Self-Suppression: The Importance of Biting One’s Tongue

A while back, a friend shared a quote from 1901 that I copied and saved. Although it is about 115 years old, it still seems current. It is about something that, as an attorney, I notice frequently, and that is the importance of biting one’s tongue:

[A]s a rule, we should be very careful for our own sake not to speak much about what distresses us. Expression is apt to carry with it exaggeration, and this exaggerated form becomes henceforth that under which we represent our miseries to ourselves, so that they are thereby increased.

— Mark Rutherford

Think about it. When you’re upset, you’re going to say things you don’t necessarily mean.  You exaggerate.

So I looked up and read Rutherford’s essay, “Talking About Our Troubles” (1901), the focus of which is the importance of biting your tongue, which Rutherford refers to as “the art of self-suppression.”

Rutherford discusses, and also made me think about, the very good reasons to fine-tune the under-appreciated art of self-suppression, or, biting your tongue.

You may come off as crazy.

For example, just recently I heard someone say, with vigor, “I swear to god if I had a baseball bat I would bash his head in with it!”  This statement was made all the more colorful with arms waving overhead.  Make a statement like that — and if your listener doesn’t know you well enough to take it with a grain of salt, he or she will think you’re an absolute nutter.

You may lose friends and alienate people.

Rutherford made a good point which is that, when you are upset and speak about yourself, and so focused on your own drama, you may become that poor creature who is “always craving for pity.” And that, frankly, is annoying.

Think about it. Don’t you know someone you’ve called a hypochondriac? Or someone often laments about what she finds to be a sad state of her hair, her weight, or her complexion.  You know these people: the whiners (or as they say in Ireland, whingers). The first time, you placate them: “Oh no, that dress looks lovely on you!” By the second or third time, however, you start to think, I don’t want to spend time with this person!

Rutherford wrote: “By perpetually asking for sympathy an end is put to real friendship.”  It made me think of many people I’ve known — complainers, whiners. They seem sooo miserable.  When I see them coming, I run the other way.

You can end up with regrets

Speaking — or writing — while emotions are heightened is dangerous and can create new conflict. It is true that we exaggerate when upset. Even using superlatives, like “worst ever.” I have defended many people who have written gut-reaction online reviews, then gotten sued for defamation. This is a real thing, and it’s happening with increased frequency.

Another example is the person who has been dumped or otherwise given the shaft by a lover. Think of the fusillade you may have fired at an ex when upset — and what resulted. It’s dangerous to speak when that angry!

Sooner or later, everyone is a wet blanket

As I reviewed Rutherford’s essay, I knew that I too have been guilty of speaking of too much of my own woes. More than once I recall socializing when maybe I just wasn’t feeling too much excitement when someone asked me “what was new”? Ha, there are times when that’s a loaded question! What should I say?

I just spent 5 hours laboriously drafting a complaint and I will never get paid for any of it.

Or how about:

It’s been so many weeks since I’ve taken a day off, I don’t even remember what a vacation feels like!


I work until 9 or 10 p.m. every night and only see the sunshine in my morning commute!

The sad thing is: All those statements are true! OK, maybe not exactly. Maybe I’m guilty of exaggeration.  And that was the point of Rutherford’s essay. When I make one of these exaggerated statements, what does the other person think of me?

For instance, the other night, I was at a party, standing there, holding my cocktail, in what was supposed to be a joyous place — and I was even wearing a Santa hat! But as I talked to someone I hadn’t seen in about a year I began to groan and grumble.  I don’t even remember what I said, but I must have been frowning, and it must have been god-awful depressing, replete with exaggeration, as I was, frankly, feeling overworked and tired. Before I knew it, my would-be friend said, “Well, I’m going to try out those deserts!”

Learn to recognize the grumbling before you express it

Learning to put a sock in it — to filter the flow — is not just a matter of zipping your lips. It’s about recognizing your emotions.

We all have moments when it’s obviously time to filter. Like when we’re so angry that our face turns red and our muscles tense.  But sometimes it’s not so obvious. Sometimes the lesser negative emotions sneak up on you, and those are the ones that tend to — at least for me — pull out a magician’s scarf of dirty and tattered, grayed grumblings. Emotions like:

  • Tedium
  • Fatigue
  • Irksomeness
  • Annoyance
  • Jadedness

Let the bellyaching subside

Sometimes when we have these cantankerous thoughts, we need to get them out. I think that’s why journaling is such a great idea. You do it privately, to get stuff off your chest; it’s therapeutic but something that stays — and should stay — private. 

Regardless, let the thoughts subside. Take a breather. Take a walk around the block. Until you’re ready to be levelheaded without exaggerating, bite your tongue.