The Costs of Suppression

Michael Sky, from The Power of Emotion: Using Your Emotional Energy to Transform Your Life

Emotional suppression sometimes serves a useful, even essential, purpose. When suffering a severe traumatic injury, the body automatically passes into the physiological state of shock, blocking all feeling and sensation, and numbing consciousness, so that the injured person can better begin recovery. Similarly, when children experience physical, emotional or sexual abuse, they commonly report feeling numb, losing consciousness, and sometimes even leaving their bodies (they may remember objectively observing the event from above). In such cases, emotional suppression serves as a mercy, a blessing, and a necessary first step in the healing process.

Even during lesser travails, suppression often seems the best we can do. . . . Mostly, we suppress emotions as a way to avoid expressing them. All social groups, beginning with the family, develop their own sets of good manners and mores which govern the acceptable and unacceptable times for emotional expression. A society full of people all spontaneously expressing their emotions threatens unending chaos. In order to form polite, civil, working groups, individuals must somehow control their emotional energies; maturing socially means learning to rein in one’s natural (but childish) tendency for emotional expression.

Yet while emotional suppression may sometimes serve a useful purpose, over the course of a lifetime, inhibiting the free flow of emotional energies causes serious damage to our bodies, minds, and spirits. Our efforts to stifle emotion become a stifling of life itself. Though the symptoms vary, most people die from a slow suicide of self-strangulation. Therefore, it behooves us to understand just how badly emotional suppression injures us, even as we find healthier ways to deal with ever-flowing emotional energies.

Emotional suppression causes systemwide dysfunction and disease. When we suppress an emotion, the energy of that emotion does not go away. Instead, it subsides—it sinks deeper. Rather than resolve the emotional energy through some some form of response, we choose (however unconsciously) to hold it inside. Though the immediacy of the feeling may pass, the energy does not. We hold it deeply inside and, typically, it stays inside. . . .

Energy moves within the body in regular currents and beyond the body in radiant fields. As emotional suppression becomes an unconscious habit and emotional energy becomes stuffed inside, the free movement of vital energy gradually degrades. Think of a wide rushing river into which one daily throws several large stones. Over the course of a lifetime, the river becomes clogged, diminished and sluggish. Likewise, over the course of a human lifetime, the habitual suppression of emotional energy clogs and diminishes the once-rushing river of light.

As we clog and diminish the flow of emotional energy, we block and interfere with the fundamental design and function of the human organism. This causes systemwide dysfunction, with most biological processes and organs (including the brain/mind) failing to operate at full efficiency. Life spans shorten and creative potential declines. Sickness, disease and general unhappiness all take a larger than necessary role in the human drama. Our bodies and minds struggle through energy-starved lives, while suppressing great wells of life force within.

Emotional suppression inflicts specific injuries upon the body. This occurs when, especially as children, we must suppress extremely traumatic emotions. The child who has just suffered a severe violation, or who has suddenly learned of a huge loss, will experience a great burst of emotional energy in response. If for immediately compelling reasons the child suppresses that emotion, then all of the child’s surging energy becomes forcefully jammed somewhere in the body.

The specific location will relate in some way to the specifics of the situation. If the child suffers physical injury, then emotional suppression may occur at the site of the injury. If the child contracts into a grimace or a frown, then emotional energy may lock in the muscles of the face. Anywhere that the child experiences pain or tension during the traumatic event—clenched fists, upset stomach, spanked bottom, abused genitals—becomes a likely place to harbor suppressed emotional energies. And, unless the child later experiences deep healing, the suppressed energies of a traumatic event will stay there forever.

When a strong charge of vital energy contracts internally for a long period of time, it eventually turns physical. The energy becomes unhealthy, pathological mass. Suppressed emotional energy can become tumorous, can harden arteries, can stiffen joints, can weaken bones. Suppressed emotional energy can precipitate the onset of cancer in any system or organ of the body. Suppressed emotional energy can undermine the immune system and make a body vulnerable to innumerable illnesses.

Ironically, what begins as a gift of vital energy and the raw material of empowered response, turns into its opposite—the stuff of dysfunction and disease. The choice to contract and suppress traumatic, emotional energy plants energy-charged seeds of future pathology. The more urgently that a child suppresses a traumatic event, or the more often the child experiences a less traumatic event (such as a specific criticism that a child hears several times a day, every day, over a period of years), the more potentially destructive the specific quantity of suppressed energy.

As any experienced bodyworker will tell you, the typical adult body comes riddled with the suppressed emotional energies of the past. Often the simplest of touches to some innocuous part of the body, expertly applied, will release a torrent of emotion and long-suppressed memory. The powerful healing that such work can initiate testifies to the destructive effects of long-term emotional suppression.

Emotional suppression renders us less capable and responsible. . . . We need our emotions. They provide us with the vital force to think creatively and act decisively. The more successfully that we suppress our emotions, the less successfully we will do anything else.

Emotional suppression deforms the body. Whenever we suppress an emotion we physically contract and tighten some part or parts of the body. With time, we develop patterns of repeated emotional suppression which means that specific parts of the body must engage in chronic tension. Such long-term chronic tension eventually alters body form and posture, invariably for the worse.

The “character lines” etched into an older person’s face result from years of tensing the face while struggling with emotional energy. A permanently hunched upper back reveals a person who never made peace with burdens and responsibilities, just as a caved-in chest shows us someone overwhelmed with unresolved grief. Years of fearing and resisting sex can tilt the pelvis back and away from other people. Angrily clenching one’s jaw will eventually grind the enamel off of teeth, just as chronically clenching one’s toes will shorten tendons in the feet with ramifications throughout the body.

Bodyworkers have cataloged many such examples of emotional suppression leading to misshapen bodies. The tree will grow as we bend the twig. As human bodies grow, incalculable bending comes from the chronic physical contraction of emotional suppression.

Emotional suppression causes systemwide fatigue. Suppressing strong emotion does not occur easily. It requires an act of forceful muscular contraction, stifled breath, and mental denial to engineer the original suppression of an emotion—the stronger the emotion, the more force required—and it requires continuing contraction and denial to sustain such suppression. Without the expenditure of great quantities of energy, emotional suppression could not and would not occur. Typically, as a person ages, more emotional energy becomes suppressed, which ties up more and more vital energy in sustaining suppression. All of which just plain wears us down.

Emotional suppression undermines the healthy function of body and mind and stuffs inside the rushing energy of effective response. To make matters worse, emotional suppression requires that we permanently commit significant amounts of energy to keeping everything stuffed away, unfelt and unnoticed. This places heavy demands on our daily resources. So much of the chronic fatigue that afflicts people in modern societies stems from this unconscious sustaining of emotional suppression. Though we have access to great wells of vital energy, we can only lose so much to the dynamics of suppression before we become chronically enervated.

Emotional suppression energetically disconnects us from the rest of our world. The energy fields that surround a healthy human being extend outward to touch and meaningfully connect to other people and the environment. Through these vital energy connections, we experience oneness and can communicate with others in the most profound and satisfying ways. Positive emotions, such as love, compassion, empathy, intimacy, and trust, only occur between people who can connect energetically. . . . The more we expand our energy selves, the healthier our relationships become. Conversely, the more we suppress our emotions, the less we can energy-connect to others and the more difficulty we have with basic human relationship. A tight and chronically suppressed person has contracted his or her energy fields in and away from others, and becomes effectively disconnected and less able to relate.

All forms of communication seem difficult for the “energy-disabled.” When we have the sense that another person “just doesn’t get it,” it indicates some degree of energetic contraction and disconnection from each other. The most sincere efforts at verbal communication quite literally go nowhere once we have severed our energy links. Even worse, we sever our innate capacities for feeling other people. We cannot experience empathy, compassion, trust, or love without the genuine oneness of vital emotional-energetic connection. . . .

Our modern world teems with men and women who have been conditioned to emotional suppression since early childhood. They stumble through and struggle with the unceasing waves of emotional experience that define any life. They hide from grief and run from fear and collapse in the face of anger. They seem perplexed by the simplest pleasures. They suppress their emotions defensively, reflexively, unconsciously. Much of their natural biological and intellectual potential has become dammed up, rendering them more vulnerable to disease and dysfunction and less capable of dealing with the challenges of human existence. They lack the boiling-over enthusiasm for life that they knew as children; they instead feel chronically fatigued, tired all the time. . . .

Flow

When we think of emotion, we usually have in mind the active and outward expression of emotional energy. We equate sadness with crying, anger with ranting, fear with trembling, happiness with smiling, joy with laughing. We consider such external manifestations of emotional energy as the emotions themselves. We call the person “emotional” who allows the visible or auditory display, or expression, of emotional energy.

As a way to experience emotion, expression avoids most of the life-threatening, long-term consequences of suppression. Our bodies especially fare better when we vent the energy of strong emotion outward rather than contract and hold it inside. The person who cries easily and often exhibits better health in the long run than the person who cannot cry at all, as does the person who spontaneously expresses anger when it arises (though out of control bursts of anger carry their own risks of hurting people and breaking things).

Yet expression generally fails to resolve the germinal cause of specific emotional energy. Some people cry for years and years without ever getting over their losses, just as others rage on and on without ever resolving their anger. As when a teapot blows off steam—this keeps the teapot from exploding but does nothing to alter the source of the heat nor prevent the generation of more steam—expression avoids many of the problems of suppression but nonetheless results in a failed and frustrating emotional experience.

Expression frustrates. From the first time that crying fails to bring a competent, loving caregiver, through a lifetime of misfired rants and embarrassing gaffes, the expression of emotional energy leaves a history of confusion, disappointment, and shame. Expression rarely works—rarely brings a successful resolution of an event—and its near-certain promise of frustration becomes a primary cause of chronic suppression.

In practice, failed emotional expression involves the same three elements as emotional suppression. The man who holds the attitude that crying in front of others means weakness will create tension in various parts of the body while sobbing, will struggle with choppy, halting breath, and will later feel shame or embarrassment, rather than resolution. The woman who attempts to vent her rage through a body chronically racked with physical tension and choked breath will never find satisfaction, no matter how hard she tries. The same applies to any other emotional expression: when it comes with an unaccepting attitude, physical tension, and/or stifled breathing, then the reason for the emotion remains unresolved and emotional frustration results.

Since it seems we have only two choices when experiencing emotion—either we express emotional energy outward or we suppress the energy inward—and since each choice has its own drawbacks, it should not surprise us that suppression becomes the predominant way of dealing with emotions in most families and societies. Though suppression plants the seeds of negative long-term consequences, the short-term consequences of expression seem much worse. Suppression goes on below the surface; expression happens visibly, audibly, dramatically. We pass our days largely unaware of the dangers of suppression, while expression can cause immediate and all too obvious difficulties.

This explains why adults condition children mostly toward suppression. Simply imagine the utter chaos of children everywhere expressing all their emotions all the time. In order to form peaceful, orderly and productive unions, most social groups, beginning with the family, determine the need to limit emotional expression among all members, beginning with children.

Yet people never stop having emotions. We cannot prevent the arousal of emotional energy in response to specific events any more than we can prevent breathing or thinking. Since both expression and suppression more or less frustrate the original purpose of aroused emotional energy, we rarely experience the successful resolution of an emotion, nor of the event that generated the emotional energy. Which, again, only feeds into prevailing patterns of suppressing and denying most emotions.

Fortunately, we do have another choice with emotional energy: We can move beyond our patterns of emotional expression and suppression as we allow, go with, enhance, and expand the experience of flow.

Flow describes a naturally occurring state of consciousness during which emotions work. When you perceive a threat to your well-being and feel an immediate rush of strong fear-energy that propels you toward decisive action, then you have experienced the state of flow; likewise, when you learn of the death of a loved one and feel an immediate swell of sadness-energy that moves you through the stages of grief in a timely manner; or when you perceive a serious violation and feel an immediate surge of anger-energy that empowers you to emphatically deal with the violator.

Flow integrates all aspects of a human being. Flow occurs when our disparate and divided self comes together and functions as a whole. Though we may be engaged in strenuous activity or facing a difficult challenge, the experience of flow allows work to seem effortless, creativity to come easily, and relationships to find their natural harmony. We describe ourselves as “in a groove;” “on a roll;” “in the zone;” “on top of our game;” “in synch.” We feel unbeatable, unstoppable, and in control.

Unlike suppression, which pathologically stuffs energy-in-motion inside, flow fully accepts and decisively uses emotional energy. Unlike expression, which threatens recklessness and loss of control, flow brings an acute awareness of the current situation and of one’s co-creative role within unfolding events.

Every emotion has both an inward and outward dimension. During expression, emotional energy comes streaming out of a person in audible and visible display, while mind, body, breath, and energy contract within. During suppression, the energy becomes contracted both within and without. In the case of flow, emotional energy moves strong and vitally within the body yet may or may not show any trace of external manifestation.

The internal movement of emotional energy, or lack thereof, ultimately determines whether an emotion frustratingly expresses, pathologically suppresses, or effectively flows. Once we contract the inward flowing energy-in-motion, it matters little whether we express some of the energetic content of the emotion or we suppress all release of energy; when we stifle the inward movement of energy, we lose the state of flow and consign ourselves to an experience of poorly-used emotion and a less than favorable outcome of events.

The three elements of emotional suppression and frustrated expression—an unaccepting attitude, bodily tension and stifled breath—cause the inward contraction of one’s life-energy. Conversely, the same three elements reversed allow for and encourage the experience of emotional flow.

The first element of emotional flow involves an abiding attitude of active acceptance. Active acceptance means saying yes to present circumstances as fully and wholeheartedly as possible. One accepts whatever happens, including other people, the changing environment, the weather, one’s body, one’s thoughts, and especially, the immediate energy-in-motion.

Note that such acceptance does not necessarily entail enjoying or desiring or agreeing with whatever happens. We can dislike, even dread, some situation while at the same time allowing that it occurs. Active acceptance means that we do not commit our energy to resisting, denying or struggling against unfolding events. We accept life as it happens. Yet even as we feel accepting of our immediate experience, we can still desire and work for change.

Human biography has recorded many examples of people who have practiced active acceptance, and thereby learned to flow, in the midst of horrible circumstances. . . . They become creators rather than victims, and when their ordeals end and they return to their everyday worlds, their creativity continues to blossom.

Contrarily, those who simply will not accept unfolding events, typically feel psychically and emotionally defeated by their experiences, even when they physically survive. The strongly-held attitude of unacceptance destroys one from within, more surely then the worst of external circumstance. Whatever life brings, the practice of active acceptance assures the most creative and potentially satisfying of responses.

Imagine riding in a canoe in turbulent, rushing waters. You must fully accept your place in the canoe, the canoe’s place in the water, and the direction and speed of both water and canoe. Wishing to be somewhere else, to do something else, or to go in the opposite direction, only causes unproductive stress and difficulty. Instead, you strive to go with the flow and the better you do—the more you flow—the better the outcome.

At the same time, you should also have a paddle in your hands. The paddle enables you to give direction and intent within the flow. Without a paddle, “going with the flow” can take you into shallow waters, or crash you against rocks, or send you over a waterfall. With a paddle, you can actively and creatively exercise some measure of control over unfolding events.

As riders in the canoe of life, it behooves us to fully surrender to whatever happens—to go with the flow—while simultaneously finding ways to responsibly influence perception and outcome. To only practice surrender leaves us passive observers and likely victims of events, while over-controlling at the expense of acceptance wastes energy and causes unnecessary struggle. Active acceptance requires that we integrate the seeming opposites of surrender and control. As we succeed in this emotional alchemy, we greatly enhance our experience of flow and the possibilities for the successful resolution of whatever happens.

The second element of emotional flow involves the dynamic relaxation of the body. During suppression and expression, we create tension in various parts of the body in order to stifle our energy-in-motion. Over the course of a lifetime, these physical tensions become chronic and more or less disabling. Flow occurs as we release such tensions while practicing and encouraging the experience of dynamic relaxation.

As massage therapists, acupuncturists, yoga teachers, and meditators have long known, and as medical studies have begun to substantiate, deep relaxation reduces harmful stress, encourages physical and emotional healing, clarifies the mind, and improves performance in many areas of life. Simply ten minutes a day of relaxation practice has been shown to have profound rejuvenational and transformational effects.

The term “dynamic relaxation” differentiates from less effective forms of relaxation that we may achieve from the use of pharmaceuticals or alcohol, from watching television, or from the mere cessation of stressful circumstances (as when taking a vacation from a high-stress job). While such experiences certainly may relieve a person’s tension, they do so by depressing the movement of vital energies. This slows a person down but also clouds the brain and hampers present-time awareness. We feel enervated rather than alive. We become couch-potatoes or beach-blobs. Though such enervation may seem a necessary relief from the grinding stress of the everyday world, it comes without the deep healing benefits of dynamic relaxation.

The experience of dynamic relaxation combines a loose and rested body with a clear and focused mind. Energy flows easily through all systems to promote health, vitality and inspired creation. Consequently, we flow more easily through varied circumstances and events. As any experienced athlete knows, the key to success lies in being totally awake and focused on the task at hand, while simultaneously keeping the body loose and free of tension.

We can achieve dynamic relaxation in any number of ways, ranging from deep meditation to mentally stimulating forms of hard work or exercise, or through good diet, or through the regular practice of yoga or tai chi, or by receiving massage and other forms of bodywork, or through the experience of good, loving sex. The best methods feel enjoyable when practiced and fit easily into a person’s daily life. Any effective method of deep relaxation will include an attitude of active acceptance, as well as the third element of emotional flow—connected breathing.

Connected breathing occurs when the inhale and exhale become continuous, one flowing into the other, without interruption or pause. We may also use the terms “circular breathing,” suggesting breath that, like a circle, has neither beginning nor end; or “ocean breathing,” suggesting breath that becomes like the eternal inward and outward movement of ocean waves. In each case, we emphasize an ever-moving cycle of breath: always flowing in or flowing out, with as little stopping, holding, or contracting as possible.

We can witness this simple connected breathing in most newborn babies (as well as in our pet cats and dogs), for those who have not struggled to suppress their emotional energies still breathe according to the body’s innate design. A baby’s breathing moves continuously, stopping only to deal with food, fluids, and gas. This connected breathing promotes the strong energy flow vital to the extraordinary growth that babies undergo.

Just as the heart serves as the central mechanism of the circulatory system, so the breath serves as the central mechanism of our vital energy system. Interrupting the flow of breath/energy makes no more sense—for the health of body and mind—than interrupting the beating of the heart.

Yet we learn to do precisely that. Early in life, we find that some of our emotions greatly displease our parents and other caregivers and we discover, albeit unconsciously, that we can stop the outward expression of an emotion, and much of its internal sensation, by contracting our breathing. Once we learn to stifle unwanted emotions by stifling breath, we undermine the body’s “original breath” and develop in its place habits of unhealthy and dysfunctional breathing. Instead of supporting us, our breathing turns chronically pathological—we habitually breathe in ways that suppress energy flow, with all of the negative consequences that suppression brings.

Yet the breath that suppresses us can also set us free. Conscious connected breathing offers the most direct of ways to vital and satisfying emotional flow. However difficult we may find it to fully accept our current circumstances, however racked with chronic tensions our bodies have become, we can always consciously sustain a gentle, flowing pattern of breath. Truly, it requires no more than that we bring awareness to our breathing and choose to let it flow in and then flow out. As our breathing flows, we naturally find ourselves more accepting, more relaxed, and more easily flowing with all that happens.

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