Repressed emotions refer to emotions that you unconsciously avoid. These differ from suppressed emotions, which are feelings you purposely avoid because you don’t know exactly how to deal with them.
Say you and your partner have a fight and decide to break up one evening. You still have to meet with an important client at work the next day, so you decide to suppress, or push aside, your feelings until you get home from that meeting.
Suppression can sometimes be a good short-term solution, as long as you make sure to address those emotions sooner rather than later.
Repressed emotions, on the other hand, don’t get a chance to be processed. But that doesn’t mean they simply disappear. Instead, they might show up as a range of psychological or physical symptoms.
Emotional repression often relates to childhood experiences.
Much of what children learn about behavior and communication comes from their primary caregivers.
So, you’ll probably feel pretty comfortable expressing your emotions if your caregivers:
- frequently talked about their feelings
- encouraged you to share how experiences made you feel
- normalized your positive and negative emotional experiences
- didn’t judge or criticize your emotional expressions
Adults with repressed emotions often feel out of touch or disconnected from their feelings because they had a different childhood experience.
For example, you might be more likely to repress emotions if your caregivers:
- rarely showed emotion or talked about their feelings
- shamed or punished you for expressing your emotions
- told you your emotions were wrong or denied your experience
If showing your feelings in childhood led to distressing or painful outcomes, you probably learned it was much safer to avoid this entirely. As an adult, you might continue to bury strong emotions without realizing what you’re doing. You might also notice you tend to push even the emotions you do notice aside.
For the most part, people tend to repress strong emotions, especially those associated with discomfort or other unpleasant experiences.
This includes emotions like:
Notice a pattern? These emotions are often described as negative. It’s common to repress emotions you consider “bad” or believe other people might judge you for expressing.
Again, this stems back to your childhood. Maybe you grew up hearing things like:
- “You don’t have any reason to be sad.”
- “Calm down.”
- “You should be grateful.”
Even if your caregivers didn’t specifically invalidate your emotional experience, they still might’ve discouraged you from expressing intense emotions freely by telling you to stop crying or shouting.
As a result, you began to think of sadness, anger, and disappointment as emotions you shouldn’t have, or at the very least, shouldn’t acknowledge to anyone.
You could feel more in touch with positive emotions, or those considered “normal” and generally accepted by others. It might seem easier to express them if you know they won’t draw criticism, though this isn’t the case for everyone dealing with emotional repression.
“Hold on,” you might think. “My emotions don’t make me sick… do they?”
They actually can, in a way.
There’s no evidence to suggest emotions directly cause illness, of course. Sadness can’t give you the flu, and anger doesn’t cause cancer.
These issues often cause physical symptoms, including:
- muscle tension and pain
- nausea and digestive problems
- appetite changes
- fatigue and sleep problems
Childhood trauma, one possible cause of repressed emotions, may also play a part in chronic illness.
It’s not always easy to recognize when you’re dealing with emotional repression, and there’s no definitive test you can take.
If you do have repressed emotions, however, you might notice a few key signs. These signs might show up in your feelings or your behavior — both toward yourself and other people.
Recognizing emotional repression in your feelings
People with repressed emotions often have trouble naming and understanding their emotional experience. This can make it tough to describe how you feel to others, of course, but it also makes it difficult for you to recognize when certain aspects of your life aren’t serving your needs.
- regularly feel numb or blank
- feel nervous, low, or stressed a lot of the time, even if you aren’t sure why
- have a tendency to forget things
- experience unease or discomfort when other people tell you about their feelings
- feel cheerful and calm most of the time because you never let your thoughts linger on anything significant or upsetting
- feel distressed or irritated when someone asks you about your feelings
Recognizing emotional repression in your behavior
Repressed emotions commonly show up in behavior and can affect how you respond to others.
If you have a hard time expressing feelings as you experience them in healthy ways, your emotions can build up until they eventually explode, sometimes in response to very small triggers. This can contribute to problems in your interpersonal relationships.
Emotional repression can affect your ability to:
- talk about things that matter to you
- build intimate relationships
- understand how other people feel
- encourage or praise yourself
You might also notice that you:
- go along with situations instead of expressing what you really want and need
- use substances, TV, social media, or other activities to help you numb and avoid feelings you don’t want to explore
- spend most of your time with other people to avoid being alone
- exhibit passive-aggressive behaviors to deal with situations that upset you
Still another sign: Others often describe you as “chill,” “calm,” or “relaxed”
If you have trouble expressing or regulating your emotions, talking to a mental health professional is a good first step.
A therapist can help you explore potential causes of repressed emotions and offer guidance and support as you begin to address these reasons.
Therapy also provides a safe space to:
- work on naming and understanding your feelings
- increase your comfort level around talking about emotions
- learn more helpful methods of emotional regulation
Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) is one approach that may have particular benefit for emotional repression. EFT emphasizes emotional expression as one of the most important components of your personal experience and your ability to relate to others.
According to EFT theory, people who have a hard time accessing and understanding their feelings typically also struggle to enjoy meaningful relationships with others. This approach is often used in couples counseling, but it can also help you work through childhood trauma, depression, anxiety, and other mental health symptoms.
Things you can try right now
You can also get started practicing emotional expression on your own by trying these steps:
- Check in. Ask yourself how you feel right now. If you have a hard time speaking your emotions at first, trying using words or colors in a journal or piece of art. You can even find a song that matches your mood.
- Use “I” statements. Practice expressing your feelings with phrases like “I feel confused. I feel nervous. I feel terrified.”
- Focus on the positive. It might seem easier to name and embrace positive emotions at first, and that’s OK. The goal is to get more comfortable with all of your emotions, and small steps help.
- Let go of judgement. No matter what emotion you’re feeling, avoid judging yourself or telling yourself you shouldn’t feel a certain way. Instead, try finding a reason for the feeling: “I feel nervous because I’m about to have my yearly performance review.”
- Make it a habit. Practice naming and sharing your emotions with the people you feel closest to. Encourage them to share their feelings, too.
It’s natural to want to avoid feeling bad. Plenty of people feel at least a little afraid of confronting deep, intense emotions, especially those they link to unpleasant or unwanted experiences.
While it may sound a little counterintuitive, learning to embrace those negative feelings can actually help improve emotional well-being over time.
Getting more comfortable with your emotions, even the ones that don’t feel great, can help you navigate the challenges of life more successfully while also improving your relationship with yourself and anyone else you care about.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.