Why Emotional Suppression Doesn't Work

Written by
Michael Wells

Why Emotional Suppression Doesn't Work

Written by
Michael Wells

Why Emotional Suppression Doesn't Work

Written by
Michael Wells
SERIES

This article is part of the series 

Developing Emotional Maturity

.

This series is under development and further articles will be added soon.

QUESTION
"Why doesn't emotional suppression work? I should be able to just switch off emotions I don't want to feel, right?"

Often, we feel that suppressing a negative emotion is easier than responding to it.

When we feel frustrated about something minor, it's easier to just ignore it, than it is to confront someone or set boundaries.

When we feel angry, or sad, or depressed, we imagine it's better to hide it from people.

When we feel like we can't do much about a problem, or that confronting a problem might create new challenges, then it's best to just bury that frustration.

We can think of all kinds of "legitimate" reasons that emotional suppression "makes sense," so we develop a habit of suppressing most of our negative emotions, most of the time...

Until the emotions eventually overwhelm us, and we melt down, or blow up.

Why Suppression Doesn't Work

Parents and schools rarely teach us anything about emotions, why they exist, and how to use them- if they did, it would be obvious that suppression is not a useful response.

But don't blame them, chances are, no one taught them either.

Why do we even have Emotions?

Emotions are a fundamental part of our brain's survival system, and they have a lot of evolution behind them.

Reptiles appeared on Earth about 320 million years ago, and we can see the primitive emotions there, including fear, lust, and anger. These are tied in part to neurotransmitters such as cortisol and dopamine.

Mammals came on the scene 250 million years ago, and added a lot of emotions to support the formation of social groups and pair-bonds. We got some new chemicals like oxytocin and serotonin, and emotions like the feeling of being socially approved of, the feeling of rejection, loneliness, love, jealousy, heartbreak, the desire to protect & nurture, or to be protected & nurtured.

In essence, emotions are very much like thoughts, but in a more primitive sense. They don't have the benefit of prediction or foresight- they operate very much in the "now." And they react to both our immediate situation and to our thoughts.

You should think of your emotional mind as a second brain. It's not weaker or less evolved than your rational "thinking" mind, it's just different, and it your emotional brain has at least three huge advantages;

  1. It's unbelievably fast. You'll usually feel things about your immediate situation long before you rationally understand them.
  2. It sees everything, all at once. This part of your brain can multitask to an incredible degree- unlike your rational brain which can pay attention to only one thing at a time.
  3. It has an enormous range of "degree" in it's assessments. I'm not just nervous, happy, or excited... I'm a specific degree of nervous, happy, or excited.
The whole evolutionary point of "negative" emotions is to draw your attention aggressively towards something that needs fixed, urgently.

From your emotional brain's perspective, your survival is at stake until you deal with that threat, escape that risky situation, or take whatever action is needed to resolve things.

Those emotions won't go away until either the problem goes away, or until you take steps towards resolving it.

Why doesn't Suppression Work?

I used to believe that I should be able to easily suppress my emotions, completely, any time I wanted to.

I mean... obviously, my human rational mind is far, far more evolved, and far stronger than my emotional mind, right?

I would even take immense pride in suppressing intense emotions like anger, because... "look how strong I am, that I can control myself even when I'm enraged." I felt powerful in that moment of self control, even when I was miserable.

But I simply didn't understand how emotions work.

Every emotion we feel has evolved for a reason, and it's an essential part of our survival programming. We need all of our emotions, or humanity simply wouldn't have survived.

When you suppress negative emotions, they don't go away. Your brain knows that the problem still exists, and it will continually remind you of that reality.
Worse, because you're not paying attention, it will just turn up the volume.
This is what chronic stress, anxiety, and depression feel like.

Those negative emotions pile up and your stress gradually increases, day after day. Each day, this gradual buildup draws your attention more and more aggressively to the very emotions you're trying to ignore.

When you wake up in the morning, at the start of your day, before anything has happened, and you're already feeling stressed - something is wrong.

Have you been stressed before? Are you stressed now?

How much are you enjoying your life, anyway?

Visualizing Emotional Suppression

Emotions & emotional suppression are rather abstract concepts for most of us, and it can be difficult to get a handle on what's happening inside our heads.

To help you understand this fully, I'm going to share three of my favorite analogies. This might sound like overkill - but each is unique, and is followed with a lesson to explain why I've emphasized it.

#1 - The Dashboard Indicator Light

On your car dashboard are indicator lights that warn you when something is amiss. These will alert you when...

  • You're low on gas ( petrol ), or oil
  • You don't have your seatbelt on
  • The trunk, or the door is open
  • The engine is overheating
  • You have an electrical system problem

They have a very simple job, which is to annoy you until you resolve that problem.

Your emotions work the same way.

Yes you can suppress those indicator lights- you can ignore them, or you can put a piece of black electrical tape over them so that you don't see them anymore.

But the problem is still there, and eventually bad things will happen.

LESSON - Ignoring emotions will eventually bite you in the ass, because the underlying problem isn't being dealt with.

#2 - The Living Room Sofa

No doubt, you've cleaned your living room before.

You've pulled out a vacuum cleaner and given the floor a good clean, and this is the right way to deal with dust & dirt.

But some people think it's faster to simple sweep all that dirt under the sofa.

To a casual observer, the house looks cleaner... but it's not.

Hiding that dirt might work temporarily for small amounts, but you are going to have to deal with it at some point - and if this is how you approach cleaning, it's going to build up.

Soon... it will spill out and become impossible to hide.

And just one good windstorm with the window open, and your place will look like you've never cleaned a day in your life... because really, you haven't.

LESSON - Hiding emotions will eventually bite you in the ass, because they build up, and will eventually erupt into your life all at once, at the worst moment possible.

#3 - Holding Your Breath

Over the past 6 years I've put a good deal of focus on developing my own emotional maturity, through reflection, journaling, and resilience exercises.

As I've matured realized that for me, the act of processing emotions fully should be much more immediate.

Ideally, I should process emotions in real-time, as they appear.

Now, I liken emotional suppression to holding my breath.

I can hold my breath for brief periods, like when I'm swimming underwater, or when someone lets a bean-laden fart rip in the elevator...

But those periods are brief.

What would life be like if I was continually trying to hold by breath?

This is what an emotionally suppressed person feels like, all the time.

If I literally tried to hold my breath as much as possible, not only would I be creating intense, overwhelming stress very quickly - but I'd be depriving my body of essential oxygen it needs to function properly.

Nothing would be working quite right, including my brain and my ability to think- and I would be in a continually high-anxiety state.

Does this sound familiar?

LESSON - There are moments where it may be appropriate to hit "pause" on your emotional responses, for just a minute or two - but no longer. It's important to process emotions as continually and smoothly as possible. Never try to hold your breath indefinitely.

Afterword

I've steadfastly practiced emotional suppression for most of my life, because I believed it was a good thing.

I believed it was socially responsible, that it showed inner strength, and maturity. It seemed masculine, and the "right" thing to do is polite society.

Except...

  • I was constantly stressed, anxious and miserable, to my breaking point.
  • I was depressed, and would sometimes reach near-suicidal lows.
  • I felt always drained of energy, fully unmotivated to grow, change, or challenge myself in any way.
  • I couldn't deal with big problems, and would shelve them as long as possible.
  • Sometimes, unpredictably, I would explode at the littlest thing, and create devastation in my world.

At some point I had to face that emotional suppression just didn't work.

This new clarity led me to a massive realization that has changed my life...

Breathe, dammit. Breathe.

Emotions are a natural and essential part of having a brain.

We wouldn't be alive without them.

We need to be just as comfortable with feeling and using them as we are with breathing air - and when we do, we'll appreciate our emotions just as much as oxygen.

Because they're that important.

SERIES

This article is part of the series 

Developing Emotional Maturity

.

This series is under development and further articles will be added soon.

First published on 
. Last updated on 
December 1, 2020

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      Addendum

      If you're interested more in the structure of the mind, I highly recommend the book Thinking Fast & Slow.

      Emotional Suppression v. Emotional Maturity

      Men in particular tend to suppress emotions because we believe

      Emotional maturity is a completely different thing than emotional suppression.

      But, it's not hard to see why we've confused these two.

      On the surface, if you look at a man who is suppressing his emotions, versus a man who is emotionally mature and can process his emotions quickly, you may not notice a visible difference.

      In both situations, it appears as though the emotion was triggered, and then it disappeared as quickly as it arrived. There is little "emotional reaction" to see.

      But "under the hood" these are not the same thing at all.