It’s not groundbreaking to tell you that stuffing your feelings isn’t the best way to deal with them. Even if suppressing emotions is your preferred method (or the only method you know), you’re probably aware that it’s not a top-tier coping strategy.
But what’s the alternative? Dealing with it? Raise your hand if that idea gets a big NO!
Your logic might sound like this: If you’ve got even some small, good thing happening in your life, why potentially mess that up by fooling around in emotional muck? Um no, duh, of course you wouldn’t add more complexity, especially if you’re just trying to keep your head above water. If life feels good enough (or not quite bad enough), can’t that be good enough?
What if I told you there’s another way to deal with your feelings that didn’t involve opening the door to an emotional mudslide? What if this other way will help retrain your brain and free it from the hoard of emotion-and-thought gremlins?
Good news! You can deal with those unwanted feelings in a way that’s actually manageable. I’ll show you how, but first, let’s take a look at what’s going on with suppressing emotions in the first place.
Suppressing Emotions = Stuffing It
Suppression is the psychological term for “stuffing” emotions. This is when we consciously push thoughts and emotions we don’t want to think or feel outside of our awareness.
Your mom drives you crazy. She’s frequently critical but shrouds her true feelings in backhanded compliments and in the framework of “I’m just trying to be helpful.” To an outsider, she may not seem rude, but you still feel hurt, angry, frustrated, and bad when she speaks to you this way. Because you were raised to respect your parents and because she isn’t being overtly nasty, you respond to her with a weak smile and try to move on. You think she’s not going to change, so there’s no point in saying anything to her. You’d rather not have conflict, and you’d rather focus on the positive, so you suppress the unwanted emotion.
Stuffing is pushing your emotions to the side so that you don’t think about them, and you don’t (hopefully) feel them. It’s trying to make them not exist. The theory goes like this: if you don’t think about them, then they don’t exist, then they’re not real, then you can be happy. That sounds kind of nice. Too bad it doesn’t work!
Why We Do It
You’ve probably had this experience at some point: your emotions feel overwhelmingly bad or painful, and you’d rather not lose your mind, which is what seems likely to happen if you keep feeling them. You might not be able to change your circumstances, so it feels pointless to think about the situation or to feel what you feel; why go down that road if it doesn’t change things or solve the problem? Or maybe you’ve never had anyone that cares, so it’s less painful to stuff things down than to acknowledge them and discover that (once again) no one is listening. So, you figured out that suppressing emotions allows you to go on with everyday life.
We stuff because we want to feel happy, because we don’t want to disrupt relationships, and because we feel powerless.
Wanting to be happy or desiring peace aren’t bad motivations; I personally prefer feeling happy and being at peace! When you suppress an unwanted thought or feeling, the result may be temporary relief or happiness, but it can create long-term problems.
Long-term consequences of suppressing emotions
Let’s go back to our example and play that story out.
You’ve opted for “grin and bear it” mode, but hold on! What about those yucky emotions? You’ve just trapped them in your inner suppression bank account, and eventually, the weight of all those deposits will blow out the vault door. That’s when you lose control of yourself and go off on your mom. Or maybe you start to resent her. You might even avoid her. Resentment and avoidance lead to loss of relationship, so now you’re talking to your mom and seeing her less, which is the only way you know to protect yourself from her criticism and your hurt feelings.
Do any of the effects of suppressing emotion in this example sound familiar in your life?
Just because your thoughts and emotions are outside of your awareness doesn’t mean they’ve gone away. They’re buried and still alive, and they will find a way to come out. When they come out this time around, they’ll emerge in sneakier and often more destructive ways, as they did in our example with anger, resentment, and avoidance. Suppressed emotions might emerge in additional sideways ways like anxiety, depression, addiction, eating disorders, relational withdrawal, or chronic health conditions; the list could go on.
The more you suppress your emotions, the more powerless you will believe that you are to those emotions. Which will make you suppress them more. Which yields more powerlessness. This is the hamster wheel that you can’t get off.
Another consequence of suppressing emotions is disconnection from the authentic self. If you cannot be emotionally honest, you will live out of a false sense of self. Said another way, your coping strategies will become your personality. This feels empty and alone, and it stops you from being known and seen and feeling fully loved.
You have options. The story doesn’t have to go this way.
Good news. There’s something you can do about it.
Let’s get very practical. I’m going to teach you a better way to engage your feelings.
Emotions are meant to be acknowledged, felt, and metabolized. You do this by putting words on feelings, letting them exist, feeling them physiologically, and releasing them. You don’t have to spend a lot of time doing this to experience a positive impact from your efforts.
So, instead of trying not to feel an unwanted emotion (suppression) and instead of drowning in a thought-emotion storm (rumination), follow these steps:
Pause and create a moment of time and mental space to engage your inner world. This involves bringing your attention to your breath (without changing it) and to your physiology (again, notice sensations; you don’t need to focus on changing tension at this point, but you can release unneeded tension if that feels good).
Acknowledge your experience to yourself or out loud with a simple phrase such as “this is a challenging situation.”
Observe yourself using these three sentences as a guide (it doesn’t matter which question you attend to first. Just keep it simple and resist the impulse to elaborate):
- What thoughts do I notice?
- What emotions do I notice?
- What physiological sensations do I notice?
You can think these observations in your head, you can say them out loud, or you can write these down (it’s easy to make a note in your phone if you don’t have a journal handy).
Let’s continue our example to show what all this would look like.
You and your mom are in your kitchen, and she says, “Look at all these dirty dishes and all of this stuff! When was the last time you cleaned in here? Never mind, you go out in the living room and play cards with the rest of the crew. I know y’all don’t think I’m very much fun to play cards with, anyway, and I’ll see if I can make a dent in this kitchen mess.”
I want to explain what’s going on in this example. Scenarios like this one are common, and I find that people are often so used to thinking of things in a suppressed “don’t say anything bad about your mama” way that they cognitively miss the unhealth of a situation.
If you didn’t know the mom in this scenario, you might think she’s just being helpful. But the daughter has had a lifetime of hearing from her mom about the moral virtue of keeping a clean kitchen as well as countless criticisms from her mom of other’s (even only slightly) less than pristine kitchens. The daughter knows her mom’s contempt for a messy kitchen. Also, the mom threw in a nice splash of “poor, pitiful me. No one likes me anyway,” a manipulative game the daughter is supposed to respond to be saying, “no, mom, we love having you play with us.” These are the critical, passive-aggressive maneuvers that might get overlooked but certainly feel very bad.
Now, back to the daughter’s response.
She has chosen not to immediately engage her mom and instead stepped into the bathroom for a moment by herself.
Pause: she takes a deep breath with a slow exhalation. While exhaling, she observes tension in the shoulders and jaw and consciously drops her shoulders and relaxes her jaw.
Acknowledge: she thinks to herself, “that was unpleasant. I am having a reaction to what just happened.”
Observe: I notice I have the feelings of helplessness and anger and sadness. I notice I have the thought that my mom is hurtful and I will never be able to get her to stop. I notice a tightness in my chest, and my heart is beating fast.
Sometimes, that’s all it takes for the unpleasant feelings to dissipate. The thoughts and feelings just need to be acknowledged and heard. Or, at this point, you might begin to see what else you might need to do about the situation. If you don’t have all the answers at this point, stay curious. Keep observing yourself and colleting information. You’ll know better how to deal with a difficult situation or relationship the more you understand yourself and the more patterns that you can see.
This is a starting point. It is a way to stop suppressing emotions and start acknowledging what is true and real. When you acknowledge reality, then you have to ability to make changes.
The Basic Truth
What’s the purpose of spending all of this effort on not suppressing emotions? The point lies in a fundamental truth about humans. About YOU.
You matter. You have inherent dignity, value and worth.
There is no other you; there’s just the one you. I believe that all people possess this value because we are created in God’s image, so even though we sin and mess stuff up all the time, we still reflect God. You are no different from anyone else in your ability to reflect the image of God, and that is a beautiful and wonderful gift.
When you have a thought or a feeling, that is a part of you. It is something that displays or conveys something about you or your experience. Because you matter, those thoughts or feelings deserve to have a voice. What you feel deserves to be known, what you think deserves to be heard, and what you’ve experienced deserves to be witnessed.
This all may sound great in theory, but what if you’ve never had anyone treat your thoughts, feelings, and experiences with value and validation? It’d be hard to believe all this “deserving” talk.
Tune In To Yourself To Stop Suppressing Emotions
That’s where tuning in to your thoughts, emotions, and physiological sensations come in. When you pause, acknowledge, and observe yourself, you show yourself that you are a person with value. When you treat yourself with dignity, you retrain the way your experience yourself. Behaving toward yourself as if you matter teaches you that you matter.
Start to become more aware of yourself and your relationship with your emotions. Begin a regular practice of pausing, acknowledging, and observing. These strategies work best when you repeat them frequently. Just like an athlete performs repetitive movements to train particular muscle groups, you are training your brain by practicing this strategy over and over. Let me know how it goes and what you notice when you try it out.
Ready to Take the Next Step?
If you’re ready to cultivate a better and more honest relationship with yourself and your emotions, you don’t have to figure it out by yourself. I’ll help you get free from the old patterns that don’t serve you or your relationships. Call 601-362-7020 to schedule an appointment with me, Caty Coffey.
Want a book recommendation? Check out The Courage to Feel by Andrew Seubert.