Repression Won’t Save you From Your Feelings

Written By Jor-El Caraballo

Recently I was watching old episodes of a TV show called Single Parents. It’s a half hour sitcom that follows single parents as they navigate caring for their young children. It’s a funny, light show for sure, but I was struck by something one of the characters said when talking about (not) dealing with his feelings. He (Douglas) has a three step model of dealing with feelings: 1) repress, 2) replace, and 3) move on.

Yikes.

What is repression?

Repression is essentially the process by which we refuse to acknowledge our thoughts and feelings. There isn’t consensus on whether this is entirely a conscious or unconscious process, but I tend to view repression as pretty automatic.

Repression is a somewhat natural, and helpful psychological process. It helps us protect even ourselves from very difficult thoughts and feelings that seem overwhelming. In this way, it gives us time and space to shore up our resilience in order to resolve or address the concern in the future. It can help us put those negative emotions away, but hopefully only temporarily.

And here’s the tricky thing about emotions, no matter how we deal (or don’t deal) with them, it doesn’t mean that they cease to exist. These feelings stay with us until we give them the necessary time and attention. How much of that time, or space, is necessary? That’s one of the mysteries of psychology. I’m a therapist and I haven’t come up with a good answer to this question – maybe there isn’t one. As each person, and their relationship to their feelings, is different it’s almost impossible to predict when we might be able to be “done’“ with a certain feeling. But, also why do we have to be?!

Here’s the good news…

The good news is that we have our bodies, and our minds, as these incredibly powerful sources of data for us. Thoughts can key us into things that we may be struggling with but not consciously acknowledging. Sometimes we also somaticize feelings in our bodies – meaning that a corresponding sensation in our bodies can provide us with information about things that we aren’t consciously dealing with. Feelings like anger and anxiety, as well as other emotions have been found to cause inflammation in the body – leaving the body in a consistent state of stress. We might subjectively experience this as “uneasiness” in our bodies. It’s also relatively common to experience exacerbation of old injuries and chronic pains when experiencing high stress levels. Back injuries, for example, often exacerbate when paired with new life stressors even if there has been no new physical injury.

Our bodies can help us check-in. Repression will keep us stuck in our pain, only for it to pop up when we least expect it.

So what do you do about this?

Make time to check-in and be proactive

Ideally we all would proactively take time in our days (or week) to sit down, pause, and reflect. Some people do this by journaling or morning pages. But, if you find that to be too daunting then you can also try to pay closer attention to what your body might be telling you. Feeling tension in your shoulders? Perhaps you’re worried about something. Tension headaches? Maybe you’ve been in a constant state of stress for the past week about a work or school project. Stomach upset? Maybe it’s something you ate or maybe you’re feeling unsettled and unsafe. These are just a few examples of common ways feelings show up in the body.

No matter how you individually might experience and manifest your feelings, it’s important to have a system that helps you check in with yourself regularly. Otherwise, repression is running the show and you have less control over when and how these feelings come to light.

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