Suppressing Emotions – What you want to know about bottling emotions + a healthier alternative

by Martin Prete, LCPC

Suppressing Emotions or Storing Tough Emotions and a Healthier Alternative

It’s no secret that feeling negative emotions can be intense, uncomfortable, and draining. As humans, emotions are naturally a part of us, whether we like them to be or not. This may be difficult to accept sometimes, especially if we endure long bouts of the not so pleasant ones. On a functional level, emotions are what color the world, painting our experiences with joy, or stress, or pain. They allow us to navigate the world in ways that provide us purpose and satisfaction. So then why is it so difficult to let go of the less than enjoyable feelings such as grief, anxiety, and depression while others like happiness and excitement feel fleeting?


Cataloging our Feelings

To get started answering that question, it is important to note the variety of feelings that incorporate our emotional spectrum. I recommend a quick search on your preferred web browser to find a tool called the emotional wheel to demonstrate just how specific and detailed we can get while trying to pinpoint the exact emotion. You may also be surprised to see how many positive feelings are labelled there. It can be easy to tend to notice negative emotions more due to their tendency to let them be known within us. When we feel happy, we may also be feeling breezy and calm, unconcerned with where we emotionally are currently. 

Another aspect of emotions that is important to consider, is the difference between Primary emotions and Secondary emotions. Simply, primary emotions are what is usually felt first, and then secondary emotions surface. For example, if a friend stood you up for a meeting, you may initially feel hurt, disrespected, or disregarded, however, anger can quickly overtake our emotional experience. It is important to consider these factors when getting to the bottom of what pains us.

Suppressing Emotions

Ok, now that we have a little more perspective on our field of feelings, let’s talk about the topic at hand, suppression. Let’s add some context. It is difficult to consistently try to manage difficult emotions that impact our mood and our interactions with others. You may find others encouraging you to let go of certain worries. While their intentions may be to help you alleviate your feelings, just deciding to forget about tough feelings is a little more complex than willing it to be. This may lead to attempts at suppressing what we don’t want to feel.

The classic example of anger bottling up inside us rings true to the idea. Imagine a day full of annoyances and frustrations that finally leads to an explosion of rage set off from just another small annoyance. It is not realistic to expect pushing the emotions to the side leads them to not exist at all. It takes energy to suppress, and without release, it only gets more draining to do so. Feelings stay with us, arising when triggered pairing with secondary emotions. That’s why anxiety and depression commonly are mixed in the same presentation. Feeling chronically anxious or stressed over time affects our mood, sleep, appetite, and other aspects that support a higher quality of life.


The Process of Identifying

Okay, so maybe it is not the best idea to suppress emotions, but how do we know when we are engaged in suppressing, and how do we deal with the negative feelings so they are more manageable? The key to becoming more attuned to our own feelings and emotions lies in the time we spend observing and understanding. How do you know when you are feeling sad? Your heart may feel heavy, and you may feel fragile. It may be harder to do simple tasks, and your thoughts may be bleak or foggy. How about when you are feeling angry? You might notice a hothead, tension in your arms, and increased heart rate. What about when you are happy?


Being more aware of what is going on for us internally already may reduce anxiety associated with trying to understand our feelings. So, simply put, it may be helpful to first identify the emotions.

  • I’m feeling frustrated at Karen for not doing her part of the work. My anger is tensing my hands and I want to hit something!”

Next, it could be supportive to order our emotions. In the example, was frustration the first feeling felt, or something else?

  • “I know lashing out at Karen won’t fix anything. I guess I’m feeling scared that my job can be in danger if we perform poorly on our upcoming presentation.”

So, in our little example, the individual was feeling scared and threatened that their job may be at risk. Ordering our emotions again brings understanding which could lead us to feel a stronger sense of control over them.


What’s Next

So, you’ve identified what’s going on emotionally and decided that it may not be beneficial to suppress. That’s great! Now you are allowing yourself to begin to move through the emotion. It is important to note that there isn’t a determinable amount of time that it’ll take, or that the feelings won’t return, but allowing it to breathe, accepting the presence of the feelings gives us a deeper sense of control over our actions.


Now, we can begin to appropriately cope, whether it is seeking comfort from something that brings us joy, finding support from friends or family, or even exploring the feelings more through journaling. These healthy alternatives to suppression give us greater opportunities to find relief instead of sealing the feelings away only for them to return when we least want them to.



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