This is the second of a three part series on Feelings
Many people intuitively understand that over-the-top, sentimental expressions of feeling paradoxically indicate a certain lack of feeling.
The “unemotional” friend who always cries at sappy movies or the relative who dismisses human suffering while lavishing attention on animals are both suspect. You can think of sentimentality as an easy way out – a way of having intense feelings without having to feel personally vulnerable. Or, as Oscar Wilde put it so well, sentimentality is "the luxury of having an emotion without paying for it.”
It is easy to see how feeling intensely about things that don’t mean much to you can "cost" less than having feelings about things that really do matter to you. For example, when a parent neglects you as a child, or when a partner lets you down as an adult, the disappointment can cause fear, sadness, and/or anger. Intense reactions about things that are personal highlight your (very human) dependency and neediness. Feeling your negative emotions can prompt you to feel weak or pathetic and can be costly to your sense of your independence or strength.
Having strong feelings about events or people once removed is easier because it says nothing about you, except that you are obviously (and overtly) kind-hearted. The deluge of public grief after Princess Diana died was seen by some as a sentimental expression of grief by a nation of emotionally restrained people (exhausted from a stiff upper lip).
People can skirt important truths about themselves by avoiding feelings about things that really matter. It is our bad feelings about our emotions -- our fear, shame, or sadness -- that lead us to suppress our reactions in intimate relationships. Suppression can leave unprocessed feelings lingering in our minds, which in turn may lead inadvertently to syrupy displays of emotion about situations that are not truly meaningful, except symbolically. The author James Baldwin implied this when he referred to sentimentality as “the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion ... the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel.”
However, the presence of sentimental feelings can provide clues – and a door -- to emotions that you may not yet be able to feel in your personal life.
You can open the door to your suppressed emotions by looking for areas in which you are prone to sentimentality.
For example, when my mother died, I kept an inordinate number of her possessions. I became especially sentimental about her cheesy Christmas decorations that I had never liked. With hindsight, I think that displaying these decorations was a way of expressing a love I could not yet entirely feel. Christmas was always an especially happy holiday my family, a source of many fond memories for me. As time has passed since my mom’s death, I have come to actually experience more of my positive emotions towards my mother. Having balanced out my conscious feelings toward my mother, I have become less sentimental about her possessions. While I still treasure the things of hers that I truly love, I have been able to throw away ugly decorations that I no longer need to “display” my sentimental feelings. In other words, now that I can consciously hold on to more of my loving and real feelings toward my mother, I no longer need to hang onto her tacky Christmas ornaments.
Think about what you are most sentimental about. When do you become inordinately emotional?
- Are there certain times, people, possessions, or events that regularly prompt sentimentality?
- Is it holidays, foreign lands, foods, past romances, beloved objects, your childhood or camp?
- Look for common triggers and emotional themes as you reflect on your sentimentality.
- What memories – positive and negative -- are associated with these times, people, or objects?
- Consider your sentimental soft spots as clues to what you have not felt about things that mattered to you in the past. (For example, if you like to cry at sad movies, consider whether you have fully processed your earlier losses. If you tend to cry when watching parents support their children or at happy family reunions, consider whether you have not yet fully processed early disappointments about how your family showed you support or love.)
- What else might these sentimental spots be telling you about significant emotions you have overlooked and missed feeling in the past?
Poignant or sentimental moments often hold clues to areas of life in which we have previously missed feeling our emotions about things that matter. Once we become aware of unprocessed emotional residue from our past, we can address our emotions and feelings, and learn what is really important to us. Then we can express our feelings about the things that really matter rather than sloshing into easy sentimentality. Think of all the Kleenex you will save!