(THE BOOK) Chapter 31: Interruptions

The most common defenses are suppression and repression.

The first is the conscious choice to conceal thoughts or feelings.  Say you hurt me, I decide you’re an insensitive jerk, and I get angry.  But I’m also scared that if you know this you’ll get mad and hurt me again.  So I hide both my opinion and my anger from you.

That’s suppression.

Then again, say you’re an important person to me – say my parent, my spouse or my boss — and the idea of your hurting or rejecting me is seriously scary.  I fear my thoughts and feelings may leak out accidentally.  So I defend against that possibility by hiding them even from myself.  I bury them in my unconscious, essentially forgetting what I think and feel.

That’s repression.

For socialized humans, suppression and repression are the cost of doing business.  There’s no other way to coexist with other humans than by interrupting our own feelings.  (Imagine a world in which everyone expressed all their feelings all the time.)

So these are necessary, largely functional defenses.  Carefully taught in both schools (No talking, people) and families (Be seen and not heard), they’re also valued and encouraged by society at large.  Notice how many movie heroes and heroines are emotionally unexpressive – strong, silent, stoic, cool.

Which leads most of us to overlook how dangerous these defenses can be as well.

I’ve already described how chronically stuffing feelings damages us emotionally, causing anxiety, depression and addiction.  But overdependence on suppression and repression also damages

~ Relationships.   A healthy relationship is one which addresses and meets the emotional needs of both partners.  That’s impossible the partners regularly hide how they really feel.

~ Communication.  Couples unable to share feelings usually argue about the wrong things.  Emotional messages get disguised as fights about money or relatives or parenting, when what the partners really need to ask are questions like Do you really love me?  Do you accept me as I am?  Can I trust you?  Will you be here tomorrow?

~ Intimacy.  Intimacy means being myself with you and allowing you to do the same with me.  But being myself means being my feelings at least some of the time.  I once knew a pair of bright, traumatized people so frightened of feelings they tried to achieve a purely intellectual intimacy, talking endlessly of theories and ideas.  It sounded sad, like two computers trying to converse.  We are more than our minds.

~ Parenting.  One of the most important things kids learn from their parents is how to identify and express feelings.   But parents who pretend they don’t have feelings produce kids who are essentially unprepared to handle adult life.  Expecting such kids to succeed is like sending them out to travel the expressway without first teaching them how to drive.

~ Physical health.  Feelings live in the body, so expressing them fully means expressing them physically.  We’re wired to strike out when angry, flee when frightened, cry when sad.  (Kids do all this naturally, which is why, until we start training them out of it, most kids are healthier than adults.)  To interrupt these natural methods of purging our feelings requires that we tense the muscles we would use to express them.  We do this unconsciously and chronically.  Then we wonder why we’re always tired, or suffer chronic pain or tension in our neck, back, head or stomach.  One of my clients was chief of family medicine at a local hospital, and I asked him what being a doctor had taught him about people.  “That there’s no such thing as a purely physical illness,” he said.  We suppress and repress our way into ill health.


~ Self-awareness.  A surprising number of clients can’t answer simple questions about themselves.  What do you like?  What do you love?  What do you want?  Then again, not so surprising, given all of the above.

“No man can come to know himself,” Sidney Jourard writes, “except as an outcome of disclosing himself to another person.”*


*The Transparent Self (D. Van Nostrand, 1971).


One response to “(THE BOOK) Chapter 31: Interruptions

  • PD

    Hey Steve That was really good. It reminded me of things we covered when I met you. I was cleaning my office and found papers you wrote on seasons in realationships. I don’t recall if you ever covered that on MT. That would be really good reading. there is so much truth to that all Really great stuff. Enjoy the summer

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