“Your emotions make you human. Even the unpleasant ones have a purpose. Don’t lock them away. If you ignore them, they just get louder and angrier.” ― Sabaa Tahir
Every single day, we encounter stimuli in our external environment that trigger a mix of emotions within us. Some are positive, others are negative. Naturally, we welcome positive emotions because they make us feel good—variants of good. But when it comes to negative emotions, we rarely address them. As a matter of fact, we either suppress or repress them.
To better understand what ‘suppression’ and ‘repression’ mean, let’s take a simple example: Say, we’ve had the roughest of days at work, and at the end of the day, we get back to a messy home and an argument with the spouse that quickly escalates to an unwanted magnitude. It is, indeed, a negative stimulus and so, the negative emotion of anger stirs up within. In response, we could react in three probable ways: One, we could acknowledge our anger, and share it with someone, express it irrespective of how we are feeling. Two, sensing our rising anger, we could suppress it with the help of the classic mechanism of deep breaths, counting to ten. That would mean shifting our focus and glossing over the emotion. Three, we could repress our emotion.
Studies show that our subconscious mind, sometimes, represses the surge of negative emotions because it perceives them as harmful to our psychological wellbeing and self-image. According to the study Repression: Finding Our Way in the Maze of Concepts published by the National Centre of Biotechnology Information: “Repressive-defensiveness is characterized by a non-conscious avoidance of threatening information.” And so, a person with repressive tendencies is likely to remain sociable and cheerful, who rarely complain about their misfortune. Their self-image too is positive. However, when such a person encounters someone who discusses an emotional problem, they are inclined to quickly change the subject in an attempt to avoid dealing with negative emotions.
So, what is the right way to handle negative emotions, given there are various ways to deal with them? Responds clinical psychologist Dr Joy Bannerjee, “It is in our best interest to acknowledge our emotions and feel through them. The more we become receptive to a spectrum of emotions that surface from within us, the better we’d become, at not only acknowledging them but also at processing and expressing them.” When we shun away negative emotions—either by suppressing or repressing them, we only bury them alive. They fester until one day they emerge to cause greater damage.