Is it good to talk?

Dot writes: on Saturday night, at a party at our neighbours’ house, I found myself having a thought-provoking conversation with a total stranger about her miscarriages. She was a fairly elderly lady and volunteered the topic quite freely. We were talking about ‘trying for a girl’ and the high chance of having more of the same. I mentioned that the two little boys romping about the house were mine, and she pointed to two middle-aged men as hers and said she had three boys but would have had seven children if she hadn’t had lost four in pregnancy. One, apparently, was quite far along and would have been a little girl. In those days, she said, one didn’t particularly talk about miscarriage; one just got on with it. I asked if that made it harder or easier. Easier, she said.

I found this response simultaneously surprising and comprehensible. On the one hand, it is very much the standard view at present that one should be able to talk about distressing events. Pain expressed is pain relieved; concealment is associated with shame. One should not be alone with grief. On the other hand, talking about events like miscarriage brings them under the purview of social expectation. I’ve recently read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Managed Heart, which makes the point that in many circumstances we feel there are certain emotions we ought to have and to express but we often find ourselves failing to measure up. Thus we often try to generate the right emotions to fit the circumstances, especially when others are watching. Perhaps if you don’t talk about pain or grief you also don’t have to do it right: you don’t have to deal with external expectations about how you should be and behave. We have a much more elaborated discourse about experiences like miscarriage now – this particular event is much more visible and discussed than it was a generation ago – and while that should promote compassion and consideration towards others who suffer such misfortune, which is a good thing, it must also produce a certain pressure on the sufferers.

Another dimension that occurs to me has to do more with the cognitive view of emotion that I’ve been reading about in Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. Nussbaum argues that emotions are essentially judgements of value. This position starts to make a lot of sense as she elaborates it. Judgements are not necessarily reducible to linguistically formulable propositions (NUssbaum’s position rests on a broad view of cognition not confined to the cool and explicit: non-linguistic animals and tiny children are more than capable of it); the enormous urgency of some emotions is explicable in that they are ‘eudaimonistic’, which is to say that they are centered on what we feel is necessary to our own flourishing. Emotions enable us to perceive the salience of events to our selves and to relate to the world. They sometimes seem illogical or to come on us against our conscious judgements, but this is explicable in terms of the early formation of our emotional lives in childhood: the judgements embedded in our emotions are not always the ones the adult voice in our head would express. Emotions thus have an unconscious or subterranean dimension that can seem out of our control. Nonetheless, Nussbaum’s view can intersect with Arlie Russell Hochschild’s in that it is clear the ‘felt’ judgements of the heart can interact with the views of objects and events consciously adopted. One can thus see how it is possible to learn to alter one’s emotional value-judgements top-down, by thinking the thoughts that would translate into a particular feeling. I think this is also relevant to the question of the ‘talking cure’. On the one hand, pain can be relieved by being spoken of. This is a way of bringing it under control and also of separating oneself from it; what has been spoken can be contemplated: it is no longer of the core of one’s self. But on the other hand, supposing the internal value judgement were not quite as one might expect to formulate it, the work of formulating it might create an emotion that was not wholly there before, or bring forth a dissonance that was itself a source of pain. And insofar as depressed or sorrowful states are characterised by recurring conscious negative thought, it may not always be so helpful to encourage them by talking about them.

10 thoughts on “Is it good to talk?

  1. I think that’s so true. I remember reading about some research that showed that people who didn’t talk about their issues after a stressful event, fared better several years later than those who’d been to counsellors. Funny, that.

    1. Dot

      THanks very much for your comment. I would be interested in tracing that research. My initial reaction is that there must be an enormous number of personal variables that would make it hard to interpret the data. It would be very hard to conduct a randomised trial to test such a hypothesis, which means that those who went to counsellors might well (on average, allowing for many individual variations) be those who were more traumatized in the first place. One also wants to know what the measure of well-being is. I’m not sure I would want to argue that not talking is always better than talking, but I do think the choice is much more complex and the old reticence less self-evidently bad than is often supposed.

  2. Helen Conrad-O'Briain

    We must also take into consideration mixed emotions. It is not the case that our reactions are always or even usually unitary. Consider when an elderly parent dies after a long illness – there is grief, but there is also likely to be a sense of relief for those who are delivered from their suffering, as well as a sense of relief in the individuals left behind who are often exhausted emotionally and physically. In reference to the question of socially expected emotions, such a relief is often difficult for the survivors to acknowledge even to themselves
    I had three miscarriages – twice twin boys. On one level I was grieved, but I could not help but reflect even at the time that it meant I did not not have to change my life radically nor face my fears that I was not a particularly motherly person.

    1. Dot

      That issue of mixed emotions was one I had in mind when I used the term ‘dissonance’. However, there are some mixed emotions that we do feel allowed to express. Mixed emotions about the death of an elderly parent are, I think, fairly widely recognised and tolerated, at least in English and US culture and I think Irish too. An example Nussbaum gives of cultural variation in fact relates to attitudes to the death of the old and ill: the anthropologist Cathy Lutz suggested to her Ifaluk (Inuit) hosts that the death of an old woman was not so bad, because it ended her suffering, but they were very shocked at this idea.

      There is room for a lot of personal and cultural variation here. There is also room for variation in how strong and narrow the norms are. To a certain extent the culture of talking it out has made space for more expression of mixed feelings and more acceptance of them. On the other hand, feeling display can get very politicized – think of the death of Princess Diana.

  3. I don’t know what the latest thinking is, but there were some studies in the nineteen seventies — by a psychologist called Leff — suggesting that schizophrenics do best (that is, are less likely to be rehospitalized by a psychotic episode) if there is low expressed emotion in their family.

    1. Dot

      But did low expressed emotion mean repression or just calm? A family with high expressed emotion might be expressing themselves by chucking plates. Still, interesting.

  4. Very interesting – I ‘ve come across a distinction made that reliving negative emotions is detrimental in the long run but if you can talk about negative experiences it can distance you from the actual experience and that may help to overcome trauma.

    Another thought that came to my mind is how children deal with death. It’s a fact, emotion free. I wonder if they learn the social judgements = socially adequate emotions later?

    But then again, there’s the issue of how different people can feel, even the same person. I have grieved badly, but when I miscarried, I did just move on after no more than a few days of sadness, and I still feel a bit alienated when people talk of baby loss and grieving when it’s about an early miscarriage, makes me wonder if I should have be more upset than I was at the time.

    1. ken

      I’ll let Dot respond properly to your comment, but since you’re a German speaker, do you mind checking if i’m right in what I say about Zahl and Anzahl my latest post? I think I understand the distinction, but it’s hard to speak with confidence about a second language. –Ken

    2. Dot

      Thomas Scheff makes a distinction between activating an emotion and discharging it, which is rather hard to fathom in some ways (especially as he tries to associate both stages with particular physical symptoms) but could be used to talk about different ways of revisiting distressing experiences. The distinction you’re talking about is a little bit different in that it seems to imply you can go back to a trauma and either actually relive it or, alternatively, articulate and thus establish some kind of control over it and distance from it.

      My take on how children deal with death would stress that they appreciate it in quite a limited way rather than that they haven’t yet learnt the socially appropriate emotion, though of course they haven’t learnt all the social rules around death.

      People’s reactions to miscarriage do seem to be extremely variable. I know one person who was utterly devastated, and others who moved on quite quickly. There is clearly no right reaction, just different reactions depending on people’s character and circumstances, but it’s striking how we seek a blueprint for the correct emotional response.

      Thanks for commenting.

  5. I think it’s all about short term vs long term gain. Humans tend to be short term creatures, so when we discover that it is painful to discuss traumatic events, we avoid doing it.

    However, studies show that LONG TERM, re-experiencing trauma through detailed re-living out loud is an effective treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. By re-living something again and again, we desensitize ourselves to the memory and become more able to file it in the past.

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