A man giving into emotional suppression by bottling up his emotions with a smile on his face.

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What are the consequences of emotional suppression? What are some ways to accept your emotions, even if they’re negative?

The act of suppressing your emotions happens when you avoid or distract yourself from uncomfortable feelings. When you don’t let yourself experience negative emotions—such as guilt, frustration, and grief—you might channel those emotions into unhealthy habits.

Below we’ll explore the consequences of emotional suppression and how to allow yourself to feel uneasy emotions.

What Happens When You Suppress Your Emotions

In Rising Strong, Brené Brown explains that emotional setbacks such as disappointment, grief, heartbreak, and failure are valuable, natural parts of life. Despite being painful, they’re an opportunity to develop emotional resilience, deepen your understanding of yourself and others, and grow. In turn, these benefits lead to a more stable state of wholeheartedness—but to reap them, you must confront your pain.

Many people avoid confronting negative emotions and instead try to push through or ignore their pain in a state of emotional suppression. They do so because this confrontation can be scary and painful. However, avoidance causes people to first repress their emotions, and then release them (often subconsciously) through unhealthy behaviors that often harm themselves and others. 

There are four consequences of suppressing your emotions, which we’ll discuss below.

Consequence #1: Emotional Triggers

According to Brown, when something happens that causes us pain, and we repress rather than confront that pain, our brains form a trigger: Whenever a similar situation happens in the future that reminds us of the original experience, our repressed pain is triggered. This phenomenon often causes us to overreact to situations and can damage our well-being and relationships.

For example, imagine that you felt unimportant as a teenager because your parents never attended important events in your life like sports games and school concerts. You never confront that emotional pain, so as an adult, you get irrationally upset and lash out when people don’t give you the support you desire. So, you blow up at your friend because, while they usually attend your choir concerts, they can’t make it on one occasion.

Consequence #2: Addiction

Brown explains that many people rely on substances and intense experiences (like thrill-seeking) to avoid or numb their pain with a temporary happiness boost. However, these substances and experiences don’t resolve the pain, so when the happiness boost wears off, they crave another quick fix. This is how addictions form.

For example, you might start eating junk food to numb the pain of a breakup. While junk food doesn’t get rid of the pain, it temporarily distracts you from your emotions—so, you form a habit of eating junk food whenever you feel upset. Now, you’re addicted to junk food as a self-soothing tactic—even after the breakup pain passes.

Consequence #3: Burnout

When we continually repress and ignore painful emotions, the accumulated hurt eventually causes our bodies to stop functioning properly. Brown explains that we become overwhelmed with anxiety and depression and can’t perform basic functions like eating, sleeping, and working. 

For example, imagine you’re turned down for your dream job, your partner breaks up with you, and your friends are growing distant. These situations have all made you feel disappointed and unworthy, but rather than facing your feelings and identifying how you can handle them, you pretend you don’t care. The bottled-up emotions accumulate, causing your self-esteem to drop and depression to set in—you start to shut down. You stop caring about things that used to be important to you, like advancing your career, and you feel too dejected to perform basic tasks like eating healthy and socializing. 

Consequence #4: Blame and Anger

Brown explains that avoiding pain can lead to blame and anger due to the influence of our egos. The ego constantly urges us to be stronger and better than others, and it encourages the belief that pain is a form of weakness that makes us “lesser.” To avoid acknowledging our pain (and therefore our apparent weakness), the ego encourages us to instead release our emotions by getting angry and blaming others.

For example, your spouse decided not to attend an award ceremony that was important to you because they weren’t feeling well. This made you feel unimportant. Instead of admitting that their actions hurt you, you give your spouse the cold shoulder for the rest of the week and start petty fights to take out your anger on them.

How to Prevent Yourself From Suppressing Emotions

The good news is that you don’t have to resort to emotional suppression to manage your emotions. Instead, you can take the steps to identify your emotions and feel them in real time so you don’t suppress your emotions.

Step 1: Label Your Emotions

The first step to overcoming emotional suppression is labeling your emotions—that is, using honest, specific language to describe what you’re feeling. In Emotional Agility, Susan David argues that the combination of honesty and specificity forces you to understand the exact nature of your emotions, no matter how uncomfortable. Otherwise, you might feel tempted to ignore them or to use vague words to avoid painful vulnerability. 

For example, you might carry a decades-old burden of shame for never completing your education. You’ve previously talked about these feelings in a way that lacks specificity: “I wish I’d done things differently’ in life.” Based on this generality, you think a career change will make you feel better—but this doesn’t address your feelings of shame and therefore doesn’t help. On the other hand, labeling your emotions precisely might mean saying, “For decades, I’ve regretted dropping out of college. I’ve felt shame for failing and wasting my parents’ money. Every day since then, I feel sick at the mention of school or career growth.” 

Step 2: Accept All Your Thoughts and Feelings

Oliver Burkeman explains that happiness doesn’t come from experiencing only positive emotions but from accepting all your thoughts and feelings, even the seemingly negative ones. This approach helps you avoid the unproductive cycles of forced positivity and self-blame that cause emotional suppression.

Burkeman’s book The Antidote suggests three methods to help you accept your thoughts and feelings:

Practice mindful observation: Observe your thoughts and emotions impartially, without judgment or attachment. Noticing your thoughts without becoming entangled in them cultivates acceptance. For example, if the thought “I am not good enough” surfaces, simply acknowledge it and let the thought drift away.

Examine your judgments: Burkeman says you should acknowledge that experiences aren’t inherently positive or negative; it’s your judgments that shape your emotional response. This realization fosters acceptance by helping you perceive experiences more neutrally. For example, seeing a traffic jam as an occurrence rather than an inconvenience eliminates the negative connotation and reduces frustration.

Shift to preference-based thinking: Burkeman recommends reframing wants and wishes from being absolute needs to preferences to reduce the stress and disappointment you feel when things don’t go as planned. For example, reframe “I must always have a clean home” to “I prefer a clean home but it’s OK if it’s not always organized” to alleviate distress over occasional disorder.

Step 3: View Your Emotions Objectively

To fully accept your emotions, you must also view them objectively. This means you must be self-aware of your emotions and how they’re making you act. When you’re able to look at your emotions—and the narratives they come from—from a rational, objective standpoint, you’ll be able to see the flaws in your narrative and your emotional reactions to it.

Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves’s Emotional Intelligence 2.0 offers several tactics to view your emotions from an objective standpoint.

Tactic #1: Don’t identify your emotions as “good” or “bad.” Emotions aren’t “good” or “bad.” Judging a feeling only puts more emotions (such as shame or pride) on top of that feeling. This keeps your original emotion from developing and muddies your current emotional state. When you feel an emotional reaction coming to the surface, identify it and reserve judgment. This lets the emotion arise and fade away without further complication.

For example, you’re frustrated with an assignment at work and immediately label that emotion as bad. This introduces new negative emotions into the mix. You may feel guilty for having a “bad” emotion towards work that you enjoy. You may get angry that you’re allowing yourself to get frustrated. Rather than just letting the frustration emerge and move on, you’re complicating your situation and lengthening the amount of time that it will take for your emotions to settle.

Tactic #2: Don’t let a “bad mood” dictate your behavior or decisions. If you allow your mood to cloud your perspective, you can lose control of your emotions and spiral quickly. When a bad mood arises, remind yourself that this mood is temporary. If you allow your bad mood to run its course, it will pass eventually. When in a bad mood, try not to make important decisions as your emotional state will likely influence your decision-making process.

Tactic #3: Don’t let a “good mood” dictate your behavior or decisions. Good moods can corrupt your perspective just as much as bad moods. Good moods create rose-colored glasses that prevent you from objectively assessing decisions and may lead you to rush into things without thinking them through.

For instance, your favorite online retailer is running a 50% off sale. You excitedly add things to your cart and click the order button without thinking about it. However, once you look at your bank account and realize that you should not have spent that money on online purchases, reality comes crashing back in.

Tactic #4: Know your triggers. Everyone has people and behaviors that push their buttons. Knowing what sparks an emotional response from you allows you to strategize for those situations. Be specific when noting your triggers. Identify people, activities, and environments that irk you. Then, mentally prepare yourself for those situations. 

To take this to the next level, begin to explore the roots of your frustration. This helps you control your reactions when emotions arise. Ask yourself:

  • What is it about these individuals or behaviors that frustrate me? 
  • Are there commonalities between these individuals or behaviors?
  • Can I connect my frustration to something in my past?

For example, you have a co-worker who tries to make a joke about everything in a meeting. If you’re the type who wants to stay professional and focused in the workplace, this may annoy or frustrate you. If you haven’t prepared yourself for the situation, you may allow your emotions to get the best of you and snap at your colleague.

Tactic #5: Keep a journal of your triggers and emotions. Write down triggers as you discover them. Then, write down what emotional responses these types of situations create. This allows you to look back at past events and recognize patterns. These patterns help you develop a clearer sense of what elicits a strong emotional response from you and how you can better handle your triggers in the future.

Step 4: Live in the Moment

Finally, to avoid emotional suppression, you must live in the moment by embracing your animal self, rather than your thinking self. Alan Watts explains this concept further in The Wisdom of Insecurity.

Watts explains that every human has an animal self and a thinking self. Your animal self has two key qualities: It has sophisticated instincts (for example, hunger cues), and it lives in the moment, always in flux—transitioning from hungry to satiated, for example, or from sleepy to alert, depending on the internal and external sensations it perceives. Your animal self doesn’t think, and it’s never concerned with the past or the future; it simply exists in the here and now and acts according to its internal wisdom rather than any abstract rules.

On the other hand, your thinking self is conscious—it’s able to contemplate, remember, and imagine. It also has time consciousness (a sense of continuity between the past, present, and future). Time consciousness makes you believe that you’re a stable, independent entity—since you share memories with your 10-year-old self, you believe you’re the same person you’ve always been. Your thinking self wants to continue being a stable, independent entity—so it resists change and tries to achieve permanence, even though it can’t. 

Watts says that the thinking self and the animal self each have their uses—for example, the thinking self enables you to communicate with others, while the animal self alerts you to internal cues like pleasure and pain. However, he says that presently, society is tilted heavily in favor of the thinking self—evidenced by our overreliance on human concepts like religion, for example, to guide our decision-making (as opposed to also listening to bodily cues like the sensations that accompany feelings of guilt or comfort). Since you aren’t living in tune with your animal self, you’re anxious—you need time to just experience life, rather than always thinking and talking about life.

Watts says that the solution to this problem is to integrate your thinking and animal selves. This means living in the moment according to your body’s wisdom like an animal would do—eating, sleeping, and doing other activities when your body tells you it’s time to do so, rather than relying on an imposed schedule or dogma to guide your choices. As you do so, your thinking should focus on the present, not the past or the future. 

Integrating your animal and thinking selves transforms pain. Watts says when your thinking self is in charge, you try to escape pain by distracting yourself from the experience with thoughts of the past or future. But this is futile because you can’t escape the present—recall that you are your present experience. Distracting yourself from the present only disrupts your ability to understand and accept it, which is necessary if you’re going to move through it. Therefore, distracting yourself from pain only prolongs pain. When you embrace your animal self, you deal with pain like animals do: You’re able to endure the pain as it’s happening, and when it’s over, you move on. Your thinking self focuses on your present experience instead of avoiding it.

Wrapping Up

It’s understandable why you might suppress your emotions, especially if you want to live a happy, care-free life. But the downside of emotional suppression is that you don’t learn how to regulate negative emotions. If you take the time to examine and accept your big emotions, you’ll be able to properly respond to difficult situations.

What are other ways to prevent emotional suppression? Let us know in the comments below!

How to Stop Emotional Suppression: Embrace Your Feelings

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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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