Suppressing emotions is one of the most common strategies for responding to emotions. There are many reasons why someone suppresses their emotions and there are many ways that emotions can be suppressed. This article outlines what these are and examines the research evidence on the effects and impact of suppressing emotions can have before giving details about what you can do to live a healthier and more satisfying and fulfilling life.
Firstly, let’s define what we mean by suppressing emotions.
Suppressing emotions is a strategy that can be used to make uncomfortable or overwhelming feelings more manageable. It involves inhibiting expressive actions associated with the feelings and trying not to think certain things by diverting or distracting the mind’s attention from particular thoughts. Suppression of emotions can have harmful effects on the person from affecting behaviour, having intrusive thoughts and impulsive behaviour, feeling depressed, to an increased risk of illness and death.
Not only have I been studying emotions for well over a decade, I can personally attest to the problems that suppressing emotions can have. If I had been better at identifying how and why I was suppressing my emotions and what I could do about it, I probably wouldn’t have stayed in relationships that were really bad for me or ended up the other side of the world married to someone who wanted very different things from life than I did!
This article gives you everything you need to know about why we don’t always express our emotions in healthy ways, how emotions can be suppressed, how you can identify if you are suppressing your emotions, what the research says about how suppressing emotions harms you, and what you can do about it.
Why don’t we always express our emotions in healthy ways?
All humans feel. How they feel may be different across cultures and individuals, but it is as natural to feel as it is to digest food. So if it is so natural, why do we express what and how we feel in so many different ways and in many cases in ways that can harm ourselves and relationships?
Emotions are complex experiences. They involve our memories, thoughts, feelings, imaginations, interpretations, social conditioning, and cultural expectations and ways of understanding.
We do not get any education in emotions as adults and so whether we express these in healthy ways is left to chance, biology, and social learning. You may be in luck and have parents, peers, and teachers who can help along the way. But most of us weren’t and aren’t.
Once we have a set of ideas, standards, and expectations that we have developed, we interpret how we feel through those perspectives. So we can end up having feelings about feelings. For example, you can feel ashamed of feeling shame if you believe that feeling shame is bad and wrong or would be condemned by others if they knew.
Our feelings can be intense, intrusive, and sometimes enduring. Our natural starting point is to be comfortable. A baby cries because it is hungry, tired, too cold, too hot, it is hurt, scared, or has a dirty nappy. A baby wants to be comforted, physically and emotionally, and that never really goes away – it is the needs that change.
So when we feel uncomfortable without knowledge, skills, and a framework to understand those feelings, what to do with them, and how to deal with them, we try to return to being comfortable as best we can. So we do not all learn to know what healthy emotional expression is and how to do it even if we did.
We can repress emotions, suppress emotions, express emotions in healthy ways, overexpress emotions, or act emotions out. You can find out what your dominant pattern is by taking this quiz and you will get a report about what your result means for you.
How can emotions be suppressed?
An emotional experience (see this post for a discussion on what emotions are) consists of many factors, such as the bodily sensation from physiological reactions and responses, conscious and unconscious thoughts, bodily movements and actions, the relationship the experience takes place in, the social context, and the cultural perspectives.
To suppress an emotion, a person can try to change or alter any one of these components. So changing what my body feels, changing what I am thinking or focusing on, changing what I am doing, changing the context, altering the relationship, etc. can all be used to suppress how I feel.
Suppressing emotions is the process by which any action is taken that changes or alters the emotional experience so that it is felt less intensely, for less time, or is easier to cope with.
Does suppressing emotions work? There are some instances where we can suppress emotions effectively. Arlie Hochschild’s seminal research looked at air hostesses and how they suppressed their emotions to make the passengers feel comfortable while flying. This form of emotion work showed that suppressing emotions can work. Indeed, we have all engaged in some form of suppressing emotions at some point, such as trying not to upset someone.
But James Gross, who is the most prominent academic researcher in the field, says that it is very difficult to suppress more complex feelings. It is one thing to suppress our annoyance to a stranger on a plane and quite another to suppress our annoyance with our partners. But that doesn’t stop us trying! What happens is that as we start to feel something that we struggle with, we try to change how we feel, which only makes us feel other things we feel uncomfortable with, which means we then have to try harder to suppress those feelings. It can be a vicious cycle. So in many instances it does not work. Or at least it creates more problems than it solves.
My dominant pattern has been to suppress my emotions and it has caused me no end of problems. When I was in my mid-twenties there was an attractive woman at my work who was interested in me but I got a feeling that something wasn’t right. But I told myself that I couldn’t trust my feelings, that I didn’t really know anything about her, that I could always walk away whenever I wanted. I pushed the uncomfortable feelings down so I didn’t get into conflict with myself or her. I ended up in a relationship with her and she was psychologically abusive towards me and I struggled to get out and it caused a lot of pain and hurt for a long time, even after it ended. If I had listened to how I really felt I have no doubt the situation would have been very different. So suppressing emotions has real consequences.
Is emotional suppression the same as repressing emotions? No. Emotional repression is mainly an unconscious process that prevents the person feeling certain things. Emotional suppression almost always has a conscious component. But there is a complex relationship between the two.
Do I always know if I am suppressing my emotions? No. While there is a conscious component to suppressing emotions, it does not always mean you know what it is that is being suppressed or why. It is that you know you feel uncomfortable and that you are trying to make yourself feel better, even if that just means feeling less bad.
So you may have deep seated fears or a sense of shame that you are rarely if ever consciously aware of (repressed emotions). If these start to surface because of a conversation you are having you can start to feel uncomfortable but you may not know why. So you can engage in suppressing uncomfortable feelings by changing the conversation or disengaging from the interaction (suppressing emotions). That fear or shame has been pushed away without the person feeling them, but it was a conscious process to achieve that.
Why does a person develop a pattern of suppressing emotions?
People develop patterns of suppressing emotions because expressing them in healthy ways wasn’t valued or wanted when they were growing up and so a person never learns why they should or how to do it.
For example, a person may have grown up in a household where their parents or carers felt uncomfortable around others expressing their emotions. Because of their own upbringing and personal experiences, some people do not like the expressive nature of children’s play, excitement, or upset. Such displays of emotion can then be punished directly (such as telling them off or worse) or indirectly (such as withdrawing affection and attention).
Growing up in households that do not respect the worth of children and take their experiences seriously run the risk of the child coming to the conclusion that suppressing is the only way to get on in life without being ridiculed and rejected.
The result of both of these scenarios are lessons in suppressing emotions to get your needs met.
Equally, as we develop a sense of self and ideas about who we are and who we want to be, we hold certain standards and ideals for ourselves. Feeling certain things can then be threatening to those standards and ideals so we may want to suppress them to keep our sense of self in tact.
For example, Brene Brown, an emotions researcher, says that men are conditioned by society to have a core belief that they must not be weak. This core belief about the self then has a strong influence on how they feel and what they do about their feelings. If a man who holds that standard does feel weak, which is inevitable because it is a human experience and men are human!, then they may feel ashamed of feeling weak and seek to suppress this so they don’t feel it or at least not let others know they are feeling it.
This is a lesson in suppressing emotions to reduce a threat to their identity and maintain their self-esteem.
How do I know if I am suppressing my emotions?
You can know if you are suppressing your emotions by looking at your thoughts and behaviours.
How do you act when you feel uncomfortable, when you feel upset, when you feel angry, when you feel afraid, or when you feel ashamed or guilty?
If you are not communicating how you feel, if you are keeping things to yourself, if you are trying to make an uncomfortable situation ok in your head, if you are doing things to not feel uncomfortable like being around people, drinking, smoking, taking drugs, seeking excitement and thrills, reading, watching TV, getting overly involved in other people’s issues – anything to disconnect from your body in the present – then these are sure signs you are suppressing your feelings.
So here are some ways people try to suppress their emotions. Have a look and see if you recognise any of these for yourself?
- Telling yourself you feel something positive when you feel something uncomfortable
- Thinking of positive memories when feeling uncomfortable or upset
- Using meditation or other calming techniques as a way to manage intrusive feelings
- Drinking alcohol, smoking, taking painkillers, or using drugs when upset
- Spending time with others because you don’t want to be alone
- Constantly seeking excitement in activities or in relationships
- Blaming others for things they aren’t responsible for
What the research says about how suppressing emotions harms you
While there may be some logic to this strategy in some cases, in most it is a reaction in the moment to thoughts and feelings that seem intrusive or unwanted. But there are consequences to using such a strategy.
Here are a list of outcomes associated with emotional suppression taken from the research evidence (with links for the research if you are interested to have a look at the primary source):
- Emotional suppression is linked to the person receiving lower levels of support from friends and family, feeling less close to others, and feeling less satisfied with their social relationships and interactions (source)
- Emotional suppression is linked to people becoming more aggressive after they have to suppress or control their emotions (source)
- Emotion suppression is linked to earlier death, including death from cancer (source)
- Emotional suppression is linked to feeling depressed (source)
- Emotional suppression is linked to poorer quality communication with others, having less rapport with others, and finding it more difficult to form friendships (source)
- Emotional suppression is linked with the person seeking to protect themselves and what they want and feeling negative in some way while doing it. It is also linked the person being less responsive to others during face-to-face interaction, having negative perceptions of others and behaving in a hostile manner (source)
To summarise the literature, suppressing your emotions is linked to serious health issues, being worse at understanding what others want, need, and mean, understanding how best to communicate, act, and support others, and feeling bad and acting inappropriately. You suffer. Others suffer around you. And consequently, your relationships and friendships suffer.
It means you are not engaged with the world, experiencing all the joy, excitement, and fulfilment that the world has to offer. You aren’t present in the moment as you end up in your head and body trying to fight the thoughts and feelings that you don’t want to be there. You are keeping yourself small and safe, away from risks of feeling things that aren’t wanted. But the irony is that this only makes things worse.
What can I do to stop suppressing my emotions?
The aim is – or it should be – to express your emotions in a healthy way. This means being able to understand how you feel, communicate how you feel, take ownership of how you feel, hold people to account if they have overstepped a boundary, and ask for what you need. If you suppress your emotions all or some of this may be very difficult to do.
There are some core components to stopping yourself from suppressing emotions and being able to express them in healthy ways instead.
It is one thing to be able to identify that you have a tendency to suppress emotions. It is quite another to be able to identify it in the moment and seek to stop that suppression.
You need to be in tune to how you feel. This means being more connected to your body by sensing what your body is feeling in the moment and knowing what these sensations mean. If you hold tension in your jaw, neck, or hands, when feeling stressed, for example, you have to feel that tension in your body and know that is a signal to you that you are feeling stressed.
You need to be able to understand what your feelings mean. You may have identified that you are feeling something but your feelings aren’t true – they aren’t false either – but they don’t tell you what is going on in any factual way. You may be angry at someone but it doesn’t necessarily mean they have done anything wrong, it could be you! Your emotions are just information that needs to be interpreted.
You need to understand yourself. If you are going to interpret your feelings in any moment you need to know what you bring to the moment. You have a history of experiences and ways of seeing the world. Many of these experiences, memories, thoughts, feelings about how you feel, etc. operate on an unconscious level. Your thoughts and feelings in the moment are the tip of the ice-berg. You have to have spent time understanding your history, your relationships, your experiences, and who you are to really know what you are feeling and why.
You need to know how to handle your feelings and what to do about them. Feelings can be overwhelming and it can be difficult to know what to do about them and how to do it. Developing the skills and knowledge to know what to do is a core component of stopping yourself from suppressing your emotions. Learning from others, practising by allowing yourself to feel, getting advice and support from others who know how to do it are all important.
You need to learn and develop language for your feelings. You cannot really understand how you feel yourself without putting language to those feelings and you cannot communicate them to others in ways they can understand without emotional language. It takes time and practice to learn a new language but you can become fluent and then innovate with that language once learnt.
Finally, you need to anchor your feelings in your core values and ideals. We all have a core sense of who we are. We call this our true self or our core identity. These are the sets of values and ideals that we want to live up to. When we do live up to them we feel honest and authentic as a person. To know what we feel about our feelings, what to do about our feelings, how to communicate about our feelings, to know if someone has crossed a boundary with us, and to know what we need in light of our feelings, we need to hold our core values and ideals at the heart of the understanding, interpreting, and communicating process. We can use our core values and how we feel together to provide a powerful way to connect with others and make our lives mean something. It is through connecting with those core values and ideals that you have for yourself that you can see whether you are doing what is right for you in any given situation.
To sum up
We have seen that there are many reasons why a person develops a habit of suppressing their emotions, through their family of origin, social relationships, and society. Most people may not even be aware that they are suppressing their emotions. If you are reading this thinking this sounds like you then you are doing great – we cannot start to do things that are better for us without seeing what we are doing that isn’t.
We have also seen that suppressing emotions can have real and very serious consequences for a person’s health and social relationships. Not only can it lead to a person being harmed but it can leave a person feeling unsatisfied with their relationships, like there must be more to life, and confused about why they feel they way they do – even if that is just empty and flat.
We finally outlined the framework a person needs to go through to be able to start breaking through their patterns of emotional suppression and move towards more healthy ways of expression. This process is not easy and cannot be done alone. Real change, the kind of change that wakes people up and releases them from limiting ways of being, is best done with help and support of experienced guides.