Emotions are an important part of our condition. They can be good, they can be bad, and they can even control us. They take over our bodies and minds, and all we can do is act on them or wait for them to pass, and that waiting can be difficult.
William James, in his book, Varieties of Religious Experience, writes: “Our emotions are extremely strong… Love, jealousy, guilt, fear, remorse, or anger can overwhelm a person. Hope, happiness, determination can be equally explosive. And these emotions rarely leave things as they are”.
But there is another important point. We are capable of suppressing emotions. It’s not just that we don’t act on them, we don’t allow ourselves to experience them fully. It’s as if emotions are knocking on the door and we refuse to let them in.
What does it mean not to let yourself feel something? Where do emotions go in such cases? How can they come back with redoubled force years later?
Suppression of emotion by shifting attention
We can change the nature of our mental states by redirecting our attention. For example, young children often find that they can combat their fear of the dark by talking or singing. How can this help? Children focus on the sound of their own voice, and this leaves fewer mental resources for the object of their fears. They can’t talk or sing and imagine monsters coming out of the closet at the same time – that would be too taxing on the psyche.
Likewise, people undergoing a painful medical procedure will feel less pain if they focus on thinking about something pleasant, such as the person they love most. One should try not to focus on the object of that emotion, but instead pay attention to something else.
We can also do the opposite and succumb completely to emotion, even using external devices, such as when people listen to sad music to heighten their own sense of tragedy. In such cases, it may seem as if we are evoking little bits of sadness scattered throughout our bodies to create a unified and overwhelming state.
It is important to note that we may or may not evoke an emotion by assuming physical postures and taking actions that are conducive or incompatible with that emotion. Thus, if we engage in running or swimming, we make it difficult or impossible for us to grieve or become enraged
Suppression of emotions through interpretation
We can also partially block the experience of an emotion by mislabeling it. Sometimes we interpret sadness as anger because we think sadness is a weakness, whereas anger preserves our dignity. Conversely, we may interpret anger as sadness, especially when we think anger is inappropriate, such as when people are quietly angry at a deceased parent.
In such cases, we allow ourselves to feel something, but not quite what comes from deep within the psyche. When emotions are strong and deep, distraction can only work until the “floodgates open”.
What happens to temporarily supressed emotions?
It’s important to realize that supressed emotions don’t go anywhere, they stay deep inside us. Just as we have unconscious thoughts, we can have unconscious feelings and affective processes.
Of course, it is difficult to say what they are, since they are unconscious. However, repeated studies by psychologists have come to the disappointing conclusion that they are there. That is, suppressing emotions to get rid of them for good is not enough.
For example, one day you may realize that your attachment to a person, a place, a job has either weakened or become stronger. Either way, you no longer feel the way you used to. This can happen even if you have never consciously considered it. But the day you realize that your attitude has changed is probably not the day it happened. Indeed, if you haven’t consciously considered it, the transition probably didn’t happen in one day at all. It went on for some time.
All this happened outside your consciousness and without your active participation. We must conclude that it happened unconsciously. Perhaps, as a result, you have been carrying love, hate or indifference for years without realizing it yourself.
We can only imagine that the emotions we are trying to suppress and not allow ourselves to feel continue to exist in us in this way: outside of awareness. In this state, they may or may not evolve and change. When emotions, especially negative ones, run deep, when they penetrate to the very core of our being, it is impossible to restore inner harmony without succumbing to them. Of course, it does not follow that we must do so immediately.
There are various reasons why postponing grief or annoyance might be appropriate. Perhaps we can interpret grief avoidance as a prolonged stage of denial, a denial not of what happened, but of how unbearable it was. Most importantly, sometimes we must acknowledge that it is not really in our power to go on living as if nothing happened.