Haven’t cried in years? And just write it off to not being a crier? When you think of your childhood, feel curiously blank? And when people aren’t kind do you feel oddly ambivalent?
You might suffer from repressed emotions.
It’s not like you go around purposely deciding you will not feel anything (that would be suppressing emotions, which is different).
Repressed emotions are feelings you unconsciously choose not to process. Somehow along the line you’ve trained your brain to push certain feelings back, much like holding a beach ball under water.
The trouble is that, much like that beach ball scenario, it actually takes a lot of mental effort to keep down emotions.
So while maybe you avoid feeling unpleasant, messy emotions, there is a price to play.
If you are repressing your emotions, you might find that current day challenges and problems create unhelpful responses in you.
This can look like a sort of shut down, such as:
But for some people, it’s the opposite. It’s as if all your repressed emotions create the snowball effect. Everything rolls into one and you overreact to things in a way that can be embarrassing. You burst into tears over small things, or fly off the handle at the smallest slight.
You might also have many physical health complaints. Clinical research by American social psychologist J.W. Pennebaker in the 1990s connected repressed emotions and buried trauma to a lowered immune system, and issues ranging from common colds to cancer. Nowadays even the NHS admits that 45 per cent of doctor's visits are for 'medically unexplained symptoms', often with a psychological basis.
Somewhere along the line you likely experienced something that taught you that emotions are not safe to have. Repressing emotions became a coping mechanism.
Or you experienced something too overwhelming for you to understand, so your brain decided to simply file it all away for later.
But it can be something more subtle, too, such as a parent who refused to give you any attention unless you were calm and emotionless. You learned to be blank in order to get the love and care you needed.
Just ‘deciding’ to stop having repressed emotions likely won’t work. Your brain is a complex machine that believes it’s helping you survive (and maybe as a child repression did work this way). It won’t give up what it deems as a survival tool easily.
You have to effectively teach your brain that it’s safe to have emotions now. And you might also have to dig down and get out those ‘stuck’ emotions, a bit like unclogging a river by breaking apart a dam.
But therapy is certainly recommended. Working through big emotions and past experiences can be overwhelming to do alone, and support can help you move through the process much faster.
Some people find that the body is a direct route to breaking through emotions and ‘holds’ old emotions in different places. It might feel a good fit to you to try dance therapy, or body psychotherapy.
Or you might want to try regular talk therapy, where a highly trained psychotherapist creates a safe space and asks finely tuned questions that act as a sort of truth serum. You find things spilling out of you you never imagined you’d say.
What matters is making the commitment to unearth and heal repressed emotions, and finding the support to help you move forward.
Time to end the numbness and start feeling again? Find a therapist you like at a price you can afford and bring yourself back to life.