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Emotional repression

Updated: Jan 24, 2023


As I mentioned in other posts, we download all our programming in childhood from our environment, those around us, and our experiences. These programs are protective in nature and are not trying to hurt us in any way (even though they do), so I do not want to make it seem like these are viruses that need to be eradicated. Rather, these programs are survival-based and are passed down from generation to generation because they are helpful to some degree, or they seem to be. But let’s explore an example of a repression pattern and see if it is actually helping us or not.


This may be an example that we can all somewhat relate to. Imagine a young child who is scared to look underneath their bed because they heard some scary sounds and were reminded of a scary movie they watched. They feel a lot of fear, and it really seems like there’s a monster underneath the bed so they avoid looking and force themselves to fall asleep. They do this over and over again every night, refusing to look because it feels very scary, but the fear only grows. In this child’s family, expressing fear is not really acceptable. It was never modeled to them, so the child pushes the fear down, “I shouldn’t be afraid,” and pretends that nothing is wrong. Instead they escape into their imagination where they feel safe and in control.


Eventually the child may be consciously unaware of the fear because they’re so absorbed in their fantasy world, but they start to have digestive issues and headaches. Then one day something unexpected happens in this child’s life and all that repressed fear resurfaces as a panic attack. Now they’re really scared, terrified even, and their racing thoughts are making stories about everything being scary. There is a deficiency story of “I am unsafe” which is only compounding all that fear unconsciously. Their parents take them for a psychiatric evaluation, and they get diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and are put on medications — which do help to some degree. But this child grows up into a very anxious person who has trouble relaxing and trusting others. They have difficulty being vulnerable and open with people which only reinforces their sense of deficiency and disconnection from others.


This example illustrates that what we repress comes back to haunt us in a much more sinister and distorted way, but the repression pattern that lead to all of this, “I shouldn’t be afraid” was innocently trying to help. Perhaps this child’s great grandfather learned this pattern when it helped them survive a war by pushing down fear. The utility or benefit of this pattern may be “in order to stay safe, I shouldn’t be afraid.” This pattern was then passed down unconsciously in this child’s culture and family. But is it actually helping though? In that moment of fear, the body was simply alerting the child to a possible threat. If the child had looked underneath the bed, the fear would have dissipated instantly. Or if the child’s family allowed for expressing fear, they could have asked a caregiver for support and felt safer. But due to being repressed over and over again, the child became very fearful and driven by the need for safety. In other words, repressing fear lead to more and more fear.


Another common example is repressing anger in order to not hurt people, but then all that repressed anger ends up exploding at times and actually hurting people, which further reinforces the repression, like a merry-go-round that you can’t get off of and that only seems to spin faster and faster.


Remember, it’s not the emotion that’s the problem, even though it may really seem like you’ll finally feel OK once you get rid of all that anger or sadness. Certainly there can be discomfort and pain with emotion. I’m not saying that all emotions are pleasant. But it’s actually the layer of thinking on top of the emotion which makes it complicated and distorted, and if we can distill all that thinking into a single thought, it would be something like “I don’t want to feel this.” Those words are like a command which the body obeys, and where is that emotion going to go? It has nowhere to go but in, so it gets pushed and contracted into our nerves and muscles. We may no longer be aware of it, but it’s there causing us pain and discomfort and influencing our thoughts and behavior.


What is repressed, stays repressed (until it explodes and gets further repressed).


Shadow work is all about exploring the programming that leads to repression by seeing what thought patterns are actually pushing down the particular emotion or deficiency. We stay curious since we do not know, and we stay persistent because this is not a one shot deal. There are layers of repression, and it can take time to unwind. But it’s worthwhile to start, and even more worthwhile to continue. The more you unwind, the deeper you go, the better you feel.


Lastly, I just want to mention that repression is not just of unpleasant emotions. We all also learn to repress happiness, love, excitement, etc. These programs are more subtle and usually in the beginning we’re mainly working with shame, anger, sadness, and fear. But once we go deeper we start to see how even expressing happiness or love fully was not always safe growing up due to our environment, so these too were pushed down. This is why finding happiness within isn’t really going to come from changing your job, finding a new spouse, moving to a new place, or whatever else your mind may tell you. It really only comes from going within and accessing the programs that are pushing down the emotion of joy and seeing why they are there, their utility or benefit. This will free them and allow for more joy to be naturally felt.


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