Emotional Suppression and What We Need to Know About It

There are times when we may suppress emotion. Sometimes that is a learned behaviour from childhood – becoming the favoured way of dealing with things; other times we may avoid recognizing our emotions and we use our defense mechanisms (like avoidance) in order to not have to deal with a painful event. In any event, when we suppress emotion we run the risk of:

  • building resentment. If you are unable to tell someone how you feel, this may build resentment. This type of under the surface anger can lead to having less favourable feelings towards your loved one over time.
  • displacement. If something makes you angry and you struggle to process or deal with it, you may take out that suppressed emotion on the people around you.
  • addiction. When we suppress our emotions, we run the risk of turning to something external to ease the pain.
  • a build up and release. Any time that tears come as a result of an emotion, we consider that a healthy way of releasing it. Build up emotions however can lead to uncontrolled emotion by way of an over-reaction.
  • mood swings or depression. Heavy emotions that don’t get processed sit with us; this can often lead to experiencing mood swings or the symptoms of depression.
  • physical ailments. When we suppress emotions, they can turn inward and create physical symptoms or illness.

We are much better served to lean into simply acknowledging our emotions. Observe the emotion, describe the emotion, not place judgement on the feeling. Perhaps you will say something, perhaps you will talk it over with a friend or therapist, perhaps you will go for a walk. When we simply allow our emotions to be, with the conscious decision to process, we cut down the tendency to suppress the emotion – leaving us with a grounded and secure feeling.

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A Way to Look at Forgiveness

Forgiveness is one of the more challenging of virtues. We hear that we are better for it; that when we forgive ourselves or others who have hurt us, we find peace. Very often, we have to push against the feeling that by forgiving we excuse the hurt. Forgiving is not about accepting the transgression but rather that it happened.

We must also reconcile with the myth that through the act of forgiveness, we invite the person who hurt us back in our lives. There are times when that does happen, but forgiveness isn’t the guarantee of that process – sometimes we choose to forgive and also choose to move forward without the relationship. Forgiveness gives us the gift of healing the wound of the hurt.

Forgiveness also doesn’t guarantee that we won’t get emotionally triggered or still feel pain and sorrow when reminded of the hurt. When we have forgiven however, we hold a greater sense of freedom from the wound; it doesn’t control us as it used to.

A lovely quote that can give to us a way of looking at this valuable process is “Forgiveness is not a line to cross but a road to travel. – Unknown” 

Forgiveness is a journey, with some pit-stops, perhaps a brief stay or two, sometimes a crossroad to face; albeit heading to the same place – peace.

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The Destructive Forces of Resentment

I love this saying by Buddha and will often use it in session:

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are

the one who gets burned.” – Buddha

This type of anger is not what we would consider immediate anger – those rising up feelings that occur when someone says something to upset you for example. This type of anger is one that falls in the category of hostility or resentment. It is pent up anger, pushed down anger, anger that has been avoided, anger that we hold on to. Sometimes it is towards a person who has hurt us, other times it is anger that comes from a circumstance in our life that has not been resolved.

In any case, it is a destructive anger. And the only person we are really hurting is ourselves.  I also liken the hot coal to a stone in our heart; hostility and bitterness will create stones in our hearts, and therefore we carry the heavy load.

We are in a much better position to begin to explore our hurt, for that is really what resentment is about – we have skipped over the hurt to anger and it keeps us in a place where we avoid the pain, thereby avoiding forgiveness. I would say that perhaps it is time to let go of that hot coal and begin the tender care of our wounds. 🙂

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The Good Side to “Bad” Emotions

We often label emotions as either good or bad. We have certain emotions that we welcome such as joy, happiness, contentedness, peace – and those that we consider to be unwelcomed such as sadness, rejection, guilt, anger and so forth. Our attitude towards emotions are influenced by society, culture, our own experiences, and what we were taught about them growing up.

Emotions; however, are neither good nor bad. They just are. When we feel sad about something, we are meant to feel somber. When anger rises, something has most likely irritated us or we feel defensive. When we feel hopeless, perhaps the weight of something needs to be examined. When we feel guilty, perhaps we have made a mistake or perhaps we default there out of habit.

Emotions are meant to be felt. What we do with them after that is our choice. Recognizing the emotion is the first step in allowing a non-judgemental stance towards the feeling. The next step is to ask ourselves “What do I want to do about this emotion? How long will I allow myself to stay there? What action can I take to help process it?”

And sometimes, it requires us to recognize what emotion we are lacking in ourselves and we can then move to being proactive in achieving more of it. If joy is lacking, for example, how can we create more opportunities in our lives to experience it? The same can be said for connection, peace, etc.

Let us try to welcome emotions as a flowing presence; neither good nor bad – just as they are, meant to be felt.

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What is Emotion Contagion?

Seeing someone cry has the ability to make our own eyes well up with tears. When someone starts to get cross with us, we feel our own anger begin to rise within ourselves. When some is especially wound up in our presense, we can begin to feel the flutter of anxiety in our chest. This process is known as emotion contagion and it comes to us because of mirror neurons in our brain. Our ability to read another’s emotional state is an important way for us to improve our communication with others as we can:

  • use our own feelings to understand what our loved one is feeling. Being able to sense their sadness, grief, anxiety, surprise, joy, etc., allows us to reinforce our skill for empathy and therefore, compassion.
  • have shared experiences. Emotion contagion is what makes everyone at a comedy show start to belly laugh; feel edge-of-our-seat excitement on a roller coaster, or the awe of experiencing something new while travelling or exploring. It can also be a profound shared experience when grief becomes palpable (everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news of 9/11.)
  • create space for tough emotions. We have all experienced getting angry at our littles when temper tantrums abound or their behaviours appear unreasonable. Knowing that we will naturally match their emotions can actually help us contain our reaction – instead, we can choose to meet their chaos with calm.

Being aware of emotion contagion can help us to not only understand our own feelings, but it can give us permission to either ride along, or create the space for our loved one to find their own calm and sense of grounding. When we can be steady, we set the course for others to right their sails.

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The Companionship of Joy and Sorrow

I have come to appreciate this quote by Kahlil Gibran:

“Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.” 
― Kahlil Gibran

We spend a lot of time focusing on happiness. Granted, 40% of our contentedness comes from the activities we choose, and therefore becomes an important part of our active living. Sorrow may come to us in the form of a moment in our day, or part of a process as we are experiencing a loss. Our aim becomes not to live with one over the other, but rather to integrate. It becomes a matter of knowing that we can feel both moments of joy and sorrow in our day and understand that we can process each emotion to the extent that it informs us of our growth and healing.  It is okay to give ourselves permission to simply feel the emotion, whether it be joy or sorrow, and acknowledge its presence.

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Grief Revisited

Grief tends to revisit us. At the later stages of grief, there is a feeling of integration of our loss; we are able to recognize that the bereavement we have endured also sits alongside the love we felt and the strength we have gathered through the process.

We can be moving right along, joyfully integrated, when a trigger upsets the apple cart. Sometimes it comes in the form of a dream, other times in circumstantial events that are happening in our lives, sometimes it comes as a re-enactment if a similar loss happens to someone close to us.

Grief revisits us. It can make us feel as though we are experiencing the loss again; perhaps less painfully but there nonetheless. It is when we are feeling vulnerable that we might question the work we have done in getting to a place of healing. It becomes important to recognize that grief has its own timeline and that it is a normal process that it touches us again when triggered to.

The steps we have taken to integrate loss and love are not lost to us in those revisited moments; rather it is a time where we can once again gather our strength, take a deep breath, and say “we got this.” 🙂

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The Aftereffects of Anger

You find yourself angry with a loved one and have called a time out. Your partner is having a hard time containing hostility, so you agree to table the discussion, for now. The best solution to an angry situation is a promise to regroup and try again when our tempers have cooled and our nostrils are less flared. But what happens to us in the aftermath of anger? What are it’s aftereffects?

  1. A narrowing of attention. One of the common prompts to anger is a feeling that you are being treated unfairly which leads us to blame. This doesn’t just go away when you leave the room. Very often, we will continue to ruminate about the situation that is ticking us off.
  2. Bringing the past back into the present. Very often, the issues we have with a person is part of a pattern. In the aftereffects of anger, we can stew about all of the times in the past when we felt the same way, locking ourselves into feeling hopeless about the possibility of change.
  3. Feeling numb or disconnected. Sometimes this comes from our body’s physiological response to being riled up, other times, it is a psychological effect of trying to process all of the frustration, irritation and outrage we have felt.

Recognizing that the aftereffects of anger are present are an important part of choosing an appropriate amount of time in order to process. The 24 hour rule is often a good one, as it gives us time to allow our rational brain to weigh in on the situation. It also gives us time to chat it over with a friend, or work on thinking about a solution before returning to a discussion about it. The aftereffects of anger; important knowledge to have in our tool belt when it comes to understanding this complex, yet simple emotion 🙂

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Grief and the Inheritance of Joy

When grieving, a feeling that can be common is that of guilt. In the midst of our sadness, when we struggle to process a loved one’s death and their physical absence from our life, we often experience guilt for feeling any amount of joy. Sometimes it can even catch us off guard and we immediately feel as though we have somehow failed our loved ones. From this, there can develop what we consider to be a homage of sorts; that while we still grace the earth with our presence, we will dampen our joy so as not to let anyone doubt the depth of our love for the one who has passed.

When this occurs and it is brought to our attention, a common question gets asked of us; “Would – your loved one – want you to be this sad? Would they ask that you contain your joy for the rest of your life?” And the answer is always “No, of course not.” I have never heard a client or otherwise answer that question with a “Yes, I think that is what they would want of me.”

The reason that this question resonates is because of the inheritance of joy. It is in the energy of the universe. Just as we want the very best for our loved ones in our life, so, I believe we would want that in our death. That by grieving our loved one’s passing and by honouring the special relationship that we had with them, we also move towards the renewal of a life of contentedness and peace. The inheritance of joy – a lovely way to think of the parting gift of our loved ones.

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What Anxiety and Anger Have in Common

You’re running late, feeling keyed up about not being on time; no one seems to be co-operating and the littlest one is starting to have a meltdown because she can’t find her favourite hat. Before you know it, you are yelling at the kids and yanking the closet door practically off of its hinges.

How did you go from anxious to angry so easily? Simply answered, our bodies set us up for it. When we are anxious, our body’s muscles tense up, our blood pressure rises, our heart rate increases, our breathing becomes more shallow and our attention narrows. The same thing happens when we are angry. Both our anxiety and our anger activate what is called the sympathetic nervous system which gets us ready for action. It becomes very easy when feeling stressed, to simply shift into anger because our bodies are already there.

It is our parasympathetic system that gets us back to a relaxed state. Eventually, whether anxious or angry, built in mechanisms eventually bring us back to calmness (picture driving to work after having dropped off the kids, coffee purchased and music playing). In the midst of feeling stressed, we can help that process along and allow it to get us there sooner by taking some deep breaths.

Focusing on slowing down our breathing pushes the reset button on both our physiological state and our mindset. We are much better served to stop, take some deep breaths and state to ourselves “It’s okay, like every other morning, we’ll get there.” Leaving everyone less rattled and the door still on its hinges 🙂

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