Ask 10 people about their relationship with emotions and you’ll get 10 entirely different answers. Some will say they’re a source of connection with the world and those around them, while others will say they are a source of nothing but pain and are best ignored.
Both intuition and science show that the former group of people are the lucky, and increasingly rare, ones. Through no fault of our own, many of us learned from a young age to shut ourselves down, and not only because of overt traumatic experiences, whether acute or chronic. There are countless developmental hurdles that may have caused us to create the stubborn habit of not allowing what our bodies want us to feel—and this was a good thing, at the time.
While often unnecessary, not displaying our fear, sadness, hurt or anger to those in charge of looking after us was an effective perceived survival mechanism, especially if those feelings were because of something those people said or did. When this happens, our “fight-or-flight” sympathetic nervous system is activated. But we can obviously neither fight nor flee from those we rely on for survival, so what do we do? We freeze.
This all makes sense. Flash-forward to our adult lives, and we’re stuck with a habit that not only doesn’t serve us anymore but actively causes us suffering.
Programs deep in our unconscious minds
Emotional repression is the root of a lot more than we realize. This is because it is a program that runs deep in our unconscious minds. Through years of mindfulness work, we may cultivate awareness of these patterns, to a point of seeing them clearly when they arise and having some control over how we choose to react.
However, the problematic nature of patterns created during our formative years arises because they are stored in our bodies as much as they are stored in our minds. This brings forth another problem: mind-body incongruence. Emotions may interact with our minds, but via the unconscious, they are stored and felt in our bodies.
As we grow up, beyond the common struggle to be harmoniously in touch with our minds and bodies, our minds learn things infinitely faster and easier than our bodies. Many of us, even early in our childhood, are taught a ‘mantra’ that we don’t need to care what others think of us.
Some children and adults succeed in benefiting from these mantras through habitual routine reminders. Many, however, have deeply programmed beliefs that, through certain triggers, invalidate any and all mantras and make us always feel a certain way.
This creates inner confusion, as our two “systems”—our minds and our bodies—may be receiving opposing messages. Through years of well-intentioned positive thinking, our minds may tell us that we are perfectly OK, and whatever that person is saying or doing doesn’t really matter to us. Meanwhile, the deeply ingrained programming that is running through our bodies, and interfacing with our biology, is saying otherwise.
When we dig even deeper, emotional repression could be at the root of many addictions. Like our minds learning that someone’s insults are just words that we needn’t take seriously, those struggling with addiction may learn to map out their triggers in a way that gives them space between their urges and acting on them. Fortunately, many of these techniques can lead to acute mind-body unity, resulting in the complete dissolution of the trigger or urge.
However, when left unexamined, these cues point far beyond behavioural conditioning and operations exclusive to the mind. This is seen most clearly in the case of someone who, after seamlessly achieving a year of abstinence, relapses out of nowhere, acting out the exact same internal and external patterns as before their recovery.
Despite having a more balanced and joyful life, dozens of healthy coping strategies, and no interest in substance(s) or addictive behaviour at the mind level, their bodies react strongly and independently to whatever brought up their painful emotion. At the time, they may not have even been aware of what the emotion was, or that it was even there.
Back on the surface, emotional repression also robs us of joy and the experience of positive emotions. Apart from the survival utility of learning to suppress emotions, blocking our negative emotions aligns with another evolutionary principle: seek pleasure and avoid pain. Chronically numbing ourselves of our emotional experiences by using substances, behaviours, or even more subtle avoidance measures like compulsive thinking doesn’t just cancel out the bad. Similar to chemotherapy, emotional repression kills the capacity to feel good, along with the bad.
What can we do to fix this?
First, and most importantly, we must be compassionate and patient with ourselves. We may have spent years or decades shaming ourselves for acting or thinking in destructive or undesirable ways, without knowing why.
The why, however, is not something to be discovered quantitatively, with details and direct insightful memories. Rather, it proceeds through feeling what we never allowed ourselves to feel in the past. Just being aware that we have programs created in early childhood that are powerful drivers of not only our behaviours, but our personality traits themselves, is a tremendously important step.
For someone who has spent their entire life emotionally repressed, with the added aid of compulsive thinking to ensure I’m feeling as little as possible, journaling and meditation have proven to be miraculously beneficial for me. Daily meditation gives me a space to slow down my mind, connect to my body and spend some quality time with whatever emotions linger underneath. Negative emotions often do come up toward the end of a 10-minute session, and sometimes they linger, but this is an opportunity to use the even more powerful tool that is journaling.
A quick internet search will find you hundreds of journaling techniques. They are all extremely helpful, to some degree or another, because they help us in the same basic way therapy does: by releasing our trapped thoughts and emotions from the echo chamber of our minds. Simply writing what we’re feeling and thinking, one of which is often confused with the other, can provide tremendous relief.
Recovering from my repression, I’ve realized how bad I am at identifying and labelling my own emotions, and the journaling technique I’ve found the most helpful is to simply answer the question “What am I feeling right now?”
Compassion and patience are key. There is no right or wrong answer or skill level. Sometimes I have no idea what I am feeling. Instead of getting frustrated and doubting myself completely, I simply identify and validate this murkiness. Not feeling is a feeling, too. We can come to accept and honour our emotional repression as something that was once useful, but is no longer necessary.
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image 1 Gerd Altmann; image 2: kalhh; image 3: Dean Moriarty
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