We're Only Human

Pack Up All Your Cares and Woes

Many healing traditions make use of jars—variously called God jars, or resentment jars, or worry jars. The idea is that you can—literally—compartmentalize your troubles, and by doing so take away their emotional power.

If this sounds like a lot of New Age gobbledygook to you, read on.

The practice is a form of metaphor therapy, which sees psychological truth in common metaphors like “bottled-up anger” and “buried sorrows.” These figures of speech are not arbitrary, a growing number of psychologists believe; instead they are examples of the way abstract psychological states overlap with physical experience. Psychological scientist Xiuping Li and his colleagues at the National University of Singapore wanted to explore these ideas in connection with emotional regulation—specifically the possibility that the physical act of enclosing bad feelings might facilitate psychological closure on a difficult emotional experience.

The first experiments were quite simple. In one, the researchers asked a group of volunteers to recall (and write about) a recent decision that they regretted. Half of them sealed the written memory inside an envelope before handing it in, while the others simply handed it to the experimenter. Then they all reported their feelings about the event, including guilt, worry and shame. In a second similar experiment, volunteers wrote about a dream that had gone unfulfilled. Again, only half sealed away their recollections, and again they all later described how emotionally upset they were. The results were unambiguous, and identical in each study: Those who physically sealed away their bad experiences—even though it was just in a common envelope—had many fewer negative emotions afterward. The simple act of containing the emotionally charged memories appears to have defused them.

At least that’s one interpretation. But the scientists wanted to be sure that it was specifically the act of enclosing negative memories and emotions that was alleviating distress. So they ran another experiment to clarify the findings. In this one, volunteers read a news account of a child’s tragic death, and wrote about their emotional response to it. Then they wrote about something neutral—their plans for the weekend, for example. Half the volunteers sealed up the tragic story and their reactions, while the others sealed up their weekend plans, before doing the same kind of emotional inventory.

The purpose here was to see if simply sealing up anything would have the same tonic effect. It did not. Only those who sealed up their shock and sadness about the tragedy got relief from the act. The scientists did one more version of the study where some of the volunteers paper-clipped the distressing memory rather than sealing it up; and again this act failed to alleviate emotional upset. Apparently psychological closure really means closure—not clipping. As reported on-line last week in the journal Psychological Science, only the act of enveloping the emotional content worked.

So how does it work? It’s not known for sure, but here’s a hint. The scientists finished the study of the tragic news study by giving all the volunteers a pop quiz at the end—to see how much of the story they recalled. And guess what. Those who had gone through the act of sealing away the event and their feelings remembered fewer details of the event. That is, sealing up the emotional content appears to have diminished the actual memory of the upsetting event, contributing to the psychological closure necessary for putting the pain in the past.

Wray Herbert’s book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, will be published by Crown in September. Excerpts from the “We’re Only Human” blog appear regularly in The Huffington Post and Scientific American Mind.

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