Although we may colloquially use the terms “repressed” and “suppressed” interchangeably, when it comes to emotions they have two separate meanings, thanks to Freud. So what’s the difference? The short answer is that suppressing an emotion is something we do consciously, and repression is something that occurs below our conscious awareness.
Freud used the term “repression” to describe a defense mechanism that we use to avoid guilt and shame. It is as though we have determined that feeling or thinking something would be so overwhelming, painful, or wrong that we don’t even let it into our conscious awareness. Repressed emotions do not disappear, and usually end up causing distress in some way.
Let’s take sadness as an example. Say you were given the message as a child that being sad is the equivalent to being wrong. Perhaps when you were sad, people told you to “stop being pathetic” or “you have nothing to be sad about” or maybe there was so much stress in your household that getting attention for your sadness wasn’t an option. In order to survive in your household, you may have begun to avoid both feeling and expressing sadness at all costs. Eventually this emotion became “repressed,” so that on a very unconscious or automatic level, it was something you didn’t dare let up to the surface of awareness, for fear of being rejected by the world around you.
However, where does that repressed emotion go? It surely does not disappear – that would be way too easy! Much the same as trying to ignore physical pain, the pain will likely continue impact your experience despite forcibly denying its existence. With emotional repression, you may find that you start to have symptoms of depression or anxiety, find it difficult to enjoy simple pleasures, or feel disconnected from other people. You may not relate these symptoms to a repressed thoughts and emotions and instead blame them on something else – but a reservoir of unfelt and unexpressed sadness could also lie at the root of your symptoms.
Although suppression also involves us pushing away emotions, suppression is a more active and conscious process. This is a strategy that we use often, in fact – say you are at work and someone texts you some bad news. Perhaps this news is jarring and brings up some sadness or frustration, but you need to get through your workday and focus on the task at hand. You may choose to “suppress” your emotion while you are at work.
The only problem with suppressing an emotion is that, like repressed emotions, they do not disappear just by our act of avoiding them. We may get home from work and then jump into our next evening activity (cooking dinner, watching TV, going to the gym, etc.) and essentially, we continue to distract from, avoid, and suppress that memory or thought day after day. Even though suppressing an emotion temporarily may be skillful, we will not be free of distress until we fully face and process the emotion or experience.
How can therapy help?
Emotions are normal human responses to events, both inner events (like thoughts, beliefs, or body sensations) and outer events (what someone else says or does or anything else in our external environment). Sometimes we are scared of how emotions or thoughts might impact us, and so we repress or suppress them. As was mentioned, the only problem in doing this is that emotions don’t go away by us ignoring them – and now we have something inside of us that we are trying to avoid. It’s a recipe for discomfort and the need for distraction.
Therapy is a place where you can safely explore your emotional landscape. A therapist is a non-judgmental figure who can be a witness to your experience. Therapists can also provide tools for increasing your capacity to explore difficult emotions. It can be scary to be vulnerable and share our thoughts, feelings and beliefs. In therapy, your emotional expression is valued, and you can learn to safely explore feelings that you might be rejecting on a conscious or unconscious level.
It takes energy to repress and suppress an emotion or thought. The ultimate goal is to increase our capacity to be with and respond to difficult emotions so that we can put that energy towards achieving our goals rather than avoiding our fears.
- Nina Tomkiewicz, LCSW
- To schedule an initial appointment with Nina, click here!
Heather Berlin and Christof Koch. April 1, 2009. Neuroscience Meets Psychoanalysis. Scientific American. Accessed on September 7, 2021. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/neuroscience-meets- psychoanalysis/#:~:text=Suppression%20is%20the%20voluntary%20form,and%20desires%20out%20of%20awareness.&text=Or%20a%20suppressed%20sexual%20desire,or%20slip%20of%20the%20tongue.
Cherry, Kendra. April 25th, 2021. Repression as a Defense Mechanism. Verywell Mind. Accessed on September 7, 2021. https://www.verywellmind.com/repression-as-a-defense-mechanism-4586642