Remember when this poster was all the rage? I used to love this saying. It made me feel safe.
It also made me feel like I shouldn’t express my emotions. Like I should work really hard to not get angry because anger doesn’t solve anything and I should work really hard to get over my sadness because life is good so what is there to be sad about? Calm is, after all, the absence of reacting to your emotions. Calm is the deep belly breath instead of the raised voice and string of expletives. Calm is the chilled-out bubble bath vibe instead of the crying yourself to sleep.
I love being calm. I love when people tell me you look calm. That’s as sweet of a compliment to me as you look cool. Calm is cool. I want to be cool.
But here’s the problem. There are times when we really shouldn’t “keep calm”. We should express our emotions- all of them, the anger, the rage, the sadness, the depression, the nervousness, the excitement. We should NOT keep them inside in order to act or appear calm. I’m still getting used to this term- but I think this is what we call “spiritual bypassing”- hiding behind a spiritual practice (like meditation or the belief that “everything happens for a reason”) and not acknowledging what you are truly feeling.
Convenient though. Because some emotions are horribly painful. True loneliness, for example, is a pain so deep in your heart that no drug can really treat. Like the flu- it’s gotta come before it can go. If you didn’t feel some degree of loneliness pain during COVID I would ask you - were you feeling or were you just “keeping calm”?
I’ve been studying trauma with a good teacher friend of mine. We’re taking an online course together and then holding each other accountable to acting on what we’ve learned. It’s our duty (hers to her students in her classroom and mine to the clients I serve) to truly understand what trauma is and how it informs everything- and I mean everything- humans do (or don’t do.) There’s the Big T’s: childhood abuse, sexual abuse, racism, freak accidents. And there’s the little t’s: being told as a little girl to not get angry because girls don’t get angry, or being told as a man to suck it up because men don’t cry, or not being seen or heard by your partner or your friend when you’re going through a hard time because “c’mon it’s not that bad”, or here’s my favorite and one I am guilty of all the time- telling someone to “calm down” when they really don’t f’ing feel like being calm.
What’s the common denominator for ALL of trauma? Not being able to express how you really feel. This is sometimes referred to as lack of authenticity. As Gabor Mate (2021) puts it, “Trauma isn’t what happened to you, it’s what happened to you inside as a result.” If what happens to you inside is not being able to express and release the emotions that come along with the traumatic experience (and sometimes you choose to do this not because you want to be inauthentic but because you want to survive), then what you get is emotional blockage and what you feel is stuck. And then isolation and loneliness ensue. And a whole lot of other manifestations too. And though there is yet to be compelling research to demonstrate a statistically significant correlation between unexpressed emotions and physical ailments, I am a huge believer that there is. Gabor Mate (2019) agrees. He theorizes a connection between trauma and the ever-elusive autoimmune diseases.
So back to keeping calm. Don’t do it. Especially when we’re talking about stuff that really matters, stuff that we shouldn’t be calm about- racism, climate change, mental health support. Express your emotions first. All of them. In a productive way of course. Maybe cutting someone off in traffic or cussing someone out isn’t the most productive of ways. Or the most mature. But talking to someone is. Writing about it is. Saying “I feel…” to people who can really see and hear you is. I have found that expressing an emotion actually gets me to a calm state shortly thereafter. It’s why yoga as a precursor to meditation was invented. Get some wiggles out before you sit down to meditate. It’s why you see animals in the wild lash out in a fight over food or territory. The fight is over within seconds and then the animals return to grazing or napping or lounging. Let us not forget that we humans are just animals ourselves. Animals in this wild, wild thing we call life.
So don’t keep calm. Express and then carry on.
Producer & Directors, B.Z. & M.Z. (June 8, 2o21). The wisdom of trauma [Motion picture]. Canada: Science & Nonduality.
Maté, Gabor (2019). When the body says no: The cost of hidden stress. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.