- Spontaneous expression of emotion bypasses empathy and can at times be a selfish act.
- Expressing emotions without considering the circumstances of the other can sometimes result in hurtful outcomes.
- Intimacy is best achieved by practicing empathy and assessing the circumstances of the person you're communicating with.
The stability and security of healthy intimate relationships depend on the ability of each partner to share thoughts and feelings. Some professionals exalt the benefit of spontaneous expressions as reflective of trust and, hence, supportive of intimacy (Hawley, 2017; Seltzer, 2009). While individuals in relationships can experience various benefits from being spontaneous with each other, there are times when intimate relationships may also suffer from such spontaneity.
Sharing your emotions with others as they occur, or in real-time, is spontaneous expression. Leon Seltzer, who has written several PT articles on the topic, refers to this as sharing “without constraint.” It occurs in relationships where others can be trusted to listen empathically without judgment. It is a method of sharing yourself with others without guardedness or defensiveness.
Loved ones may recognize the spontaneous sharing as open and appreciate the sense of trust thus conveyed. But sometimes, that might not be the only thing they notice. Spontaneous expression of emotion minimizes the opportunity for mindful reflection, which may obviate the ability to empathize with your loved one and consider whether the timing or content of your expression is good for them.
The following exchange* shows an instance where a mother’s spontaneous expression of love for her daughter backfires. Rita had been missing her 14-year-old daughter Joy increasingly since she left on a business trip several days ago. She passed Joy’s favorite donut shop and remembered how much Joy loves Boston cream donuts, so she stopped and bought a dozen. When she came home, they had the following conversation:
Rita: Hi Joy! I missed you so much.
Joy: I missed you, too, Mom.
Rita: I brought you a little treat. (Gives box of donuts to Joy)
Joy: Oh... thanks.
Rita: Why do you look upset?
Joy: I got bullied today at school. The other girls say I'm fat.
Rita could not have known about the bullying because Joy had not told her. But Rita was returning from being away and decided to express herself spontaneously without regard for Joy’s emotional state. This was a failed attempt at expressing her feelings of love toward her daughter that backfired and ended up hurting her instead.
Rita might have skipped the donuts and just come home and spontaneously expressed that she missed her daughter. In this circumstance, she is directing the conversation such that Joy can either mirror her, by saying that she missed Rita too, or initiate conflict by not mirroring or ignoring Mom altogether. I argue, though, that this is not empathic; it is self-motivated. A nonspontaneous approach to expressing oneself to loved ones may be more integrated.
Strategic Expression of Emotions
There are three simple steps to strategizing communication in general and communication about your feelings.
1. Set a goal.
The first step is to formulate a goal. A common goal is to be heard the way you want to be heard: to have the person you are communicating with hear what you are trying to convey to them.
Other goals might include increasing intimacy, encouraging someone else to behave in a particular way, discouraging them from behaving in a certain way, etc. For example, expressing loving feelings toward another might encourage them to express love back or to give you a hug. Expressing pain or anger generally discourages others from what they did to hurt you.
2. Assess the circumstances of the person you are communicating with.
The second step is to assess, or sample, the feelings of the person you are trying to communicate your feelings to. This requires empathy. Asking how they feel as well as considering their circumstances and character provides the most comprehensive understanding.
3. Form and execute a communication strategy.
The final step is to strategize how you can best meet your goal associated with expressing emotions with your empathic understanding of how the person might best hear your expression the way you want them to.
Had Rita strategized her emotional expression to Joy, rather than being spontaneous, it might have sounded like this:
Rita: Hi Joy! How are you?
Joy: Not so good. I got bullied at school today. The other girls told me I'm fat.
Rita: I'm so sorry, Joy; that sounds really painful. I'll do whatever you need to help resolve this.
Joy: Thanks, mom.
Rita had completed step 1: She formulated a goal of making her daughter feel closer to her. Rita approached step 2 by asking Joy how she was. Once she realized that her daughter had just been bullied and teased about her weight, she decided to leave the donuts in the car. In step 3, Rita decided to convey her loving feelings by being validating and supportive of Joy’s current struggles, and she achieved a successful result.
Spontaneous communication of emotion is often seen as intimate because it is unguarded and unfiltered, but it generally doesn't come from a place of empathy, because it involves expressing what you want when you want it without regard for the listener. Most effective intimate communication is generally achieved with a strategy of communication that incorporates empathy and, hence, is more intimate. Thus, there are many times in life when you'll probably be better off if you don't just let it all hang out.
*Examples are constructed from aspects of different transactions involving different individuals.
Hawley, Katharine (2017), How to Be Spontaneous: We can't plan for spontaneity, but trust can help it happen. Psychology Today. Posted March 24, 2017.
Seltzer, Leon (2009). The Wisdom of Spontaneity (Part I). Psychology Today. Posted March 27, 2009.