Emotions are part of who we are; however, many of us have a difficult relationship with negative emotions.
We consider them uncomfortable and problematic. As a species, we are primed to avoid pain and suffering to ensure our survival.
Cue: enter ‘emotional repression.’
Emotional repression is all about avoiding emotional suffering. It is a coping style used to hide and push away negative emotions. Emotional repression can be thought of as a defense mechanism, where people defend themselves from the negatives and focus instead on the positive aspects of who they are (Garssen, 2007).
It differs from emotional suppression, which is a one-off act of avoiding negative emotions, rather than a habitual coping strategy (Garssen, 2007).
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Why Do People Repress Their Emotions?
Emotional repression can occur due to growing up in an environment where little or no room was given to experience and express emotions.
Societal narratives and family myths may have dictated that emotions are wrong, shameful, or a sign of weakness. We may have been raised by primary caregivers who never expressed or displayed negative emotions. They may have intentionally or unintentionally invalidated our negative emotions through messages such as ‘get on with it,’ ‘stop crying,’ ‘be grateful,’ and ‘don’t be silly; everything is fine.’
As children, we internalize the messages we hear and learn that having negative emotions and acknowledging them is not a good thing. Furthermore, not having someone model how to express and cope with emotions may lead to the development of coping strategies that focus on avoiding and inhibiting negative emotions. We may orient our attention more toward positive emotions that are acceptable and tolerated by others.
Traumatic childhood experiences may also result in emotional repression. A child whose needs were ignored, invalidated, or neglected or who was criticized or punished for displaying and expressing feelings may be more likely to repress their emotions as an adult.
Physical and Psychological Impact: Disorders Associated With Repressing Emotions
Just because a person represses negative emotions does not mean their emotions disappear.
Internally, they may have a raging fire of emotions, bringing on a range of psychological, physical, and social consequences.
Individuals who cannot view themselves as a whole, acknowledging both their positive and negative traits, may have an unrealistic view of themselves that hinders their ability to admit they have a problem and ask for help (Garssen, 2007). People who repress their emotions tend to focus on their physical health and seek physical health solutions for emotional health problems (Abbass, 2005).
Just like a physical wound may fester and become infected if left untreated, the accumulation of unaddressed emotions can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression. The increase in cortisol that comes with stress (Patel & Patel, 2019) can lead to changes in heart rate, motivation, and sleep (Cote, 2005).
Furthermore, as people who repress their emotions may struggle to cope, they may use unhealthy short-term coping strategies such as overeating, substance abuse, and medication noncompliance (Abbass, 2005). There are links between emotional repression and the development of physical health problems such as:
- Colds (Pennebaker, 1997)
- Chronic pain (Beutler, Engle, Oro-Beutler, Daldrup, & Meredith, 1986)
- Heart disease (Myers, 2010)
- A lowered immune system that can increase the risks of developing other health conditions such as cancer (Weihs, Enright, Simmens, & Reiss, 2000)
Emotional repression may also restrict people’s ability to connect intimately with others in their life because of insensitivity to negative emotions and difficulty tolerating negative emotions and being around others when they are emotionally suffering.
Simultaneously, it may be difficult for individuals to be authentic. They may resist opening up and being vulnerable to others, causing their relationships to be distant and avoidant.
Signs That You Might Be Repressing Your Emotions
There can be a range of signs that may indicate that you repress your emotions. These signs can be grouped into particular behaviors, ways of thinking, and ways of relating to yourself and others.
Patterns of thinking:
- You believe negative emotions are something bad, weak, or embarrassing.
- You believe negative emotions should not be expressed.
- You believe that you never struggle with negative emotions and describe yourself as feeling ‘fine.’
Patterns of behaving and relating to yourself:
- You ignore and push away negative thoughts and emotions.
- You avoid and distract from your negative thoughts and emotions by turning toward numbing and escaping behaviors such as drinking and using substances, binge eating, watching tv, playing computer games, or overworking.
- You find it difficult to recognize and admit that things in your life are harming you.
- You find yourself at times erupting because of built-up emotions.
- You focus more on your physical wellbeing.
Patterns of behaving and relating to others:
- You generally do not like to be asked how you feel.
- You put on a positive front in front of others and do not express negative emotions.
- You get along well with people but struggle with emotional intimacy and close friendships.
- You feel uncomfortable with and struggle to tolerate people who are emotional and express negativity, and you try to shift focus to the positive.
10 Ways to Cope With Negative Emotions Without Repressing Them
If you recognize that you are someone who represses your emotions, then you have already taken a crucial first step as emotional repression is typically a semi-conscious or unconscious coping strategy (Garssen, 2007).
You can now start to ask yourself whether emotional repression is still serving you in your life.
You cannot get rid of negative emotions; however, you can learn how to cope with them without repressing them. This entails a process of courageously leaning in toward uncomfortable feelings and learning how to live with them.
Here are 10 ideas to get you started.
1. Understanding how you relate to your emotions
What is your relationship with your emotions? It is important to take the time to reflect on this because what you think about negative emotions will influence how you feel about them and how you behave and respond to them.
For instance, if you think that negative emotions are an inconvenience and a sign of weakness, you may feel frustrated when you or others experience them, leading you to push them away. This can become automatic and habitual, so it can help break a habit by noticing and identifying when these patterns are occurring.
2. Educating yourself about emotions
What is the point of having emotions? What are the different positive and negative emotions designed for? The Pixar movie ‘Inside Out’ is a fantastic illustration of this and a fun and gentle introduction to thinking about the function of different emotions in their own right. This can help challenge the harmful myths about emotions and indicate that they are important, useful, and not threatening.
3. Understanding how emotions show up in your body
To cope with emotions, you need to understand how emotions manifest in your body. Different emotions show up differently in your body, and this varies from person to person. For example, for one person, anxiety may feel like a tight sensation in their chest, sadness may feel like a pit in their stomach, and anger may feel like a hot and throbbing sensation in their head.
You can better get to know the relationship between your emotions and body by paying attention to how your body changes when you feel a particular emotion.
4. Learning the triggers to your emotions
Being in touch with our bodies can help us detect our emotions sooner and identify what may have triggered them.
Understanding the triggers can equip us to be prepared for particular emotions to show up and enable us to manage them more effectively. For example, if I know that speaking in a meeting typically makes me feel anxious, I can take a few moments to calm my anxiety by taking 10 deep breaths.
5. Learning how to live with your emotions
Trying to get rid of negative emotions is a futile exercise because we cannot control them.
When we try to push away our negative emotions, it is like trying to push a ball underwater. The ball pops back up. Instead of fighting to make the ball go away, we can let the ball float in the water around us.
Similarly, instead of using up our energy to make our negative emotions go away, we can change our relationship with our emotions by letting them be in our lives. If we don’t push our emotions away, they won’t push back, and we can live with them more easily.
6. Acknowledging your emotions
It can be helpful to learn how to acknowledge and validate your emotions. You can do this by naming them (e.g., ‘here is anger’; ‘anxiety is back’), without judging yourself or giving yourself a hard time for experiencing them.
Acknowledging your negative emotions will not make them worse or intensify. Just like clouds in the sky and waves in the ocean, emotions are not permanent. They come and go.
Acknowledging them just means that you are accepting yourself more fully, with all your emotional peaks and troughs.
7. Sitting with your emotions
Sitting with negative emotions means being with them when they show up by observing them and focusing your attention inward on the body’s sensations. For example, you may focus on the butterflies in your stomach when you start to feel anxious.
As you notice the butterflies, you can imagine expanding your body to make room for them (the butterflies/anxiety).
Sitting with negative emotions is not about changing or fixing them; instead, it is about learning that we can tolerate them, and they do not have to overwhelm us in the process.
8. Understanding what your emotions are communicating
When you experience a negative emotion, it can help to tune in to the message it is trying to give you. You can ask yourself these questions with gentleness and curiosity:
- What triggered my emotion?
- What is this emotion trying to communicate to me?
- What does this emotion suggest I need right now?
Asking emotion regulation questions can help you pause and understand what your mind and body are telling you.
Simultaneously, it is vital to interpret these messages with caution. We instinctively survive and avoid hardship, so our negative emotions are hard wired to point out danger.
Therefore, emotions can become triggered even when there is no actual problem – like a smoke alarm that goes off when we are cooking a meal and not because there is a fire. Being aware of this can stop you from impulsively reacting and instead help you choose what action will be most helpful in the moment.
9. Choosing a helpful action
Once you understand the message, you can then choose whether you need to take action and, if you do, what action will be helpful to yourself and others.
The action will vary based on the circumstances and may include:
- Finding a solution to the problem and acting on it
- Tolerating the emotion until it passes if it is a false alarm
- Being kind to yourself
- Soothing your body through breathing
- Participating fully in the activity you are doing, such as cooking, playing with your child, or exercising
Your successes and failures in managing your negative emotions can be valuable lessons that can further develop your emotional literacy, sensitivity to your own and others’ emotions, and your sense of empowerment in coping with them.
Learning how to cope with negative emotions is not easy. You have had a lifetime of perfecting an avoidance coping strategy, and it will take effort to learn a different way to cope.
Like learning any other skill such as playing the piano, speaking a new language, and driving a car, it can be painful and uncomfortable, and it takes courage, commitment, perseverance, and learning from your errors. However, it becomes easier with time and can become automatic and a part of who you are.
3 Valuable Exercises
1. Notice and name your emotions
When you notice a change in how you feel, you can use these moments to pause and name the emotion that has been triggered. Imagine you are on a balcony observing cars come and go. Just as you may name the different car models as they pass, you can start to practice observing your emotions from a distance as they come and name them.
This can help you bring clarity to your emotional world, which can often be confusing and messy. Learning mindfulness techniques can be fundamental in helping you develop the skills to pay attention to what you are experiencing in the present moment without judging or getting upset with yourself and your emotions.
When our emotions are triggered, our body changes, and often our breathing changes with it. For example, if you are angry, your breathing can become faster and shallow. This change in the body sends the brain a message that ‘something is wrong, and you need to do something about it.’
It can be hard to think in a moment of intense emotion, and instead, we can intentionally shift our focus from our thoughts to our bodies. You can purposely use your breath to calm down your body, helping to calm your thoughts.
You can start with a simple practice of breathing in for a count of four, holding it for one second, breathing out for a count of four, holding it for one second, and starting again. Using the breath can be a powerful and convenient tool as our breath is always with us.
3. Express your emotions with yourself and others
Taking a moment to check in with how you are feeling and expressing yourself can be healthy. This may prevent emotions from building up over time if they are left unaddressed.
Journaling, drawing, and painting can all be effective means of emotional expression. You may also choose to express your emotions with people in your life whom you trust and feel safe with.
This can allow you to become more comfortable expressing emotions with yourself and with others. In turn, this may enable others to feel more comfortable opening up to you, which can enrich the quality and intimacy of your relationships.
While it is possible to learn how to cope with negative emotions, it may be challenging to do it alone, particularly if you learned to repress your emotions in the context of unresolved and challenging life experiences.
Therefore, it is important and healthy to ask for help from a mental health professional like a psychologist or psychotherapist who can work with you to start to talk about your emotions, make sense of your experiences, and learn more-effective coping strategies to manage your emotions.
A Take-Home Message
If you are a human being, you will experience positive and negative emotions throughout your life; that is the deal that comes with being human.
The bottom line is that emotions are not our enemy. We need them, and they help us survive. Our interpretation and perception of emotions as bad and wrong are the problem, together with not having the right tools to cope.
It may not be our fault that we were never taught these skills, but it is our responsibility to learn this now. By deciding to learn how to cope with our emotions, we offer ourselves an invaluable and lifelong gift.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free. If you wish to learn more, our Emotional Intelligence Masterclass© is a six-module emotional intelligence training package for practitioners that contains all the materials you’ll need to become an emotional intelligence expert, helping your clients harness their emotions and cultivate emotional connection in their lives.
- Abbass, A. (2005). The case for specialty-specific core curriculum on emotions and health. Royal College Outlook, 1(4), 5–7.
- Beutler, L. E., Engle, D., Oro-Beutler, M. E., Daldrup, R., & Meredith, K. (1986). Inability to express intense affect: A common link between depression and pain? Journal of Consulting Clinical Psychology, 54, 752–759.
- Cote, S. (2005). A social interaction model of the effects of emotion regulation on work strain. Academy of Management Review, 30, 509–530.
- Garssen, B. (2007). Repression: Finding our way in the maze of concepts. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 30(6), 471–481.
- Myers, L. B. (2010). The importance of the repressive coping style: Findings from 30 years of research. Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 23(1), 3–17.
- Patel, J., & Patel, P. (2019). Consequences of repression of emotion: Physical health, mental health and general well being. International Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research, 1(3), 16–21.
- Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Opening up: The healing power of expressing emotions (Rev. ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
- Weihs, K. L., Enright, T. M., Simmens, S. J., & Reiss, D. (2000). Negative affectivity, restriction of emotions, and site of metastases predict mortality in recurrent breast cancer. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 49, 59–68.