By: Chris Anderson Psy.D.

In the last article in this series on emotional regulation, we talked about the natural order of emotions. Operating properly, children and adults alike, experience an emotion internally, and then we express the emotion outwardly. We also discussed a number of factors that cause many boys and men to avoid expressing their feelings. In this article, we will discuss how it is people hinder and interfere with the natural desire to express feelings.

Given all the cultural influences on boys and men around emotional expression, many guys come to realize they are only socially allowed, or encouraged, the expression of two feelings: happy and angry. Guys are permitted to joke around and laugh, and they can express and display anger without any negative disapproval (unless the anger becomes violent). This is about it for socially sanctioned emotional expression. As a result, most guys begin overcontrolling and suppressing their other feelings like guilt, sadness, fear, hurt, etc. Unfortunately, for most guys they begin the act of suppression at a very young age; often between 6-10 years old when they start receiving negative messages for the expression of more vulnerable emotions. At this tender age this requires some active and conscious effort to keep these feelings from coming out. Over time, with enough time and practice, routine suppression of feelings becomes second nature and evolves into an unconscious habit. As most guys age into late adolescence and adulthood, they are no longer aware of when or how they are suppressing feelings. Not surprisingly, all these suppressed emotions do not magically dissolve and evaporate. They are warehoused and stockpiled simply waiting for expression. In clinical practice we often see men coming into therapy in the 40’s to 60’s with significant depression and/or anxiety problems in the absence of any current identifiable stressors. Often is the result of 30-50 years of emotional neglect. The cumulative effect of all this unresolved emotion builds up and erodes many guys from the inside out.

Emotional Restoration

If we are going to restore the natural process of our feelings (experiencing and expressing), we essentially need these guys to get out of their own way and quit interfering. They have become the very obstacle that is keeping themselves from expressing feelings. In order to stop suppressing our feelings, they must first figure out how they have been doing it, which as noted above, has become an unconscious bad habit over the years. We cannot change what we don’t know. This will require a lot of awareness to uncover the now unconscious methods of suppression. People need to become highly attuned and aware of any emotional experience, and then at that very instant try to notice how they are suppressing the expression of those feelings (i.e., what mechanism they are using). Listed below are some common methods of suppression that are enacted when emotions want to be released. The goal is at the critical moment following the experience of emotion, to pay attention to what they may be doing in their body or saying in their minds to actively suppress the expression of those emotions.

  • Physical Methods: Holding your breath, physically tensing your whole body, digging your fingernails into your clenched fists, biting your tongue or inner lip, pinching or picking yourself, and cutting or burning yourself are of the physical methods of suppression. As you can see, many of these methods are pain evoking. Physical pain overrides emotional pain in the wiring of the brain, so in effect the physical pain acts not only to suppress expression, but also takes people away from the experience of the feeling as well. Other physical methods include use of alcohol or drugs to numb out feelings and even napping or sleeping since you do not have to feel emotions when you are unconscious.
  • Psychological Methods: Most of these methods are things we tell ourselves or are designed to take our mind off of what is evoking the experience of feelings. Some use denial (“They didn’t mean what they said”), some minimize (It’s not that big of deal”), some discount their feelings or experiences (“That doesn’t bother me”), some are quite good at forgetting situations and blocking them out of awareness, some avoid or ignore their feelings (“I’m not going to cry”), some people attack themselves (Quit being a baby!”), and many people distract themselves (“I’m just going to clean the house while I listen to music and not think about it”).

Many people who are still in touch with the experience of their feelings are usually able to quickly discover how they are suppressing their feelings. As soon as they experience a feeling, they need only utilize the skill of awareness and monitor what mechanisms they are using to suppress the expression of those feelings. Knowing what to be on the lookout for and the precise timing on when to pay attention (as soon as you are experiencing an emotion), allows most people to begin to figure out how they are suppressing within a couple of weeks. What was formerly an unconscious habit, has now been brought to light. Most people discover they employ anywhere between 3-6 mechanisms of suppression with 1-2 mechanisms being dominant.

When people have been routinely suppressing their feelings, it is not uncommon to begin to disengage from the emotional experience as well. So how does someone figure out how they are suppressing when they no longer even experience a feeling? The best method we have come up with so far is sleuthing backward. Most people who are disconnected from both the experience and expression of emotion, are pretty good intellectual thinkers, so we use this to our advantage. In their case, we need them to be on the lookout for any events and situations that would logically evoke an emotional response in most people. At these moments when their head tells them they should be feeling something, we again need them to tune in and be aware of methods of suppression (physical or psychological mechanisms). In most cases, people are unconsciously suppressing emotions using some methods or mechanisms. Just because we have disconnected from the experience of feelings does not mean that we no longer feel. And because we continue to feel, despite not experiencing it, this suggests that there must be some ongoing suppression at work that we need only discover.

Contact Us

Remember our primary goal is to re-engage and reconnect with our feelings to allow both the experience and the expression to occur. We need to stop inhibiting the feelings and instead inhibit our methods of suppression. In the last article in this series, we will talk more about how to go about re-engaging the process of expressing emotions. If you are interested in exploring your own emotional inhibitions and the impact it may be having in your life, feel free to contact IPC so you can schedule a consultation with one of our psychologists or therapists so we can help discuss treatment options. Please call us now at 763-416-4167, or request an appointment on our website: WWW.IPC-MN.COM so we can sit down with you and complete a thorough assessment and help you develop a plan of action that will work for you. Life is too short to be unhappy. Find the peace of mind you deserve.

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