Processing Emotions with Repression

Lulu newBrandon, the blogger of The Daily Bipolar, inspired me to write this topic. In his post Emotional Repressiveness and I’m Past Depair, he explored emotional responses, the lack of expression, and some of his reasoning how this may have come about.

None of us are immune. We are all guilty of repressing an emotion at one time or another. But the question is why? With all of this talk of emotional outlets and coping strategies, why do we still continue to engage in this behavior?

I certainly am guilty of it. I am still sad about the loss of Zen. I had a depressive episode in the next week that involved two instances of self injurious behavior. I’m unhappy in my marriage. I am very angry about a lot of things that I’d rather not reference at the moment. And the only people who know are the ones who read it here.

These words are not clearly on my face. A student noticed my low energy level and asked if I was tired. My husband noticed the bandages. And for everything else, there is no voice. Just a bottle, rattling on a shelf in my mind, heart, and soul.

Why? Why didn’t I just say something? Because if I spoke those words aloud, even in an empty room, it would make everything real. I’d have look into the twisted, ugly face of depression. I’d have to really see the actual damage I did, that I inflicted upon myself. Opening the closet to don my armor in order to walk across the battlefield of love and marriage is a possibility I couldn’t face.

Sometimes, we all fall prey to our own cowardice.

There are other reasons for repression, too. Society sees some emotions as weakness and will certainly prey on it. I’m at the poker table of life and I show a hint of doubt, insecurity, anxiety. The other players will take me for everything I have. Crying in public is grounds for constant ridicule. Expressions of anger will either provoke fear or more anger resulting in vendettas. Others will stop at nothing for their vindication.

I fear those repercussions. I have enough turbulence without inciting more. Certainly, I don’t care what people think. But, I care what they do. A person’s actions can cause immense damage. Just a singular word may be the push of a tiny button that sets off the nuclear holocaust.

Grow a thicker hide.

I’ve heard those words my whole life. But what does it really mean? People carelessly use that phrase in the sense that we shouldn’t let people or situations get the better of us. But, in reality, it means to grow an outer shell. It promotes stoicism and repression. And worse, it encourages us to isolate ourselves because expression is inappropriate.

This is especially the case when people are aware and informed of our mental health concerns. There are two extremes in this scenario. First, I express an emotion and it’s considered “symptomatic”. In one extreme, people become alarmists and respond with incessant worry or “suicide watch”. Then, in another extreme, I express an emotion and it is rationalized away under the banner of my “illness”. Neither responses are desirable and possibly more damaging.

I increasingly find myself shelving emotional responses when they arise. Sure, I might fly this under the banner of “control” and / or “disclosure”. And sometimes that can be considered the whole truth. I need time to “process”, so I can determine the causation and proceed with an appropriate behavioral response. That’s what building cognitive-behavioral therapy is all about, right? Mostly, it’s only a half-truth and another reason finds an application.

Repression of emotions arises from many years of modeling, punishment for expression, and positive reinforcement of suppression. Eventually, it becomes a knee-jerk reaction for many of us.

How do we overcome?

© Tallulah “Lulu” Stark and A Canvas Of The Minds 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Tallulah “Lulu” Stark and A Canvas Of The Minds with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


6 thoughts on “Processing Emotions with Repression

  1. I’m not sure that we CAN overcome. Whenever we let our guard down, it brings pain in one form or another.

    • I see your point. I have often thought that myself. I am a person who is slow to warm up for those reasons. And even as that indifference person, I still find constant disappointment when I open up and there are unpleasant consequences.

      Here’s the problem with repression. I cram that emotion in a bottle, label it, and put it on a shelf as I’ve described. First, that does nothing to address the problem that caused the emotion in most cases. Second, those bottles can only hold so much, and that shelf has a weight capacity. Once something explodes, it does so with so much ferocity that it causes absolute devestation and havoc.

      Therefore, there has to be some way to address it.

  2. Emotions, like pretty near everything else in life, have to be filtered and balanced and sorted through. Some need to be expressed, some need to be modified first, and unfortunately, some need to be repressed – for our own good. Not forever, but you wrote about your marriage and how you aren’t ready to face the reality of your unhappiness. Can you repress your emotions on the subject forever? Theoretically, if you want to wind up a bitter old shrew who constantly bickers with your husband over tiny things (and then are you actually repressing, or just re-directing?).

    You can, however, shelve facing that one until you feel you’re a bit steadier on your feet and able to handle the repercussions.

    I don’t know that I’m really the best one to be giving my two cents here, though, considering I have done everything from repressing trauma for so long and so deeply that I wound up in the emergency room with seizures to being the crazy lady who spreads her arms and sings aloud in the rain in the parking lot.

    Oddly enough, though, I don’t seem to ever encounter negative reactions. Of course perhaps I’ve just grown accustomed to ignoring them. 😉

    Another thing you can do is healthily re-direct the worst of the negative emotions to dull their sharp edges. I used to kickbox (it’s the sport of the future, sir), and it was a wonderful outlet for both anger and pain. And of course you’ve read some of my writings – I don’t know if you ever read some of the most intense posts, but they come off like the ravings of a lunatic. I was in a very severe PTSD state at the time, but they were a way for me to process things I couldn’t repress in a manner and venue that was calming and safe for me.

    I guess in my life, the piece that is most important in all of this is my frame of mind in any given state, and my ability to see things from other people’s points of view. Are they angry or are they hurt? Are they behaving in a deliberately malicious manner, or are they just caught up and being careless of our emotions and emotional state? And also, the people who know me well know that I am an excellent judge of when and how my mood symptoms manifest, so I rarely get thrown the line about me being “symptomatic,” nor the one about being “ill.” I used to, but since I have not only learned to detail the reasons why such a judgment is BS, but how to express it and be believed, it doesn’t happen often.

    • I’m going to work backwards, because it’s more function in this case.

      That’s the problem that I come to. Even the people who know me well in my life still give me lines like that. it’s a way for them to rationalize symptoms away, and act as if I have complete control as to when my symptoms manifest. Ummm, duh. That’s the problem with having bipolar disorder. They wouldn’t call it a “disorder” if I could schedule a depressive episode or a hypomanic freakout or something else. They would just think of it as a condition that some people are more inclined to have than others. It’s called a disorder because it causes dysfunction BECAUSE it produces such symptoms.

      Sigh. It’s very difficult to get through to people who have dug their heels into the ground on their stance on mental illness. We cannot will these things away. Believe me, if I could, I would. “But you don’t want to. You’re not trying hard enough because you don’t want to will it away. You’d rather be sick.” BS. Anyone who knows me well enough knows that I will medicate myself into stupidity to function. That’s trying to treat it and be functional instead of just being sick. (Explictives deleted).

      When it comes to re-directing the negative, that brings us in a full circle back to coping mechanisms. First, is making the admission that these things exist in the first place.

      Sometimes, it’s just a knee-jerk reaction. It is inconvenient or frowned upon at the time of manifest. Therefore, it goes on the shelf. Usually, it has to go to situation critical before it rattles off the shelf and explodes on the floor. And then, we circle back around to the first two paragraphs. If I let it go beyond critical – well – that’s the only time it actually becomes an issue. Because I have become the problem at hand and not so much that the situation that provoked the emotion is the problem.

  3. “Because if I spoke those words aloud, even in an empty room, it would make everything real.”

    There’s a trick to it though, because it is real, and of course you know that, Lulu, or you wouldn’t have written those words.

    You actually – well there’s a great deal more I’ve been wanting to say on this subject that you’ve brought to my mind. But it will have to be in post form. I need to put my life on pause for three days to catch up on Canvas alone.

    • Yes, it is real. Very, very real. But haven’t there been instances in your life where you had to choose your battle? I have to choose battles every single day. It’s cost vs. benefit analysis usually. I saw a kid do something I knew was against the rules. Do I say something? Well, is that kid going to hurt himself/herself or anyone else? And how much trouble is this going to cause the kid and myself if I make a big deal out of something that really isn’t? Or, do I say something to my husband when he does or says something that really (excuse the french) pissed me off? Depends on A LOT of factors, more than I can go into here without making this a novel.

      The point is, sometimes it really is easier, but only in the moment, to choose the battle. Is it necessary and / or convenient for me to deal with something right now? Usually, it comes to a point where it becomes necessary, because it’s never really comfortable or convenient. And sometimes. . . OK, more than sometimes, it’s only because if I admit it as a reality to myself, then eventually, I’m going to have to express it as a reality to someone else. That’s probably the worst part is bringing those things into an actual existence instead of something etherial in my head.

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