Who’s Afraid of Emotional Suppression?

Emotional suppression gets a bad rap—often from psychologists like me who should know better.

Far from the boogeyman it’s often made out to be, the ability to suppress your emotions is an important skill for emotional health and resilience.

The key is to get clear on what emotional suppression really means and how to do it well.

What Is Emotional Suppression?

There are lots of technical definitions of emotional suppression, but here’s the gist of it:

Emotional suppression means deciding to ignore an emotion.

For example:

  • As you’re walking into a meeting at work, you get a nasty text from your brother and end up feeling angry and sad.
  • While upsetting, you decide that, at least for the duration of the meeting, you’re going to ignore those emotions and try to stay focused on the discussion you’re supposed to lead.

Notice how this suppression of emotion is a deliberate choice. That’s key because it distinguishes suppression from a related term in psychology, repression, which is an unconscious tendency to ignore emotions.

It should be obvious, but there’s a huge difference between chronically and unthinkingly ignoring your emotions and thoughtfully making the decision to ignore an emotion because the expected benefits outweigh the costs.

In this case, the benefits of immediately processing your anger toward your brother probably don’t outweigh the costs of choosing to blow off your meeting at work—or being so focused on your anger that you’re not really present during the meeting.

The other critical distinction here is that healthy suppression is often a temporary response.

In the example above, the person might decide to go for a walk after the meeting and reflect on their brother’s text and how they’re feeling then. Or maybe they decide to put it on hold until that evening when they can journal about it.

When used well, suppression works as a bridging strategy that allows you to defer processing an emotion until a more optimal time.

In other words, processing and reflecting on an emotion immediately is not always the best course of action.

For one thing, as we described above, it might interfere with something more important in your life. But it also might not be the best time to process the emotion itself…

Often emotional processing is more effective with some time and distance.

When we’re initially upset by something, we tend to be pretty impulsive and narrow-minded. Whereas after we’ve had time to cool off and get some distance, we’re able to think in a calmer and more balanced way.

Take the upsetting text example from earlier: If someone texted you and you got super angry, are you really in the best headspace to reflect on the anger and make a decision about what you should do?

Maybe… Because the anger is fresh, there’s less of a chance, for example, that you will forget something important about your emotional reaction and why you feel the way you do.

But just because processing an emotion immediately is sometimes helpful doesn’t mean it should be your default.

You could also imagine how if you tried to process the anger immediately you’d be too upset to think clearly, and as a result, make an impulsive decision like texting them back with something rude or mean.

But if you gave yourself a little time to cool off and came back to the emotion later in the day, you’d be able to reflect on it in a more objective way and perhaps think about something that hadn’t occurred to you before—maybe you misinterpreted their meaning in the text, for example.

Too often we default to processing emotions immediately because they’re uncomfortable and we just want to be rid of them.

But there’s nothing inherently good about processing an emotion immediately. Sometimes it’s useful and worth the tradeoffs, and sometimes it’s not. Which means that, at least some of the time, choosing to suppress an emotion and return to it later is a perfectly reasonable decision.

One more thing to keep in mind…

In addition to trying to tell you something, emotions are also pushing you to act in a certain way:

  • Anger often pushes us to act aggressively
  • Anxiety often pushes us to worry or avoid things
  • Sadness often pushes us to ruminate on things

In some cases, the behavior our emotions are pushing us toward are good and healthy. Sadness pushing you to think more about a mistake you made could help you reflect on the mistake and avoid making a similar mistake in the future. But it could also lead you to dwell on the mistake and fall into self-criticism and unhealthy rumination.

Emotions are like good friends: While always well-intentioned, they’re not immune from giving bad advice.

It’s your job to decide when and to what extent to listen to and heed the advice your emotions are giving you.

Of course, choosing to ignore an emotion isn’t without risks…

The Risks of Emotional Suppression

Like any behavior, emotional suppression can be problematic if you’re not careful.

In fact, one of the reasons people are so paranoid about not suppressing their emotions is that they not incorrectly intuit that emotional suppression can be a pretty slippery slope:

  • You suppress an emotion with every intention to return to it later and process it more fully at a more optimal time.
  • But then “later” turns into another later and another, and before you know it, it just never happens.
  • Pretty soon, you’re doing it in all sorts of emotionally-challenging situations.
  • And eventually, your choice to suppress an emotion has become a habit of emotional avoidance.

The reason this particular slope is so slippery is that emotion suppression is highly rewarding because of the relief from painful feeling it can bring. And like any behavior that leads to an immediate and intense relief from pain (think alcohol, drugs, food, sex, etc.), it can quickly become addicting.

In other words…

It’s easy to get addicted to emotional suppression because it feels so good.

Obviously this doesn’t invalidate its usefulness. But it should give us pause.

If you’re unsure about whether to suppress an emotion or not, here are a few questions to help you make an informed decision:

  • What’s my motivation? If your motivation is to accomplish something more important or defer processing the emotion until a more ideal time, that’s a good sign that suppression might be worth it. On the other hand, if your motivation is primarily to avoid feeling bad, you might want to reconsider.
  • Do I have a plan? Do you have a specific plan for processing the emotion later? If so, that’s a good sign. If not, consider that first.
  • Does it align with my values? Remember, emotions almost always have a behavioral component—they’re nudging us in a certain direction. And if your emotion is pushing you to act in a way that’s obviously counter to your values (e.g.: quickly sending a sarcastic text back to your sibling), you might want to wait and process that emotion when you have more time and a clearer headspace.

Now, at this point there’s a risk that we’ve been thinking a bit to black and white about our response to difficult emotions: either suppress and deal with later or stop and process it now.

In reality, there’s a middle ground that’s often the most optimal way to respond to any difficult emotion…

Emotional Processing vs Emotional Validation

When it comes to emotions, processing is one of those annoyingly ambiguous terms that psychologists and therapists love to throw around but rarely take the time to define.

While I’m not aware of an officially sanctioned definition of emotional processing, to my mind it’s something like this…

Emotional processing means making time to carefully reflect on how you’re feeling emotionally.

There are two key features worth pointing out:

  1. Reflection. When you process an emotion you think carefully and intentionally about it—considering it from multiple points of view, exploring its meaning, acknowledging how it relates to your thoughts, values, body, other people, etc.
  2. Time. Emotional processing takes time. It doesn’t need to take years or even hours necessarily, but you probably can’t process a difficult emotion in 30 seconds. Maybe you spend 45 minutes talking it over with a spouse or good friend. Or maybe you journal about it for 15 or 20 minutes in the evening.

Of course, not all difficult emotions need to be processed like this: If someone cuts you off on the freeway and you feel mildly annoyed by it, you probably don’t need to book an emergency session with your therapist.

In fact, I’d argue that the vast majority of difficult emotions we experience in life don’t need to be extensively processed. And while many of them you can probably not give a second thought to, there is a middle class of emotional experiences that don’t require full-blown processing but also benefit from a little more attention.

This is where validation comes in…

A good mental habit is to briefly acknowledge and validate difficult emotions.

Going back to the nasty text before a meeting example, you might briefly say something like this to yourself as you walk into the meeting:

I’m feeling angry and a little sad about that text. I don’t like feeling this way but it’s okay and it makes sense that I would feel upset given what the text said.

A few things to notice here:

  1. Brevity. You can validate an emotion in 5 seconds. And you can do it to yourself in your head in just about any situation.
  2. Labeling. When you simply label the emotions you’re feeling (“sad,” “angry”), you organize your emotional experience which helps to make it less overwhelming and confusing. Just be sure to use real emotion words, not intellectualizations. Where in doubt, ask yourself: How would a 6-year-old describe this feeling?
  3. Validation. Emotional validation means reminding yourself that just because an emotion feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad—or you’re bad for feeling it. It often takes the form of reminding yourself that “it makes sense” to feel how you’re feeling even if you don’t like it. Another common approach is to remind yourself that other people would likely feel something similar if they were in your shoes. Validation is helpful because it A) takes some of the edge off the intensity of the emotion itself and therefore makes it easier to move on or learn from, and B) signals to your brain that emotions are safe despite being uncomfortable. Over time this builds emotional confidence and resilience.

So if you decide to suppress or ignore an emotion—either entirely or until a later time when you can process it further—it can’t hurt to briefly acknowledge and validate it before moving on.

All You Need to Know

Emotional suppression is not a dirty word. In fact, it can be a perfectly legitimate and healthy way to respond to difficult emotions.

Of course, like any approach or tool, it can also be used poorly depending on the circumstances. But that’s no reason to vilify it. After all, thinking too much about your emotions can be just as problematic as thinking too little about them…

Obsession and repression both turn out poorly.

If you’re faced with a difficult emotion and unsure how to handle it, here are a few key things to remember:

  1. Much of the time it’s fine to completely ignore an emotion—especially if it’s relatively mild.
  2. In many situations, it makes sense to temporarily suppress an emotion and then return to it later for more processing and reflection.
  3. When in doubt, you can briefly acknowledge and validate a difficult emotion regardless of whether you decide to process it more later or not.

Learn More

If you enjoyed this essay, here are a few more that you might find helpful:


Add Yours

Dear Nick…
This article has caused me to feel happy, therefore, I’ve consciously decided to process this emotion now and later. 🤗
Forgive me, Nick. Just my attempt at a little humor.
I want to show you I stayed focused. 😁 I appreciated it very much. Thank you.

Dear Nick…
This article has caused me to feel happy. Therefore, I’ve consciously decided to process my emotion now and later. 🤗
Forgive me, Nick. Just my attempt at a little humor.
But I wish to show you I was intrigued enough to stay focused. 😁 I love it! Thank you.

Thanks Nick for your brilliant article. It really makes sense but it’s not something I’ve heard about before.

I think it links in with one of my favourite quotes “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”
Viktor E. Frankl

I love Friendly Mind!

My comment: to not derangement your own.
Happy warm a pistol and a gun.
Friendly add ons. A mindfully to rock.

I love this! I’m a teacher and too often we are encouraged to acknowledge their feelings by having them in a ‘calm corner’ and playing with calming toys, etc. The problem is, I see children ruminating on small problems instead of ‘just getting over it’. We also talk about ant problems and elephant problems. Of course the choosing to ignore your feelings to process later would be very difficult for young children and I know you’re talking about adults.
Actually, dealing with emotional issues in this way is ‘adult’.
Thanks so much. I always enjoy reading your articles.

Thank you for your practical, genuine approach to psychology. It’s refreshing and easy to implement.

I think emotional suppression can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes you need to focus on the task at hand, but ignoring your feelings for too long can lead to bigger problems later.

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