Repression and Suppression
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- What are repression and suppression?
- The positive and negative aspects of repression.
- Techniques for dealing with repression and suppression.
What are repression and suppression?
- Suppression. It is a conscious choice not to indulge a particular thought, feeling, or action. "Not to indulge" means that we are aware of a thought or feeling, but we decide not to dwell on it (internally, by continuing to think about it) -- nor to express it (externally, by acting it out). Usually we repress because of the impulse's inappropriateness with regard to the situation or because of time constraints in which we "just can't deal with that right now." Suppression is a useful psychological mechanism which permits us to concentrate on our affairs without being distracted by every impulse which arises, and without having to act on those impulses. We acknowledge the impulses, and we accept their presence and the fact that they might emerge again, to be reconciled or suppressed then.
- Repression. It is similar to suppression in that a thought or feeling or emotion is not expressed -- but in repression, we deny that the element even exists. The repressed element might come into our conscious awareness and then be denied, or it might be prohibited from our awareness at all (as in the action of the Freudian "dream censor"); it is blocked because it has been judged it to be potentially disruptive to our psychological stability or our self-image. Obviously, both the stability and the self-image are illusory, because they are based on a rejection of the reality of our own thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
The positive and negative aspects of repression.
- The positive aspects of repression.
- Repression can be a useful defense mechanism. Although repression is generally viewed as a destructive act, it is rightly called a "defense mechanism" because it defends us against psychological material which might indeed be dangerous if we don't have the ego strength or psychological skills to manage certain challenges to the ego. For example, if a young boy must play the role of a "perfectly sweet child" to please his demanding parents, he might not know any way to survive except to deny his occasional anger; however, he could select the option of suppression if knew that he could secretly acknowledge -- within the privacy of strong ego boundaries -- both the anger and the unfairness of his parents' demands.
- Our perceptions are distorted. While the repressed material is in the shadow, it projects onto people and situations; for example, fear which has been repressed and then projected will color our perceptions of the world as a frightening place. Because we are not perceiving accurately, we acquire incorrect information from our surroundings, and thus we respond inappropriately; we react fearfully to situations which are not truly dangerous. Repression distorts not only our observations in this moment, but also our memories of the past and our expectations for the future.
- Repressed material is not available for our use. Every thought and emotion has a potential purpose -- perhaps offering new perspectives, and some vitality, and a broader understanding of our wholeness (as we realize that we have the capacity for such a thought or emotion). When we repress, we are refusing these gifts. For example, if we deny our fear, we are not able to use the energy that is associated with it, nor can we have a full perspective on the dangers which are triggering the fear.
- Repression prevents us from understanding ourselves. For example, if we examine our "selfishness" (instead of pretending that it doesn't exist), we might find the reasons for our behavior; perhaps we will realize that it is actually a reasonable response to people who are abusing our tendency toward generosity. And, in another example, if we analyze a thought of violence toward an offending person, we can learn much about our ego, our boundaries, our needs, our viewpoints, our projections, and other aspects of ourselves.
- Repressed material remains unresolved. If we don't even admit that an emotion or thought exists, we can't take action toward a solution. For example, if we disavow our capacity for selfishness, we won't look for the reason why it occurs, nor will we recognize the ways in which it is wrecking our friendships, and we won't seek ways to maintain our dignity and boundaries while also being loving and generous enough to support those friendships.
- Repressed emotions become difficult to express in a constructive manner. During their period of repression, they degenerate into primitive forms; for example, repressed anger can become resentment or bitterness.
- Repression causes physical distress. The repressed energy is lodged in the body, where it might be experienced as physical tension, physical numbness, lack of vitality, the physical (and psychological) symptoms of depression, diminished body awareness, and eventually illness. Massage therapists and other bodyworkers know that when their treatments release physical stress, the clients often feel an upsurge of emotions -- the emotions that have been locked into those tissues.
- Repression consumes energy. The effort to keep material in the unconscious mind is like the effort to keep a buoyant object underwater; we are using energy to hold back the energy of the repressed elements. When repressed material is released, we might experience a feeling of lightness and freedom -- and power, because the energy from the material and from our effort to repress it is now available for a constructive use.
- Repression causes emotional numbness. We repress by intellectually denying the reality of the emotion, and by desensitizing ourselves to our awareness of the movement and pressure of the emotional energy within us. The extent to which we repress one emotion or sensation is the extent to which we repress all emotions or sensations; for example, when we refuse to feel fear and anger, we also lose our capacity to feel happiness and pleasure.
- The repressed material does not develop. For instance, if we repress our anger, we do not learn how to express it properly, because we are denying ourselves the opportunities to practice the various ways in which the dynamics of anger can be used in an effective, civilized manner. Because we have not developed these skills, the anger -- when it finally bursts out of its repression -- has an immature nature, as in a "temper tantrum."
- The contents regress. Not only do they not develop, they proceed in the opposite direction, becoming more primitive and unfocused. Anger degenerates into a general, vague hostility.
- The contents become autonomous. They seem to create "a life of their own." Because the ego has denied its connection to them, it has no control over them, so they arise at inappropriate moments, and in inappropriate ways, often driving us into compulsive behavior; in that sense, they control us. As the ego makes plans and designs its life, the repressed contents seem to develop agendas of their own, as though plotting a way to express themselves -- but their expression will necessarily be contrary to our will, as though an alien force is imposing itself upon us.
- The contents are projected more intensely. When we see people through a thicker projection, our perceptions of them become more distorted. (Refer to the chapter regarding projection.)
- The contents can cause a reversal in our behavior. Jung used the term "enantiodromia" to label the inclination of people to go from one extreme to the other, as when a seemingly sweet, harmless person suddenly indulges a violent rampage.
Techniques for dealing with repression and suppression.
- We develop self-acceptance, which is simply a willingness to view reality -- the reality that certain thoughts or feelings or emotions are occurring within us (regardless of whether we like them). As we cultivate respect for the natural psychological processes of the creation of thoughts and feelings and emotions, we can actively select the ones which may be expressed productively in any given situation, while carefully suppressing those which need to be set aside for a later time.
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