What do you do when you experience a “negative” emotion such as anger, disappointment, or sadness? If you’re like many of us, you might snap at someone you love out of the blue, avoid a painful situation, or withdraw from the outside world. That’s why suppressing emotions can be a trap—unless you learn how to bring curiosity and compassion to them.
Suzy Roberts, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist with Orange County Health Psychologists, suggests the first step is to allow room for all of our emotions, without judgment. The key, she says, is to not label feelings as positive or negative but, instead, pay attention to what we can learn from them.
Rumi illustrates this beautifully in his poem “The Guest House”:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
By letting our emotions come in and out without judging them — as if we are “the guest house” — we can undo a lifetime of conditioning and reconnect to who we really are. But how do we do this? And why are we suppressing emotions in the first place?
The origin of suppressed emotions
Learning to deal with suppressed emotions requires taking a look at our past. Many of us learned as children that certain emotions were not okay to express. Maybe we weren’t allowed to get outwardly angry, or our parents wouldn’t interact with us while we were in a “bad mood.”
Then later, as adults, we may judge ourselves for having certain emotions. We might push down the anger we feel towards a family member or sideline our feelings of sadness, for example. This creates a sense of rigidity around our emotions to the point where we might only express certain ones. Other times, we might do the opposite, and obsessively nurture our “negative” feelings.
The important thing to remember, says Roberts, is that the judgment we put on our feelings doesn’t come out of thin air. “We grew up in households where we were told certain things and we internalized those messages. Then as adults, it’s no longer our parents telling us—we’re telling ourselves,” says Roberts.
Being able to consciously and maturely express our full range of emotions can be called “emotional agility,” a term coined by psychologist and author Susan David. In her popular TED talk, she stresses how critical it is to learn to get in touch with our feelings and let them out. Otherwise, she says, we become less able to deal with the world as it truly is, rather than how we wish it to be. Discomfort, says David, is actually the price of a meaningful life.
Signs you may be suppressing emotions—and what to do about it
There’s an endless number of ways a person might avoid their feelings, so we can’t address all of them here. But according to Roberts, there are a couple of common signs.
“One is if you’re feeling super anxious or depressed,” she says. “Often, depression is a function of pushing our emotions down so much that we become numb. Another one is if you’re reactive. You may react in a way that even surprises you. For instance, you might have a moment of road rage and think, ‘Where did that come from?’”
While suppressing emotions can be done in many ways and has complex roots, two decisions can start you on the path toward healing.
Cultivating self-compassion. When you were taught by your parents to shun or avoid certain feelings, this may be hard. But being kind to yourself when certain feelings come up can go a long way. “Criticizing ourselves can be really harmful because it keeps us disconnected from our authentic self,” says Roberts. Instead, she suggests: If a friend of yours was going through this, how would you respond to them? Then, say those things to yourself.
Reaching out for support. This step can also be difficult. When it comes to certain emotions, “sometimes we don’t reach out for help and maybe self-medicate or ignore it, hoping it’ll go away,” says Roberts. “Then we lose that connection to ourselves, which makes it harder to reach out to somebody else.” At the same time, she notes that the previous step — self-compassion — can make it easier to reach out to others. This is because we often feel isolated or alone with the feelings we were taught to ignore. Often, the best person to reach out to is a therapist.
How therapy helps if you’re suppressing emotions
One of the best things a therapist can do is provide a safe space for you to express the emotions you’ve been suppressing. This is important if you’ve been told certain emotions weren’t okay in the past.
In the therapist’s office, says Roberts, you learn that your feelings will not be denied, ignored, or shut down. “As you experience that, you can start branching out into other relationships and letting others into your life. Then they can be a witness to your difficult emotions and you can start experiencing healing,” she says.
You might wonder if you can do some of this work on your own — and while that’s definitely possible, it always helps to work with a professional who is trained to see these patterns and knows what they’re looking for. For example, if you have angry outbursts today, it may be tied to suppressed anger—but it could also be a manifestation of deep sadness. Suppressed emotions can be tricky and not always easy to untangle.
As Roberts puts it: “I’ve seen therapy be very helpful with my clients who may not even know what they’re feeling. I can help them by pointing out things I hear them say and making connections, like, ‘It sounds like you’re feeling such and such,’ and then they’ll say, ‘Oh, I guess I am.’ Having a person mirror your thoughts and emotions can help you understand yourself better and the work that needs to be done.”
Find a therapist today
If you think you’ve been suppressing emotions and are ready to work with a therapist, we encourage you to reach out to us. Call 949.528.6300 or email info@OCHealthPsych.com to be matched with one of our expert providers.
Note to psychology professionals: The need for mental health services has significantly increased, and as such, we are hiring new providers. Orange County Health Psychologists welcomes applicants from licensed professionals of all backgrounds who have a passion for excellence in mental health care. For more information, see our Careers page.
—Written by Ekua Hagan for Orange County Health Psychologists
About Suzy Roberts, LMFT
Suzy Roberts is a licensed marriage and family therapist with over 9 years of clinical experience working with clients ranging in age from adolescent and young adult to older adults. Using an attachment-based approach to therapy, Suzy incorporates psychodynamic as well as CBT, DBT and ACT modalities. Her warm and deeply empathic personality is key to building rapport with her clients and working collaboratively with them on their journey towards health and wholeness. Suzy holds a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from Vanguard University and a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from San Diego State University. Her areas of specialization include working with individuals struggling with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and questions surrounding gender and sexual identity, as well as with grief, loss, and managing life transitions.