it tended to be applied to things like promiscuity and drug use. However, when someone is doing something 'seemingly uncharacteristic,' but does not know why he or she is doing it, it is often acting out. If, in addition, they do not seem to know they are doing it, it is even more likely acting-out. So too with 'stress behavior.'

Dispersal: This is the use of speech to 'touch' on a subject, but diminish feeling or avoid contact with real feeling. A common example is a statement beginning with "I should.." It is often meant to ward off how one actually regards what "one should" do. Another is "I have to.." (Fritz Perls combated dispersal by making clients say "I want.. or I choose..") Another dispersal is saying the opposite of what one is likelier to really mean. Or another example is repeating a truism like "such is life" or "people is people" or "it's probably for the best" when a difficult subject comes up. Yet another example is an excessive recitation of detail.

Gossip: Gossip is the enactment of a split, projecting unwanted or forbidden feelings and thoughts, usually sexual, onto others. Gossip manipulates relief feelings "Thank God its not me!" The release wastes tension that otherwise might be applied to real concerns in one's life. The target is dehumanized, and the confidante is not drawn into a real relationship because the relating is not based on feeling but rather the repudiation of feeling.

Catharsis: Catharsis is akin to removing a splinter or expelling something noxious. The ego may acknowledge that there was something 'to get rid of' but that something is felt to have been a foreign object and not part of the self. Catharsis is expression, but it is not self-expression. For instance after an angry outburst, a person may feel relieved but then essentially disown the anger that was expressed. Catharsis is the result of delayed and disowned expression. It is 'blowing off steam' that serves the purpose of keeping the lid on. It can be exaggerated which seems to support the back-tracking that happens afterwards. Catharsis does represent a small opening into repressed emotion. If a person is so completely controlled that they do not have any catharsis, then starting catharsis can be a start toward self-expression. However, especially in psychotherapy, frequent catharsis can become a 'racket' or 'affect defense', that is a lesser expression that actually avoids a deeper or more character-changing self-expression. Change is actually blocked. It is perhaps this racket expression that brings on a skeptical attitude, in the culture as a whole, toward the expression of emotion.

Hysterical Outburst:An hysterical outburst implies a higher level of energy in the body. It is an attempted solution to the stasis of that energy. A hysterical outburst is less about the theme of the outburst than it is about the present energy state of the person. The person is less likely to disown the outburst but at the same time, there is less thematic material to own. Like catharsis, an hysterical outburst protects character. It is a reaction to the limits of character armor, not a reaction against it.

Practice Toward Self-Expression

In Reich and Lowen therapy, there are exercises such as hitting a mattress that can reasonably be called 'expressive' exercises. Especially in a group or workshop setting with others watching, it can seem that the reason for these exercises is to represent or show how one feels, and in so doing, an endpoint is reached. Actually the purpose of exercises is to get freedom of movement, energy and feeling into the parts of the body that are involved in self-expression.

The endpoint of this work is the actual, real time expression of the self to the actual people in one's life. This certainly involves hitting them almost never. But if the arms are freed in therapy, the expression, usually just involving voice and gesture, is satisfying, convincing, and in line with the ego.

In healing traditions, the concept of self-expression tends somehow always to be considered only a process of catching-up with past emotion and experience. Where there has been considerable repression of expression, some catching up will likely occur. This can become a stalling point or bad habit, however, in which ongoing experience is stored in a buffer for dramatic expression later in a 'therapeutic' or 'safe' setting. The real goal however, is prompt, spontaneous expression.