Repressed Emotions: A Guide to Understanding Feelings Hidden Within Us (And How to Transmute Them)

by Scott Jeffrey

OVERVIEW: This guide explores how repressed emotions affect us and provides a step-by-step process for transforming negative emotions into positive energy.

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I’ve always felt at home with thoughts and ideas; I play with them every day.

But emotions were like aliens inhabiting my body and mind. Like many others, I didn’t know how to relate to them or what to do with them.

As is the case with all psychic content, that which we can’t deal with often gets swept under the rug.

And although this approach may seem to work in the short-term, over time repressing our emotions reaks havoc on our mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing.

So what are repressed emotions? What are they doing to us? And how the heck can we work with them?

Towards the end of this guide, I’m going to show you a powerful process you can use to become conscious of your repressed emotions and to transmute them.

What Are Repressed Emotions?

A seven-year-old is doing homework at the kitchen table. His disgruntled older brother storms in, rakes his hand over the countertop, sending the younger brother’s books flying to the floor.

The seven-year-old is enraged, but he quickly sees the rage in his big brother’s eyes. He doesn’t want to get hit too, so he says nothing, bending down to pick up his school work.

Now, what happened to the younger child’s rage? He doesn’t express it out of fear of the consequences. Instead, he suppresses it. That is, he pushes it down within him.

If the boy is successful at pushing his rage away, very soon, he won’t even feel it anymore. (Perhaps he goes and plays video games instead.)

Does that mean the anger went away? Nope. It just indicates that the boy successfully repressed his rage out of his consciousness.

But then where did it go?

How Repressed Emotions Affect the Body

Psychology most often views repressed emotions as a psychic event—something that takes place in the mind or brain.

Psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, a contemporary of Carl Jung, took a different viewpoint.

Reich observed the effects repressed emotions had on the body, calling it body armor. As we accumulate emotional trauma in childhood, to adapt to our environment, our bodies (and character) begin shielding us from additional emotional pain.

This armor hinders our ability to connect with and heal old emotional wounds and experience the resulting release from this process.

Reich’s insights were discovered thousands of years prior in ancient China. The Taoists view emotions as information or energy. When something blocks this flow of information within the body, it creates energetic blockage or stagnation.

Specific organs relate to certain emotions. For example:

  • Fear goes to the kidneys.
  • Anger stores in the liver.
  • Grief lives in the lungs.

In fact, from a Taoist perspective, the majority of physical illnesses find their root in repressed emotions that cause energetic blockages in the body’s meridians.

The Inestimable Cost of Repressed Emotions

Instead of processing these emotions, most of us subconsciously learn to avoid them.

Avoiding feelings is the leading driver behind most of our:

  • Neurotic tendencies,
  • Compulsive behaviors,
  • Addictions, and
  • Consumerism.

To avoid feeling negative emotions, we pursue distractions and stimulations.

We might sedate ourselves with excessive work, television, food, alcohol, drugs, the Internet, shopping, or something else we hope will give us a temporary lift and in our attempt to run from ourselves.

Repressing emotions takes tremendous energy. Could chronic fatigue and our obsession with caffeine and energy supplements mainly be due to this repression? I believe so.

The cost of not attending to our emotions are higher still.

Unhealed wounds also mute our experience of positive emotions like joy, wonder, curiosity, enthusiasm, and love.

Repressed emotions, left unchecked and unexamined, can destroy our relationships, make us miserable, and cause physical diseases.

John Sarno was a medical doctor hated by his profession. For decades, he helped heal thousands of patients with chronic pain (especially back pain)—without surgery.

How? Sarno’s primary method was to explain to his patients, through a logical, well-crafted presentation, that the source of their pain wasn’t physical (like a degenerative disc). Instead, the cause of their suffering was repressed emotions—especially rage.

If you’re dealing with chronic pain of any kind, I highly recommend Sarno’s books: Healing Back PainThe Mind-Body Prescription and The Divided Mind.

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When we consider how much time and energy we, as a culture, invest in “healing” or “optimizing” our bodies and minds, we can better appreciate how we’re mainly working with the effects, but not the cause.

The cause of physical dis-ease is usually emotional, not physical.

How Do You Relate to Negative Emotions?

Before learning how to process repressed emotions, it is instructive to become more conscious of our dominant orientation toward them.

Our orientation toward negative emotions will have a significant effect on how we approach them.

If you view negative emotions as something you shouldn’t have to experience, you will naturally resist them.

If you accept that negative emotions are a natural part of our experience, you may be more open and curious to work with them.

Consider your orientation toward negative emotions like anger, fear, grief, and shame:

  • Do you get irritated when you experience them?
  • Are you afraid of these feelings?
  • Are you anxious to get rid of negative emotions when they arise?
  • Do you believe negative emotions are only for weak people?
  • Can you observe a pattern of seeking pleasure to escape from your feelings?
  • Do you view negative emotions as a part of life?
  • Do you believe you’re capable of accepting whatever you’re feeling?

Take a minute to reflect on how you perceive and relate to negative emotions within yourself.

7 Commonly Repressed Emotions

Now, let’s quickly review seven emotions that many of us repress. Keep in mind that these emotions are the source of much of our inner tensions, inconsistent behaviors, and discontent.

Repressed Anger and Rage

Repressed anger runs through most, if not all, of us. Any form of mistreatment (teasing, bullying, rejection, etc.) in childhood or the denial of basic human needs, can lead to repressed rage.

Additionally, the tyrannical part of us can get indignant about virtually anything, fueling this rage. Repressed rage can lead to anxiety, depression, and chronic pain.

Repressed Grief and Sadness

When we don’t fully process loss, we drag it along with us. In repressing our grief, we also suppress authentic joy.

Crying that doesn’t lead to catharsis is usually a form of ego drama, not healing. If your mind continually goes to images of the past (person, place, or thing), it’s a sign that you’re holding on to something that requires processing or understanding.

Repressed Shame and Guilt

Shame and guilt seem to be the primary operating system of our culture—in how we parent and teach. It’s also the basis of many religions.

Shame and guilt are powerful tools of manipulation to get us to do what someone else wants. These emotions are so pervasive in many people’s style of communication that we often don’t know how to communicate without transmitting these emotions subconsciously.

On a personal level, avoiding appropriate shame and guilt stalls our psychological development.

Repressed Hatred

During childhood, many of us are taught that it’s not acceptable to hate. Does this make the feeling of hate go away? Nope. It only forces us to push it into our unconscious.

Most parents repress their feelings of hatred toward their children for the same reason: it’s not okay to hate. Children don’t experience our words; they absorb our feelings. Even when we say, “I love you,” these words can be a mask for unowned hatred.

The shadow side of the green value structure (from Spiral Dynamics) is that it believes it’s free of hatred and prejudice. Remember, whatever you repress grows stronger in you and gets projected out onto others.

Repressed Fear

With normal fear, there’s a flight or fight response. Repressed fear, in contrast, immobilizes us.

Repressed fear makes our world small and limits our perceived options. It also constricts our bodies and damages our kidneys.

Repressed Desire

Power, wealth, status, sex, and control dominate our lower soul. Many of us, in our attempts to be “spiritual,” repress these desires.

As I mentioned in this spiritual awakening guide, a common trap is to believe you are “better than” others by identifying yourself as “spiritual.” And by doing so, we inevitably repressed our base desires.

When we deny the existence of our desires, it makes our repressed envy grow stronger.

Repressed Envy

The dominant value in our society is to achieve. Comparison and competition drive achievement. The subliminal messages of the achiever’s mindset include:

  • “I’m better than you.”
  • “Catch me if you can.”
  • “You’ll never be as good as me.”
  • “I’m a winner (which implies that you’re a loser).”

The reason social media makes people depressed is that it re-enforces these messages. The hidden message behind many social posts are “Look how great I am” and “Look what I have, and you don’t.”

This form of subtle teasing, if we’re not conscious of it, make us envy things we may not even want. Repressed envy leads to depression and anxiety (“I must have it or else!”).

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5 Ways of Dealing with Negative Emotions

Now, as adults, we have a variety of ways we can deal with negative emotions.

1) Repressing the Emotion

We repress the feeling to the point where we’re not conscious of them.

In these cases, we project the emotion out onto other people, groups, institutions, or ideas.

We explored this in our discussion on the personal shadow. Repressing emotions leads to passive-aggressive behavior. It undermines our relationships.

And according to numerous physicians, including Dr. John Sarno, repressed emotions, especially rage, is the cause of most chronic pain and other mental illnesses.

2) Suppressing the Emotion

We attempt to overpower and escape from the negative emotion.

Here, we are aware of the negative emotion at some level, but we put the majority of our attention on something else.

Suppression is sometimes necessary when we’re at work or when someone needs our help. But many of us often use suppression when there’s no immediate demand on our attention.

Much of our compulsive behaviors, bad habits, and aimless pursuits of pleasure are the result of our drive to suppress negative feelings.

3) Expressing the Emotion

When we’re angry, some of us let the world know about it. When we’re sad, we might share our misery with others.

Expressing emotions, when done maturely, can provide moderate, temporary relief. But more often, these emotions are expressed without self-control.

Expressing rage, for instance, often negatively affects our relationships and tends to feed the emotion instead of resolving it.

4) Releasing the Emotion

There are many methods offered in the marketplace for working with emotions including the Sedona Method, Releasing Technique, Emotional Freedom Technique, and other practices of “letting go” of negative emotions.

These methods all have some therapeutic value when used appropriately. If you have no means of working effectively with negative emotions, any technique is better than none.

I’ve worked extensively with many of these methods with varying results. But I believe they are less valuable than how they are marketed to us.

Here’s why:

The goal of these methods is to “remove” the emotion, but in my experience, if we’re not conscious of the source or trigger of the emotion, you can’t “get rid of it.”

My observation is that these methods trick our minds into believing we’ve “released the emotion,” when we’ve just created another way of repressing them. That is, releasing can quickly become a deceptive form of dissociation where we separate ourselves from the emotion instead of integrating it.

5) Transmuting the Emotion

A fifth way is a more conscious approach.

Here, by developing self-awareness skills, an individual seeks to consciously work with the emotions to process through and unlock the energy they contain.

Instead of being drained by the emotions, we build our energy reserves by breaking down the resistance around them.

How to Start Working with Repressed Emotions

The biggest challenge in resolving repressed emotions is, well, they’re repressed. We might intellectually suspect they are there, but we don’t feel them.

So the first step is to increase our awareness of what we’re feeling.

See these two guides that explore critical elements of building emotional intelligence:

  1. A Comprehensive Guide to Cultivating Self-Awareness
  2. How to Cultivate Self-Leadership to Master Your Behavior

Ultimately, our repressed emotions are what’s triggering the archetypes within us, leading us to adopt specific behavioral patterns.

These archetypes and their related emotions control us as long as we’re out of our Center. And it’s for this reason that I frequently stress the importance of learning how to find your Center.

How to Transmute Negative Emotions into Positive Energy

Here’s a five-step process you can use to transmute negative emotions.

Step 1: Pause and Find Your Center

The faster we move through life, the less we feel. As we slow down, pausing occasionally, we can “stop and see” what’s going on.

The more you can root yourself in your Center, the more easily and readily repressed emotions will bubble to the surface. And with these emotions, you’ll often see images and memories (perhaps from childhood) where you originally experienced these emotions.

Now, let’s say you’ve done this and you’re present a negative emotion.

Step 2: Tune in to Your Body

Tune in to the feeling state in your body. What is the feeling state? (Anger, sadness, frustration, fear, grief, depression, or shame.)

Where exactly are you experiencing it in your body? (Head, throat, chest, gut, or feet.)

And how does it feel? (Hard, soft, cool, hot, sticky, pulsating, vibrating, or heavy.)

Focus your attention on the physical sensations and the overall feeling.

Allow the feeling and sensations to be as they are, welcoming the feelings and embracing them with full awareness.

Step 3: Relax All Judgment

We tend to judge our feelings. I shouldn’t feel like this, we might say to ourselves.

Relax the tendency to judge or react to the emotion. Just be with whatever you’re feeling.

Take full responsibility for the emotions. Notice that the emotional energy is arising within you, instead of happening to you.

As long as you hold someone or something else as the source of your emotions (“his actions are making me feel this way”), you’ll have limited resources to process emotions.

For the moment, relax your relationship with the person or object if the feeling is about someone or something.

Step 4: Allow the Emotional Energy to Flow

Breathe deeply from your belly. Take slow, steady, deep breaths, allowing the emotional energy to flow freely through you.

While consciously breathing, observe how your sensorial and feeling experience changes as the emotional energy moves through you.

Keep paying attention to the emotion in a relaxed, centered space.

Step 5: Experience the Liberated Emotional Energy

After a while, the raw energy of the emotion is set free.

Here, you may observe another negative emotion hidden behind it; in this case, go through the process from the beginning.

But more likely, you’ll experience the unobstructed positive energy from this transmutation process.

You will feel more open, lighter, liberated, and free.

Ideas to Create a New Orientation Toward Emotions

Most of us subconsciously develop the habit of judging or trying to control our feelings. And so it’s helpful to establish a new context and belief about them.

In my understanding, emotions are a form of energy. There are no “wrong” feelings. Feelings often seem irrational until we understand their source.

We are not our emotions, but they reside in us. The feelings we don’t contain are necessarily “spread” onto those around us.

We either accept the emotion or resist it.

Resistance makes the feeling grow stronger in us.

Acceptance puts us on a path of resolution.

Processing emotions help us expand our consciousness when we get to the source of the original experience of the emotion.

I’ll leave you with this excerpt from one of Alan Watts’ discourses on the nature of feelings.

What do you think?

Share your thoughts, questions, and comments below.