Hiding emotions in freshman year can hinder friendships
While suppressing emotions in new or difficult situations is understandable and perhaps appropriate, carrying the practice too far creates a vicious cycle where trusting others, and being trusted by others, becomes more difficult, said Sanjay Srivastava, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon.
Srivastava was the lead author of a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that looked at the social costs of emotional suppression among 278 college freshman during their first term at a major West Coast university.
The students -- 58 percent female, 31 percent Asian, 60 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic, 7 percent black and 4 percent Native American -- were contacted before they left home for college. Both before and after the transition, participants completed intensive assessments about their social and emotional experiences. They also nominated acquaintances who knew them well -- virtually all new friends at college -- to be surveyed about how the participants had adjusted.
The study is part of a larger project looking at how and why emotions matter for social adjustment, particularly in critical situations like the transition to college. In this case, the focus looked at expressive suppression, a strategy some people use to regulate emotions where they "basically just try to not show any emotion on the outside," Srivastava said.
Weekly diaries provided data on each participant's support from parents and friends, closeness with others, social satisfaction and academic satisfaction. At the end of the term, participants again addressed their levels of support from friends, closeness, and social and academic satisfaction. The researchers also gathered corroborating information from friends who could give first-hand accounts of how the participants were faring at college.
"Hiding your emotions is something that is very common but it's something that often is not the right thing to do," Srivastava said. "We're not saying never ever do this, but doing it may have negative effects in certain contexts, such as in transitioning into college. It may be hurting the formation of relationships."
Data gathered from the participants and friends provided similar results, he said. "People who were hiding or masking their emotions were having more difficult times forming close, meaningful, supportive and satisfying relationships."
People keep emotions hidden during times when they feel alienated or disconnected, or when a situation leaves them feeling out of control, according to previous research, he said. For some individuals, those feelings may be more pronounced during major transitions, putting college freshmen at particular risk.
"In certain situations, it is natural and understandable, but if done all the time it may be counterproductive," he said. "We are trying to figure out where and why such emotional suppression is appropriate. It may be that people who do this may be having a more intense negative experience. People who do this are less likely to show positive emotions, like laugh at other people's jokes, or smile, or even disclose their negative feelings. It's a self-protection thing."
Other analyses did not find negative consequences for academic satisfaction, but more research into academic ramifications is needed, he said. Also needing scrutiny is whether the impacts identified in this study carry longer-lasting consequences into later years of college and beyond.
Co-authors of the study were Kelly M. McGonigal of Stanford University, Maya Tamir of Boston College, Oliver P. John of the University of California, Berkeley, and James J. Gross of Stanford University. The research was partially funded by the National Institutes of Health.