Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Repressed Emotions

In part 3 of my Yoga Snobs series, I mentioned repressed emotions and the importance of releasing them. I thought it might be helpful to follow up with an entry delving into the subject in more detail.

Symptoms of repression

First of all, how do you know if you are repressing emotions? Not because you feel them. If you could feel them, they wouldn't be repressed. Still, they leave traces. When you bury emotions, you're like that guy in Poe's "Telltale Heart." Something always emerges to haunt you.

Physical Symptoms

Chronic problems like muscle tension, back pain, headaches and digestive problems, for which your doctor can find no organic cause, may be symptoms of repression. Obesity often has an underlying emotional cause; it's fairly common for people who were sexually abused as children to be obese. Such symptoms are called psychosomatic. Even serious conditions such as cancer can have a psychosomatic component. This shows how important it is to release repression: not only your happiness and general wellbeing but your health or even your life could be at stake.

Strong, Inappropriate Emotion

Now that's weird. How can emotion be a symptom of repressed emotion?

Some emotions are more socially acceptable than others. This can vary depending upon who you are and what sort of background you come from. For example, it has traditionally been more acceptable for women than men to express sadness (especially when tears are involved), and more acceptable for men to express anger. So men may repress sadness under anger, and women may repress anger under sadness. On the other hand, I grew up in a home where sadness was derided as weakness while anger earned respect, so that, although I am a woman, I repressed sadness under anger for many years.

If you often find yourself caught up in a strong, even overpowering emotion that seems out of proportion to the situations that trigger it, you're probably repressing something.

Obsessive Thoughts

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a complex condition with many causes, perhaps even physical. One of those causes is repression, though you'd never know it to read most of the information available out there. It is currently trendy to treat mental conditions primarily with drugs and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, in keeping with today's treat-the-symptom philosophy. This is unfortunate, as it means that all too often the underlying issues are never dealt with. And when the underlying issues aren't dealt with, they always emerge again, in another form.

It's possible to have the obsessions without the compulsions. Obsessive thoughts are a clever technique of the mind to distract you from whatever you don't want to feel.

How to Release Repressed Emotions

The first thing you have to do is give yourself permission. You have to allow yourself to cry, even loudly or as unrestrainedly as a child, even without knowing why you are crying. This is important. If you insist on behaving in a dignified and restrained manner at all times, you will likely just push the repressed emotions back under.

The next thing to do is to look to your symptoms. They are your body's way of screaming at you that something is wrong. Listen to them.

If your symptoms are physical

Focus your attention on the part of the body that hurts. Feel it fully. This is the opposite of what we usually do. We naturally want pain to go away, and the pharmaceutical industry helpfully steps in with a raft of drugs to help us not feel. If you can go off pain pills and completely feel your pain, you may finally receive the message your body is trying to send you. But you have to be willing to receive whatever comes and not push it down again, whether what comes is an image you don't like, a thought you think is ridiculous, or the urge to scream.

Expect resistance. You've spent years repressing. You're good at it. Your defensive mechanisms will kick in. Probably the most universal one is the wandering mind. Everybody who tries any kind of meditation gets this. I have an interesting one: I get tired and start to yawn. It helps to recognize defensive mechanisms for what they are, so you can stop them from derailing you.

Raphael Cushnir suggests that you can get at repressed emotions by asking yourself two questions: "What is happening right now?" and "Can I be with it?" If you take one of his workshops, he'll give you a handy magnet you can stick on your fridge to remind you to ask the two questions. He has also written a number of books on the subject, including The One Thing Holding You Back, which I recommend. (I can't recommend the other ones because I haven't read them.)

If your symptom is strong, inappropriate emotion

Find somewhere private. This is especially important if you cover up other emotions with anger; by removing yourself from the situation that is making you angry, you can avoid doing or saying something you'll regret later. Handy tip: public washroom cubicles are a good place to escape to. Once you're alone, feel the emotion fully (are you noticing a pattern here?) If you feel the emotion fully for long enough, the other emotion that it is covering up is likely to come to the surface. When that happens, feel that emotion fully too, emoting as necessary.

While feeling the first emotion, you can try asking yourself directly if some other feeling is underneath. Talking to your own body is not a sign of insanity at all but a good habit to get into.

If your symptom is obsessive thoughts

If you've got OCD, you may need professional help. If you only have obsessive thoughts, you may be able to handle it yourself. Either way, try this: when you catch yourself in an obsessive thought or compulsive action, ask yourself, "What am I feeling right now?" This is similar to Cushnir's two questions mentioned earlier.

We live in a society uncomfortable with the expression of emotion. We are told to "put on a happy face" and "laugh and the world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone." It is time for a change. In her book Transformation Soup, SARK writes, "I think that until we cry as often as we laugh, we are not fully alive" (p. 136). I like this thought. I don't know how literally to take it. I don't know if the correct ratio of tears to laughter is 50/50 or 40/60 or 25/75. But I know that we need to become as accepting of tears as we are of laughter. We need to feel freer to cry, to scream, to express whatever is in us.


Mr Patel said...

excellent information

thomas said...

thanks this helped alot but, i cannot seem to let those emotions completely out is exercise ok? i did run up 17 floors today

Vivian said...

Thanks Mr. Patel. Thomas, I don't know, 17 floors is a lot. Don't hurt yourself. If you can't get your emotions out on your own, you might want to consider seeing a therapist. When people have been through major trauma, it's harder for them to let their emotions out because it doesn't feel safe. Maybe that's you. Good luck.

Christian said...

Hey Vivian – thanks for the insightful and well written article. I used to have really bad back pain due to repressed emotions, but since understanding the mind body connection I’ve been able to banish the pain. Releasing the repressed emotions works to remove all symptoms. But what I’ve also found is that if you’re able to understand on a deep level that when you feel pain, or whatever the symptom may be, it’s because your mind is simply trying to distract you from feeling those repressed emotions which you’ve decided on an unconscious level are too painful or embarrassing to experience. Just by exposing the mind’s strategy you are able to render the strategy useless, and the pain subsides. If the pain continues or another symptom takes its place then seeing a psychotherapist or working to release the underlying emotions would be the best idea.

Go to amazon.com and search for Dr John Sarno –he has about 3 books on the subject of back pain and the emotional causes. If you currently have back pain and have tried everything in the world to find its cause, then check out these books.

Also check out a book called ‘sedona method’ for releasing or letting go of emotions – it’s written by Hale Dwoskin.

Hope this helps - Christian.

nightmindr said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
lee woo said...

You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger. See the link below for more info.


sarah lee said...

I really enjoyed reading your article. I found this as an informative and interesting post, so i think it is very useful and knowledgeable. I would like to thank you for the effort you have made in writing this article.


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