Suppression: Definition, Examples, and Psychology Research
What is suppression and how does it affect our well-being? Learn why suppression, a seemingly useful strategy, can actually make us feel worse.
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What is Suppression in Psychology? (A Definition)
Suppression is defined as pushing unwanted thoughts, emotions, memories, fantasies, and more out of conscious awareness so that you’re not thinking of these things anymore. But what exactly does it mean to ‘not think’ of something? Perhaps in an ideal world, it would mean that the thought is gone, erased, and no longer affecting you in any way. Unfortunately, the human brain doesn’t work like that.
A series of experiments where people were told NOT to think of a white bear proved that suppression is actually quite hard. Even though thinking about white bears is something we do very rarely, simply being told not to think about a white bear—to suppress these thoughts—led these people to think of white bears far more frequently (Wegner, Schneider, Carter, & White, 1987). This research showed that the mental processes we use for suppression don’t really work to decrease thoughts.
Video: Thought Suppression Fires Up The Nervous System
Thought Suppression Versus Emotional Suppression
Psychologists don’t always tell us if they're talking about thought expression or they're talking about emotional expression. But overall, these two types of suppression are thought to be different so let’s talk about how they are different.
Any thoughts can be suppressed regardless of whether or not they have emotional content. The classic white bear experiments described above are an example of pure thought suppression. But, in real life, it may be rare to suppress thoughts that don’t have some emotional content. Perhaps we don’t want to think about a recent romantic breakup, maybe we don’t want to worry about an upcoming test at school, or we may be trying not to think about that jerk who cut us off in traffic. Whether or not these examples would be considered thought suppression or emotional suppression is difficult to say.
If anyone has ever told you to “just stop” feeling anxious or angry or sad, then they’ve just given you some bad advice, as they have just told you to use emotional suppression, which we already know doesn’t work. Plus, suppressing emotional material is far more difficult than suppressing neutral material, like white bears (Wenzlaff & Wegner, 2000).
Research on emotional suppression often looks at what is called “expressive suppression”. Expressive suppression is when we suppress the emotions on our faces. Maybe we don’t want others to see that we are feeling sad, fearful, or angry so we don’t show these emotions. Expressive suppression is another ineffective form of emotional suppression that may even be bad for our health (Mauss & Gross, 2004).
The Impacts of Suppression
Overall, research on suppression has found that it tends to result in three specific, and not so good, effects:
That means that suppression has paradoxical effects—the more we try to force our thoughts or emotions away, the stronger they become.
Examples of why suppression doesn’t work
There are likely a number of reasons why suppression is not an effective strategy. Here are a few offered by the experts:
1. One reason may be that the way we distract ourselves from unwanted thoughts is flawed. For example, imagine you’re distracting yourself from your thoughts and worries about work. Maybe you look around the room and try thinking of the things you see—a chair, a book, a plant, and a table.
Unfortunately, if we’re thinking about something and then look at an object, the thoughts and objects can get paired in our minds. Now, whenever we look at these objects they remind us of the unwanted thoughts, so they come back up. So, if you’ve been suppressing thoughts and now they’re coming back up, moving yourself to a different room or space may actually help you feel better (Wenzlaff & Wegner, 2000).
2. Another reason why suppression may not work is that some part of us wanted to think about these unwanted thoughts. Suppressing them interrupts the process and therefore prevents us from completing the goal (of thinking about these thoughts; Wenzlaff & Wegner, 2000). So our brain keeps bringing us back to the thoughts we’re trying to suppress.
3. One last reason why suppression doesn't work may be that when we suppress a thought, we’ve just labeled it in our brains as bad. Unfortunately, our brains have unconscious processes that help us keep an eye out for bad things. We want to keep them in mind so they won’t hurt us. Unfortunately, when it comes to unwanted or anxiety-provoking thoughts, keeping them in mind is exactly what does hurt us (Wenzlaff & Wegner, 2000).
The Opposite of Suppression
Technically, the opposite of suppression may be expression. Instead of forcing our thoughts away, we keep them, show them, maybe even share them with others. Given suppression is such an ineffective thought and emotion regulation strategy, you might think expression is the solution, but it really depends on exactly how thoughts are being expressed.
For example, venting emotions doesn’t tend to be the best way to resolve them. In fact, we might make these thoughts and emotions last longer by continuing to think or talk about them. On the flip side, research suggests that expressing negative emotions can have beneficial functions (Keltner & Gross, 1999). So, showing negative emotions on your face may help you accomplish your goals. For example, sadness expressions may help you elicit social support, and anger expressions may help you correct an injustice.
Is acceptance the opposite of suppression?
If we’re interested in how to stop the negative effects of suppression, we’re really looking for the opposite mental process. So some research suggests that the opposite of suppression might be acceptance. Instead of forcing thoughts and emotions out of our consciousness, we accept them, let them be, and allow them to exit our consciousness in their own time.
Given the research discussed earlier, it seems that acceptance would help us avoid all the pitfalls of suppression—thoughts wouldn’t get linked to objects, we wouldn't have to stop ourselves from the goal of thinking these thoughts, and we wouldn’t label these thoughts bad. As a result, the thoughts may actually dissipate faster and easier.
Indeed, this is exactly what the research shows. While suppressing thoughts and emotions paradoxically increases them, accepting thoughts and emotions paradoxically decreases them (Shallcross, Troy, Boland, & Mauss, 2010). So we’ll talk a bit more about acceptance and other healthy emotion regulation strategies below when we talk about how to deal with suppression.
Suppression Versus Repression
Repression is another way that we get rid of unwanted thoughts or feelings. Repression differs from suppression in that the thoughts or emotions get so deeply buried that the person is unaware or unable to remember them.
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a ton of compelling research on repression—and therefore, some people do not even believe that repression exists. Indeed, it doesn’t seem to be a mental process that everyone has, and so it can not be easily measured in research labs. This has led some to believe that repression is a strategy that some people (but not everyone) have found and use to deal with unpleasant thoughts and emotions (Schimmack & Hartmann, 1997). Therefore it may be similar to other coping strategies—like drug use, alcohol abuse, or self-injury—these strategies are used by some (but not everyone) to manage their experiences.
Despite the difficulty of conducting this research, some studies have offered initial insights. For example, research shows that people who engage in repression report that they are not feeling negative emotions, but still, their physiological responses suggest that negative emotions are being experienced, perhaps beneath conscious awareness (Giese-Davis, Conrad, Nouriani, & Spiegel, 2008).
Those who repress thoughts and emotions also seem to recall fewer negative experiences from either their childhood or recent past. But when asked about these negative experiences, they recalled just as many negative experiences. So, it seems that individuals who repress thoughts and emotions have found ways to cut off access to their memories about negative experiences (Schimmack & Hartmann, 1997).
Video: Suppression Versus Repression
How to Deal With Suppression
If you’re the type of person who tends to suppress thoughts and emotions, you’ll likely have an easier time managing these thoughts and emotions with other, healthier strategies. Here are a few to try:
Write about your feelings
Research suggests that writing about your feelings may be an effective way to process those feelings more quickly and move past them (Rude, Mazzetti, Pal, & Stauble, 2011). If you need more tips for effective therapeutic writing, check out this article on daily journaling.
As noted above, accepting emotions may help decrease negative emotional responses more quickly (Rude, Mazzetti, Pal, & Stauble, 2011). Acceptance may also be key to calming anxiety or panic. In fact, I once had a panic attack and a therapist simply instructed me to let the panic attack happen (to accept it and just go with it). Suddenly, I started to calm down. Indeed, acceptance is a powerful tool for reducing negative emotions—you just have to tolerate them for a moment and then they start to fade on their own. Just be careful not to ruminate on them or else you’ll just keep generating new negative emotions (here are some tips on how to stop ruminating).
Try cognitive reappraisal
Research on emotion regulation often contrasts suppression with reappraisal, and reappraisal wins as the more effective strategy. Reappraisal simply involves looking at your situation in ways that reduce negative emotions or increase positive emotions. You can do this by thinking about the potential positive outcomes of the situation or how grateful you are that the situation isn’t worse. Learn more about reappraisal here.
Consider non-cognitive approaches
Psychology often focuses on the cognitive approaches we can use to change our experiences—that is, how we can change our thoughts. But some suggest that behavioral strategies may be just as, or maybe more, effective. For example, if you're having a hard time with some negative thoughts or emotions, doing vigorous exercise may be helpful. If your body and brain are forced to use resources elsewhere (to do the exercise), this seems to help distract the mind more easily.
Other non-cognitive strategies involve doing a pleasant activity or spending time with friends. Increasing positive emotions can often undo negative emotions, which helps these emotions resolve on their own. Plus, other relaxation techniques may also be helpful.
More Articles Related to Suppression & Managing Experiences
If you want to keep learning about how to create more enjoyable thoughts, emotions, and experiences, here are a few good articles to check out.
Books Related to Suppression & Managing Experiences
Here are some books to explore if you want to keep learning about suppression and other emotion regulation strategies:
Final Thoughts on Suppression
Suppression is a common response to the experience of unpleasant or unwanted emotions. But it’s not a healthy response. Learning to undo our suppression habit and instead use healthier emotion management strategies is key to helping us respond to our negative emotions more quickly and easily.