Don’t Repress Your Emotions

“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” ~ Sigmund Freud

“Sometimes what seems like surrender isn’t surrender at all. It’s about what’s going on in our hearts. About seeing clearly the way life is and accepting it and being true to it, whatever the pain, because the pain of not being true to it is far, far greater.” ~ Nicholas Evans

“If you shut up truth and bury it under the ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way.” ~ Emile Zola

A major principle of the spiritual healing work that I do with clients is the understanding that emotions buried alive do not die; instead they grow and devolve and (sooner or later) come back to haunt and torment us.  Repressed emotions impact our relationships, keep us from emotional healing can even result in pain and disease in our physical bodies.  I have this image of a (thought-to-be) dead horror movie creature clawing its way out of the tomb to wreak havoc on unsuspecting passersby.

When you bury unresolved emotions, your response to current events is impacted by the events of the past and those unresolved emotions associated with them.  Repression of painful emotions may seem like a solution at the time, but it’s really like burying landmines in the middle of a playground.  Sooner or later someone is going to get hurt.  Avoidance results in repressed painful emotions either being projected outward onto others or inward in self-abusive behaviors.  That’s because you can’t keep them buried.  It’s like trying to keep a balloon underwater:  You might be able to do it temporarily, but eventually your concentration will slip and it will pop up.

You see, it requires a tremendous amount of energy to keep painful emotions locked away because they want, in fact demand, to be processed.  When processed in a healthy manner, painful emotions are released.  When repressed or denied, you are just piling them up in your body – creating emotional baggage.

Why do we do this?  Because we’re taught to.  Our earliest experiences with discipline involved being punished for acting out painful emotions.  We’re taught that it’s not appropriate to yell and scream; we’re taught that good girls and boys don’t hit other people or throw things.  But in learning how to control our behavior we also learn to repress the emotions themselves.  Many of us have done it for so long that it’s no longer a conscious action.

We carry these lessons into adulthood.  We don’t want to be seen as vulnerable, or out of control, or emotionally fragile.  We don’t want to hurt another person.  And so we repress.  All we really succeed in doing is committing acts of violence unto ourselves.

But there is a significant difference between experiencing an emotion and acting out in response to an emotion.  One of the goals of spiritual growth and maturity is to learn how to appropriately do the first without doing the second.

The Damage of Repressed Emotions

Painful emotions like anger, sadness, fear, and guilt are not negative in and of themselves.  In fact, they provide us with valuable feedback about our experiences and our surroundings if processed in healthy and productive ways.  Holding on to painful emotions past the point where they are ready to be released is unhealthy for body, mind and spirit.  This damage occurs in four distinct but interrelated ways:

It takes energy to repress emotions.

  • The energy you spend on keeping painful emotions suppressed is energy that you are not using for your benefit.  This can result in constant tiredness, inability to focus, and difficulty accomplishing things that are important to you.
  • Secondly, the energy applied in keeping the painful emotions repressed causes them to pressurize and become more volatile.  It’s like shaking up a soda can – The slightest crack and the entire thing will explode.

Repressed emotions devolve and generalize.

  • Painful emotions that are repressed do not remain in their original state.  Instead of resolving they devolve.
  • Unresolved anger mutates into generalized bitterness and a jaded perspective on the world.
  • Unresolved sadness mutates into depression and the feeling that life is hopeless and meaningless.
  • Unresolved fear mutates into generalized anxiety and paranoia.
  • Unresolved guilt mutates into a sense of worthlessness and inadequacy.

Repressed emotions attract similar experiences and emotions unto themselves until they are processed.

  • Because repressed emotions need to be processed, they will attract experiences into your life that bring about similar emotions.  This process continues until the emotion is processed and the cycle is broken.
  • Pay attention to the painful patterns in your life.  They are pointing to healing work that is asking to be done.  They will continue repeating until you work back to, and release, the root of the problem.

Repressed emotions lead to damaging avoidance behaviors.

  • Do you ever find yourself:
    • Ignoring your feelings or feeling numb
    • Being unable to experience true joy, peace, calmness and comfort
    • Experiencing extreme emotional swings or overreacting to situations
    • Engaging in any type of compulsive or excessive behavior – shopping, eating, exercising, media, sex, alcohol, illicit or prescription drugs
    • Keeping so busy that you don’t have time to feel
    • Constantly analyzing or intellectualizing your feelings
    • Keeping conversations and relationships superficial
    • Burying your true emotions under the mask of humor or sarcasm
    • Focusing your attention on the emotions or actions of others
    • Blaming others for the way you feel (or don’t feel)
    • Expecting others to “make you feel” a certain way
  • All of these are avoidance behaviors that point to the existence of repressed emotions

Consider These Emotional Healing Techniques

Your ability to become a whole, fully integrated and healthy individual is dependent on learning how to release and heal repressed painful emotions.  You don’t need anything to begin the work other than willingness and awareness.  However, please understand that some past injuries or traumas may be too extreme for you to process independently.  In those cases, it is best to work with a professional healer, coach, mental health provider or spiritual/religious mentor who is experienced in emotional healing to support you.

The first step in emotional healing is choosing to become aware of the painful feeling, memory or thought-pattern as you experience it.  Then allow yourself to fully experience it – without responding or acting – and without denying or repressing.  You have to feel it to heal it.  These techniques may assist you in beginning the process:

  1. Tell the Truth.  This may seem obvious, but painful emotions are repressed because they were originally denied.  When you find yourself experiencing a painful emotion, name it.  Say it out loud.  “I am feeling _______.”  Once you give it a name, you can begin asking yourself questions.  “What is bringing up this emotion in me at this time?”  “Am I feeling _______ based on the current situation or because of an unresolved situation from my past?” (Notice that none of these questions are about the current situation or other people who may be involved.  Your emotional responses belong to you and originate in you.  Looking for external blame is a form of denial.)  Now explain your emotion out loud – keeping all pronouns in the first person.  Never externalize an emotion (“You’re making me feel.”), instead say, “I feel _____?”  It’s vital to take responsibility for the emotion you are experiencing.
  2. Yell, scream, hit or throw – but in a safe and non-damaging way.  It can be very healthy to release stored negative energy by yelling and screaming or by hitting or throwing something.  The key here is to do it in a controlled, safe, and non-damaging way.  Never direct these activities at another person or animal or at valuable possessions.  Acting out is not productive.  While you’re engaging in the activity, say out loud the emotion you are experiencing.  Hit a pillow.  Yell like a pirate, “aaaarrrrgggghhhh!”  Throw or hit a ball.  Whatever activity you choose to do, make certain that it is controlled, productive, safe and non-damaging.
  3. Dance or shake it out.  Trauma healing pioneer Peter Levine explains that animals process trapped energy through their bodies and so can we. Bring up the painful emotion and then dance or shake yourself.  Run or exercise.  Most importantly, connect this activity with the emotion and allow yourself to feel the emotion being released as you use the energy.
  4. Write it out and burn it up.  This can be especially helpful when healing past emotional trauma – especially if it is not possible or beneficial to directly confront the person who injured you.  Use a pen or pencil and paper and write out your experiences and feeling using longhand.  Be totally honest.  Put everything out on the page.  Don’t worry about grammar, spelling or syntax and don’t worry about content.  Just write everything you need to release.  Then – and this is crucial – take the paper outside, light it on fire, and release all of the energy you have been holding as the paper burns up.
  5. Engage in healing therapies.  This is particularly helpful for loosening up and releasing repressed emotions that you have forgotten about.  You may know that you are holding on to anger, but may not remember the original circumstance that created it.  Healing therapies such as EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), regression therapy, massage, and Reiki can help you begin to process the emotions and release them.
  6. Establish a relationship with a professional.  It can sometimes be difficult to see past our own filters.  Working with a professional healer, coach, mental health provider or spiritual/religious mentor who is experienced in emotional healing can offer you the support you need to begin the process.

You don’t have to remain locked in repressed painful emotions.  There is healing available.  All that’s required is your willingness to do the work.  If I can assist you in doing your work, please let me know.  Visit www.mtoddnull.com or email me at mtoddnull@mtoddnull.com.

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