How to Identify & Release Repressed Emotions — Talkspace

What Are Repressed Emotions?

Repressed feelings are those that are unconscious. They differ from suppressed emotions, which are feelings you intentionally avoid because you’re unsure of how to deal with them. When you suppress things, you know that you’re pushing them down.  

For instance, say you have a bad argument with your significant other tonight. You have an especially important business meeting to attend in the morning. So, you might choose to suppress how you’re feeling about the argument until you make it through that meeting when you have the time and energy to focus on your feelings more. This is an example of suppressing emotions.

Emotional suppression can be beneficial as a short-term solution, as long as you know it’s important to return and address what you’re avoiding as soon as possible.

On the other hand, repressed emotions are never processed. The problem with this is they don’t just go away. Instead, they’ll likely show up in the future — often in the form of possible psychological or physical symptoms.

Why do we repress our emotions?

Repressed emotion often stems from a distressed childhood. Perhaps as a child, you learned it was safer to avoid positive or negative emotions because that’s what your primary caregivers taught you to do. You may have learned to bury powerful and difficult emotions deep inside because you weren’t allowed to express them openly. As this behavior becomes a habit, you can become an expert at repressing your emotions, sometimes without even knowing what you’re doing.

If your parents or caregivers judged or criticized your emotional expressions, never talked about any positive or negative emotion they experienced, or failed to encourage you to express yourself, as an adult, you might feel out of touch with your emotions and unsure of how to express them in a healthy, productive way.

Most commonly repressed emotions

Most people tend to repress powerful and difficult emotions, especially those that are associated with unpleasant past experiences. We commonly repress what we fear others might consider as negative feelings like frustration, fear, sadness, disappointment, and anger. People don’t typically repress positive emotions like joy, love, and happiness.

Again, this could go back to childhood, especially if you were told things like:

  • You should be thankful for what you have
  • Stop being ungrateful
  • There’s no reason to be unhappy
  • Stop acting sad
  • You need to calm down

It’s important to point out that there’s a difference when statements like this are used occasionally to redirect or calm a child down. They generally only become detrimental when they’re used to stifle children’s natural emotional expression. When feelings aren’t honored or validated, it can teach children that their honest emotions aren’t of value. 

Even if your parents didn’t intentionally discount your emotions, it’s possible they may have inadvertently discouraged you from expressing yourself freely. As a result, you might have begun to consider disappointment, anger, sadness, and other strong emotions as being inappropriate ways for you to express yourself.

Additionally, if you continuously got reinforcement that it’s more appropriate to express positive emotions like happiness and joy, you might have learned it’s only OK to share the good (not negative) emotions. This learned behavior can easily carry over to adulthood.

“Sometimes we experience situations that are so troubling that our mind’s initial response is to protect us by repressing our emotional response. If you find yourself acting out of character, or saying or doing things that seem like surprising reactions, even for you, it could be time to talk to a licensed therapist or psychiatrist about what’s going on so you can work to get to the root of what’s causing this.”

Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD, C-DBT

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