Nathaniel Branden "Emotions and Repression (Part 2): The Repression of Positives"

Monday, September 09, 2013

Emotional Repression (source)
The following text is from Nathaniel Branden's book "The Psychology of Self-Esteem."

The first part, called "Emotions and Repression: The Repression of Negatives," can be found here.

Emotions and repression: the repression of positives
The Freudian view of human nature has caused the concept of repression to be associated primarily with negatives, i.e., with the repression of the irrational and immoral. But there are many tragic instances of men who repress thoughts and feelings which are rational and desirable.

When a person represses certain of his thoughts, feelings or memories, he does so because he regards them as threatening to him in some way. When, specifically, a person represses certain of his emotions or desires, he does so because he regards them as wrong, as unworthy of him, or inappropriate, or immoral, or unrealistic, or indicative of some irrationality on his part—and as dangerous, because of the actions to which they might impel him.

Repression, as we have discussed, is not a rational solution to the problem of disturbing or undesirable mental contents. But it is particularly unfortunate when the repressed ideas or feelings are, in fact, good, right, normal and healthy.

A person may judge himself by a mistaken standard, he may condemn emotions and desires which are entirely valid—and if he does so, it is not vices he will attempt to drive underground, but virtues and legitimate needs.

As an example of this error, consider the psychology of a man who represses his desire to find rationality and consistency in people, and who represses his pain and frustration at their absence—under the influence of the fallacious belief that a placid, uncondemning expectation and acceptance of irrationality in people is a requirement of maturity and "realism."

The encounter with human irrationality, in childhood, is one of the earliest psychological traumas in the lives of many people, and one of the earliest occasions of repression. At a time when a young mind is struggling to acquire a firm grasp of reality, it is often confronted—through the actions of parents and other adults—with what appears to be an incomprehensible universe. It is not inanimate objects that appear incomprehensible, but people. It is not nature that appears threatening, but human beings. And, more often than not, the problem is submerged by him, repressed, ignored, never dealt with, never understood, never conquered.

In the case of the man we are considering, the irrationality to which he was exposed as a child was not the expression of intentional cruelty or ill-will. It was simply the "normal" manner of functioning, on the part of his parents, which most adults take for granted.

It consisted of such things as: making promises capriciously, and breaking them capriciously—oversolicitude when the parent was in one mood, and callous remoteness when the parent was in another—answering questions pleasantly one day, and irritably dismissing them the next—sudden expressions of love followed by sudden explosions of resentment—arbitrary unexplained rules and arbitrary, unexplained exceptions—unexpected rewards and unprovoked punishments—subtle pressures, gentle sarcasms, smiling lies, masquerading as affection and parental devotion—switching, irreconcilable commandments—vagueness and ambiguity and impatience and coldness and hysteria and indulgence and reproaches and anxious tenderness.

It was not the trauma of a single moment or episode, but a long accumulation of blows delivered to a victim who was not yet able to know he was a victim, or of what. He could not understand his elders' behavior; he knew only that he felt trapped in a world that was unintelligible and menacing.

As he grew older, this impression was confirmed and reinforced by many other people he encountered, by the irrational behavior of playmates, teachers, ect.

The process of repressing his feelings began early. His bewilderment and dread were painful and he did not like to experience them. He could not understand his feelings; he could not yet conceptualize the factors involved. He could not yet be fully confident of his ability to judge his parents and other people correctly; his judgments lacked the conviction of certainty. At times, he experienced his feeling of horror as overwhelming and paralyzing. And so, to reduce his anguish and to maintain a sense of control, he strove to deny the reality of the problem. This meant: when faced with dishonesty, hypocrisy, inconsistency, evasiveness, to feel nothing—to be an emotional blank. This meant: to inactivate his capacity to pass moral judgments.

Now, as an adult, he has learned to "accept" human irrationality. "Acceptance," in this context, does not mean the knowledge that a great many men behave irrationally and that he must be prepared to meet this problem; it means he accepts irrationality as the normal and natural, he ceases to regard it as an aberration, he does not condemn it.

If a friend whom he had every reason to trust commits some act of betrayal, and he cannot escape feeling hurt and shocked, he reproaches himself for his reaction: he feels that he is naive and out of touch with reality.

To the extent that he cannot fully extinguish his frustrated, anguished desire for rationality, he feels guilty. Such is the corruption that repression has worked on his thinking.

Now consider another case: a man who represses his idealism, i.e., his aspiration to any values above the level of the commonplace.

When he was a boy, no one understood or shared his feelings about the books he read or the things he liked; no one shared or understood his feeling that a man's life should be important, that he should achieve something difficult and great. What he heard from people was: "Oh, don't take yourself so seriously. You're impractical." He did not strive to conceptualize his own desires and values, to weigh the issue consciously and rationally; he was hurt by people's attitude; he felt like a outcast; he did not want to feel that way; so he gave up. If he saw a romantic movie about some man's heroic achievement, he would remark to his friends, indifferently: "Not bad. But pretty corny, wasn't it?"—and repress the memory of what he had felt in the theatre for two hours, protected by darkness. Now, as a middle-aged Babbitt, he listens with empty eyes and an emptier soul while his son speaks of the great things he wants to do when he grows up, and he tells his son to go mow the lawn, and then, sitting alone, why, he wonders, why should I be crying?

Or: The man who, in adolescence, had been desperately lonely. He had found no one whom he could like or admire, no one to whom he could talk. The one girl he cared for had deserted him for another boy. He came to believe that his loneliness was a weakness; that the pain of his frustrated longing for a person he could value was a flaw which he must conquer in himself; that a truly strong, independent man could have no such longing. He became progressively more repressed emotionally. His public manner became more remote and more cheerful. Now, at the age of thirty, he meets a woman with whom he falls desperately in love. But a subsconscious block forbids him to know how much he loves her: to know it would unlock the pain of his past and expose him to new pain, should his love not be reciprocated. Since his repression seals off the knowledge of her meaning to him, he cannot communicate it to her. He sees her frequently, but assumes a manner of detached, amused affection: he feels that this manner expresses strength. At first, she responds to him. But eventually she withdraws, alienated by a passionless remoteness which she perceives as weak and unmasculine.

Or: The man who represses his desire for an appreciation and admiration he has earned, because, mistakenly, he views his desire as a failure of independence—and does not understand the feelings of loneliness and a strange, unwanted bitterness that hit him at times.

Or: The woman who represses her sexual passion, because she is afraid of shocking her timid, conventional husband—and does not understand the apathy that invades more and more areas of her life.

Or: The woman who represses her femininity, because she has accepted the popular notion that femininity and intellectuality are incompatible—and who does not understand her subsequent tension and hostility in the realm of sex. (Or: The woman who represses her intellectuality, because she has accepted the same dichotomy, and is left with the same bitterness.)

Or: The man of authentic self-esteem who represses the strength of his impulse to self-assertiveness, out of consideration for the neurotic sensibilities of people who are less secure psychologically—and does not understand his periodic explosions of rebellious, seemingly unprovoked anger.

When a person represses, his intention is to gain an increased sense of control over his life; invariably and inevitably, he achieves the opposite. Observe that in every one of the above cases, repression leads to increased frustration and suffering, not to their amelioration. Whether a person's motive is noble or ignoble, facts cannot be wiped out by self-made blindness; the person who attempts it merely succeeds in sabotaging his own consciousness.

Repression devastates more than a man's emotions; it has disastrous effects on the clarity and efficiency of his thinking. When a man tries to consider any problem in an area touched by his repression, he finds that his mind tends to be unwieldly and his thinking distorted. His mind is straightjacketed; it is not free to consider all possibly relevant facts; it is denied access to crucial information. As a consequence, he feels helpless to arrive at conclusions, or the conclusions he reaches are unreliable.

This does not mean that, once a man has repressed certain thoughts or feelings, he is permanently incapacitated: with sustained effort, it is possible for him to de-repress. Since the represser's mind is only partially disabled by blocks, the unobstructed area of his mind retains the capacity to work at removing them.

Repressed material does not vanish completely; it reveals itself in countless indirect ways. The two broadest categories of clues by which repressed material can be traced are: (1) the presence of emotions and desires that appear causeless and incomprehensible in terms of one's conscious convictions; (2) the presence of contradictions in one's responses—contradictions between one's desires, or between one's emotions and one's actions. A concern with detecting such contradictions is the necessary precondition of successful derepression; it is the starting point of one's introspective effort to remove mental blocks.

The details of the process of de-repression are outside the scope of this discussion. It must be noted, however, that the process can be extremely difficult. Sometimes, such complexities are involved that a man may require the aid of a competent psychotherapist.

In order to avoid repression—or in order to re-repress—it is imperative that a man adopt the policy of being aware of his emotions; that he take note of and conceptualize his emotional reactions and that he identify their reasons. This policy, practiced consistently, makes repression almost impossible; the chief reason why it is often so easy for men to repress is their policy of unconcern with, and obliviousness to, their own mental states and processes.

If his emotions are to be a source of pleasure to man, not a source of pain, he must learn to think about them. Rational awareness is not the "cold hand" that kills; it is the power that liberates.

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