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Where Suppressed Emotions Go

On not allowing oneself to feel.

Key points

  • People sometimes suppress their emotions and avoid fully experiencing or responding to them.
  • Suppressed feelings may be channeled or redirected into physical activities.
  • People may mislabel or misinterpret a suppressed emotion to replace the uncomfortable feeling with a more acceptable one.
Pheelings media/Shutterstock
Source: Pheelings media/Shutterstock

Often, it seems as though we are the playthings of emotions, particularly strong ones. They overtake our bodies and minds, and all we can do is act on them or wait for them to pass, and the waiting may be difficult. William James, in Varieties of Religious Experience, writes similarly:

Emotional occasions, especially violent ones, are extremely potent… The sudden and explosive ways in which love, jealousy, guilt, fear, remorse, or anger can seize upon one are known to everybody. Hope, happiness… resolve… can be equally explosive. And emotions that come in this explosive way seldom leave things as they found them.1

But at other times, we are able to suppress emotions. It is not only that we don’t act on them, we do not let ourselves experience them or not fully. It is as though emotions come knocking on the door, and we refuse to let them in.

I have personal knowledge of a case of this sort. A woman of my acquaintance lost a parent many years ago, when she was a college student, and for over a decade, she did not, as she put it, allow herself to grieve. Instead, she went on with her life—something the surviving parent put pressure on her to do. Then a time came when she couldn’t go on like that anymore. It was years later, but one day, she found herself crying and thinking of the death that had occurred a decade earlier. The same happened the next day, and the next. She cried the tears she had suppressed at the time of the traumatic event.

What does it mean to not allow oneself to feel something? Where, in such cases, do emotions go? How can they come back with a vengeance years later? These are the questions that interest me here.

Attention and the Body

We can change the character of our mental states by redirecting our attention. For instance, small children often discover that they can counteract their fear of the dark by talking or singing. How does that help? The answer, I think, is that children focus on the sound of their own voice, and this leaves fewer mental resources for the object of their fears. They cannot simultaneously talk or sing and imagine monsters coming out of the closet—that would be too mentally burdensome.

Similarly, people undergoing a painful medical procedure may experience less pain if they focus on the thought of something pleasant such as the person they love most. Part of what it means to not allow oneself to feel some emotion is to not focus on that emotion’s object and instead, to pay attention to something else.

We may also do the opposite and yield to an emotion fully, even using external devices as when people listen to sad music to amp up their own sense of tragedy. It may seem on such occasions that we are calling up small bits of sadness dispersed throughout our bodies in order to produce one unified and overwhelming state.

Importantly, we can invite or disinvite emotions by assuming physical postures and undertaking activities either conducive to or incompatible with the given emotion. Thus, if we go sprinting or swimming, we make it difficult or impossible for ourselves to grieve or fly into a rage.

The Role of Interpretation

We may also partially block the experience of an emotion by mislabeling it. Sometimes, we interpret sadness as anger, because we think sadness is weakness—that it shows another’s power to inflict on us a psychic injury—while anger preserves our dignity.

We may, conversely, interpret anger as sadness, especially when we see anger as inappropriate, as when people are quietly mad at a dead parent.

In such cases, we allow ourselves to feel something but not quite what springs from the depths of the psyche.

Our attempts to free ourselves of an emotion by depriving it of the oxygen that is our attention or else by letting in that emotion’s more acceptable cousin may succeed, particularly if the emotion would have been short-lived anyway. If, by redirecting your attention to the dinner you are having with friends tonight, you avoid a burst of anger while on the phone with an unhelpful customer service agent, you won’t feel angry again later.

At other times, however, particularly when the emotions are powerful and go deep—as in the case I began with—deflection may only work for so long before the floodgates open.

What happens with the emotions deflected or suppressed temporarily?

Unconscious Feeling

They can remain with us. Much as we have unconscious thoughts, we can have unconscious feelings and affective processes.

It is, of course, difficult to say what those are since they are unconscious. But we can infer they are there. For example, you may realize one day that your attachment to a person, a place, a job, or a religion has either weakened or become stronger. In either case, you no longer feel as you used to. This may happen even though you never considered the matter consciously. But the day on which you realize your attitude has changed is probably not the day on which it shifted. Indeed, if you didn’t consciously think about the matter, then the transition likely didn’t happen in a day at all. It was underway for a while.

How? You have no recollection. It all took place outside your awareness and without your active participation. We must conclude that it happened unconsciously. You may have, as a consequence, carried love, hatred, or indifference for years without knowing it.

We can only imagine that the emotions we try to suppress and do not allow ourselves to feel continue to exist in us in just that way: outside awareness. In that state, they may evolve and change, or they may not.

When emotions, particularly negative ones, run deep, when they go to the core of our being, it may not be possible to restore inner harmony without yielding to them. Of course, it does not follow from here that we must do so immediately. There are various reasons why postponing grief or vexation may be appropriate. In a time of war, for instance, it may be a survival strategy. If you have small children, you may owe it to them to keep it all together until they are old enough to accept a vulnerable parent, devastated by pain.

But yield we may have to.

When the friend from the story I began with became overwhelmed by grief, she reacted very differently than she had at the time of the death: she allowed the pain in. She cried. She organized a beautiful memorial service. All this had a healing effect. It led to closure.

We may, perhaps, construe the avoidance of grief as a prolonged stage of denial, a denial not of what had happened but of how unbearable it was. Crucially, sometimes, we must accept that it is not really in our power to go on as if nothing has happened.

William James, in the chapter I quoted from earlier, suggests, likewise, that there is often an unavoidable element of what he calls “self-surrender” on the way to achieving the psychic unification we aspire to. The self-surrender he has in mind is surrender to our own emotions. He quotes Dr. Edwin Starbuck who says that the "personal will" may have to:

[B]e given up. In many cases, relief refuses to come until the person ceases to resist and make an effort in the direction he desires to go…2

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[1] James, W. (1902/2002). Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York, NY: Routledge, p. 157.

[2] Ibid. p. 164.

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