Avoiding emotional pain through suppression and repression
It is normal to avoid showing our emotions from time to time. It would be difficult to get through everyday life if we always showed exactly what we were feeling. However, continuously pushing away our emotions and never letting our feelings out can lead to unhelpful behaviours or feelings of anxiety, without us even realising it.
What is suppression and repression?
Suppression is when we are aware of a feeling we are having that we don’t want to feel and make a conscious effort to push it away - we suppress it. Most of us would have suppressed our emotions at some point in our life. In fact, you probably do it on a regular basis. For example, perhaps you have had an argument with a loved one that has upset you just before you go into work. You push the upset feelings away because you don’t want to go into work for others to see you sad.
Repression on the other hand is about unconscious feelings – we are not aware of them. Repression occurs when we take uncomfortable or unacceptable thoughts and feelings out of our conscious mind altogether. We do this to stop us experiencing the painful feelings or anxiety that they bring. It is a psychological defence mechanism.
Repressed emotions are viewed as being linked to distressing experiences in early life. We repress memories that were unpleasant by forgetting them, as a way to protect ourselves. It is argued that having difficulty expressing your feelings as an adult could be a result of painful experiences from the past.
If as a child you were harshly discouraged from showing your feelings, such as being told to “stop crying” when you were sad, or your caregivers never showed their emotions, it is possible that as an adult, you would find it difficult to express emotions or even seem very disconnected from your feelings.
Does it matter if you have repressed or suppressed emotions?
Keeping emotions at bay sometimes is normal. However, continuously pushing emotions aside and not letting ourselves express how we feel can negatively impact on our lives. For example, it can make relationships difficult, as a person can find it difficult to really connect with others if they are out of touch with their own emotions. Someone who doesn’t express emotion can come across as being cold or make others feel like they are being dramatic when they show their feelings. Also, the feelings we repress or suppress don’t just go away. They can build up to a point where we start displaying destructive behaviours, or experience depression or anxiety.
What should you do if you struggle with expressing emotions?
Being able to express how we are feeling and let out our true emotions is important for positive mental health and wellbeing. Having a loved one, such as a close friend or family member, who you feel you can trust to express your emotions to, can be helpful. Speaking to a counsellor or other mental health professional, who will hold no judgement over your feelings and so can make you feel safe to express your emotions, can also be beneficial. There are other ways you can express your emotions though, without using spoken words, which some people may find difficult. Writing, painting or other forms of creativity can be really useful ways for people to express how they are feeling in a way that works for them.
It is important to realise that when we start to show the emotions that we have pushed away for a long time, it can raise feelings of distress and be uncomfortable. However, this uneasiness is only short term and will lessen once stability around the emotions has been gained. The long-term benefits of letting out what has been held in for so long, such as feeling more free, stable and in control, far outweigh any short-term distress.