Conditions

Understanding Repression and How it Differs from Suppression

Emotions are an integral part of the human experience. They shape our perceptions, decisions, and interactions with the world. Sometimes, however, our minds choose to block out certain emotions and memories altogether as a method of self-defense. This phenomenon is known as emotional repression.  Repression, a psychological defense mechanism first identified by Sigmund Freud, involves […]

isbell oliva garcia grow therapy By Isbell Oliva-Garcia, LMHC
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Published on Mar 06, 2024

Updated on Mar 06, 2024

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Emotions are an integral part of the human experience. They shape our perceptions, decisions, and interactions with the world. Sometimes, however, our minds choose to block out certain emotions and memories altogether as a method of self-defense. This phenomenon is known as emotional repression. 

Repression, a psychological defense mechanism first identified by Sigmund Freud, involves the unconscious blocking of emotions and memories deemed too painful or distressing to confront directly. Although they are stored in the hidden corners of our psyche, these emotions can still profoundly impact our mental and physical well-being.

What are Repressed Emotions?

Repressed emotions refer to feelings and thoughts unconsciously pushed out of a person’s awareness. These emotions are often too painful, distressing, or socially unacceptable to confront consciously. When people repress their emotions, they push them down into their subconscious mind, effectively burying them to avoid the discomfort or distress associated with these feelings.

Repressed emotions can result from various life experiences, such as trauma, childhood adversity, or societal expectations that discourage the expression of certain emotions. Common examples of repressed emotions include anger, fear, sadness, guilt, and shame. These emotions are typically hidden from the person’s conscious awareness but continue influencing thoughts, behaviors, and emotional well-being.

Repression can have both short-term and long-term consequences. In the short term, it may provide a temporary sense of relief from distressing emotions. However, long-term, repressed emotions can lead to psychological and physical health issues. They may manifest as anxiety, depression, psychosomatic symptoms, or interpersonal difficulties.

Repression vs. Suppression

Suppression and repression are two distinct psychological processes used to manage emotions, each with its own characteristics and implications.

Repression

Repression is an unconscious psychological mechanism where emotions, memories, or thoughts are blocked from entering conscious awareness. It typically occurs as a defense mechanism to protect the person from distressing or traumatic experiences. 

Unlike suppression, repression operates outside of conscious control, and people may not even be aware that they are repressing certain emotions or memories. Repressed emotions can remain buried for an extended period, impacting mental and emotional well-being in subtle and complex ways. 

Over time, repressed emotions can contribute to various psychological and physical issues, often requiring therapeutic intervention to bring them into awareness and process them.

Suppression

Conversely, suppression is a conscious and deliberate effort to ignore, control, or push away certain emotions or thoughts. It involves the individual actively choosing not to dwell on or express particular feelings, often for reasons such as social appropriateness or the desire to maintain emotional composure. 

Suppression allows people to set aside their emotions temporarily, but does not necessarily eliminate them. These emotions may resurface later when the person is more prepared to deal with them. 

While suppression can be a helpful coping strategy in some situations, it may lead to emotional bottling and eventual emotional outbursts or psychological stress if overused.

Why Does Repression Occur? 

Repression occurs for several reasons, primarily as a psychological defense mechanism to cope with trauma or overwhelming emotions. Here are a few reasons why someone might experience repression:

Trauma: Repression often arises as a response to traumatic experiences. When people encounter events that are too distressing or painful to handle, often during their childhood, their minds may automatically repress the associated emotions, memories, or thoughts. This serves as a protective measure to shield the person from immediate psychological distress.

Overwhelming Emotions: Repression can also occur in response to intense and overwhelming emotions that people may find difficult to process. When someone experiences extreme guilt, shame, or fear, they may unconsciously repress these feelings to maintain emotional stability and functioning.

Social or Cultural Conditioning: Societal and cultural norms can contribute to the repression of certain emotions. Some societies discourage the expression of specific feelings, labeling them as unacceptable or weak. For example, men in certain cultures may be conditioned to repress emotions like sadness or vulnerability to conform to traditional masculine ideals. Similarly, people may repress anger or frustration due to societal expectations of politeness and conformity.

Lack of Coping Skills: People who lack effective coping strategies may resort to repression to manage their emotions when they feel overwhelmed. Repression can offer a temporary escape from distressing emotions, although it may not be a healthy or sustainable long-term solution.

Signs of Repression and Suppression 

The signs of repression and suppression can manifest in various ways, affecting both mental and physical well-being. 

Signs of Repression

Common signs of repressed emotions include: 

Signs of Suppression

Common signs of suppressed emotions include:

It’s important to note that repression and suppression can adversely affect mental and physical health if left unaddressed. These defense mechanisms may temporarily relieve distressing emotions but can lead to long-term consequences, including increased psychological distress, relationship problems, and physical health issues.

Recognizing these signs is a crucial step toward addressing repressed or suppressed emotions. 

How to Deal with Repression and Suppression

While challenging, thankfully, we can all learn to overcome repression and suppression. Below are some key practices for doing exactly that.

Journalling

Journaling is a valuable self-help practice for releasing and processing your emotions. Writing in a journal creates a safe and private space to express your thoughts and feelings honestly. This practice can help you clarify your emotions, identify patterns, and work through complex feelings.

Mindfulness and Meditation to Increase Emotional Awareness

Mindfulness and meditation are powerful techniques to enhance your emotional awareness. These practices encourage you to observe your emotions without judgment, allowing you to acknowledge and accept them. As a result, you can better understand and manage your emotions, reducing their intensity and impact on your well-being.

Engaging in Creative Outlets

Engaging in creative outlets like art, music, or dance provides a constructive way to express your emotions. These forms of expression allow you to channel your feelings into tangible and often beautiful creations. You don’t need to be a professional artist to benefit; the act of creating is what matters, offering a sense of release and catharsis.

Seek Professional Support

Sometimes, self-help practices may not be sufficient, and you may benefit from seeking professional support.

Consult a Therapist or Counselor: A therapist or counselor can provide guidance and support in processing repressed emotions. Techniques such as talk therapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you uncover and address the underlying issues contributing to emotional repression.

Online Therapy Platforms: Online therapy platforms offer convenient access to professional help from the comfort of your home. Online therapists are trained to assist people in addressing repressed emotions and provide the same level of support as in-person sessions. This accessible option ensures you can receive the assistance you need, regardless of location or schedule.

Help is Available

One truth stands clear in the pursuit of optimal mental well-being: recognizing and addressing repressed emotions is crucial. These concealed feelings, often buried deep within our minds, can profoundly impact our emotional health and overall life satisfaction. By acknowledging the existence of repressed emotions and distinguishing them from their consciously suppressed counterparts, we can begin the process of healing. 

Recognizing the subtle signs of repressed emotions — be it through unexplained physical symptoms, mood swings, or challenges in forming meaningful relationships — grants us the power to address these hidden layers of ourselves. And, over time, it enables us to become more at peace with our past and present realities.

FAQs

  • Repression and suppression are defense mechanisms that involve pushing down or inhibiting emotions and thoughts, but they differ in conscious awareness and control. Here are examples of each to illustrate the distinction: Repression: Someone completely forgets a traumatic childhood event, only to recall it years later during therapy. Suppression: A person consciously hides their anger toward their boss, maintaining a calm demeanor during meetings to avoid conflict.

  • The key difference between "repress" and "suppress" lies in the level of awareness and control involved in managing emotions or thoughts: Repress: Repression is an unconscious process where emotions or memories are pushed out of awareness. People may not even be aware that they are repressing something. It often happens as a defense mechanism to protect oneself from distressing or traumatic experiences. These repressed emotions or memories can resurface later, sometimes unexpectedly, and may influence behavior and emotions without the person’s conscious awareness. Suppress: Suppression, on the other hand, is a conscious and deliberate effort to control or inhibit emotions, thoughts, or reactions. When someone suppresses their feelings, they are aware of these emotions but choose not to express or confront them at that moment. It's often done to maintain composure, conform to social norms, or avoid immediate conflict. Suppressed emotions are still within conscious awareness and can be brought to the surface when desired or needed.

About the author
isbell oliva garcia grow therapy Isbell Oliva-Garcia, LMHC

Isbell Oliva-Garcia is a licensed mental health counselor, bilingual in English and Spanish. Isbell specializes in treating individuals with depression, anxiety, and issues during difficult life transitions.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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