Nathaniel Branden "Emotions and Repression (Part 1): The Repression of Negatives"

The following text is from Nathaniel Branden's book "The Psychology of Self-Esteem."

Emotions and repression: 
the repression of negatives

Repression is a subconscious mental process that forbids certain ideas, memories, identifications and evaluations to enter conscious awareness.

Repression is an automatized avoidance reaction, whereby a man's focal awareness is involuntarily pulled away from any "forbidden" material emerging from less conscious levels of his mind or from his subconscious.

Among the various factors that may cause a man to feel alienated from his own emotions, repression is the most formidable and devastating.

But it is not emotions as such that are repressed. An emotion as such cannot be repressed; if it is not felt, it is not an emotion. Repression is always directed at thoughts. What is blocked or repressed, in the case of emotions, is either evaluations that would lead to emotions or identifications of the nature of one's emotions.

A man can repress the knowledge of what emotion he is experiencing. Or he can repress the knowledge of its extent and intensity. Or he can repress the knowledge of its object, i.e., of who or what aroused it. Or he can repress the reasons of his emotional response. Or he can repress conceptual awareness that he is experiencing any particular emotion at all; he can tell himself that he feels nothing.

For example, hearing of the success of a friend who is also a business rival, a man may repress the awareness that the emotion he feels is envious resentment, and assure himself that what he feels is pleasure. Or, failing to be admitted to the college of his choice, a student may tell himself that he feels "a little disappointed," and repress the fact that he feels devastatingly crushed. Or, feeling sexually rebuffed by his sweetheart and repressing his pain out of a sense of humiliation, a youth may account to himself for his depression by the thought that no one understands him. Or, repressing her guilt over an infidelity, a wife can explain her tension and irritability by the thought that her husband takes no interest in her or their home. Or, burning with unadmitted frustration and hostility because he was not invited to join a certain club, a man may tell himself that the subject leaves him completely indifferent.

Repression differs from evasion in that evasion is instigated consciously and volitionally; repression is subconscious and involuntary. In repression, certain thoughts are blocked and inhibited from reaching conscious awareness; they are not ejected from focal awareness, they are prevented from entering it.

In order to understand the mechanism of repression, there are three facts pertaining to man's mind that one must consider.

1. All awareness is necessarily selective. In any particular moment, there is far more in the world around him than a man could possibly focus on—and he must choose to aim his attention in a given direction to the exclusion of others. This applies to introspection no less than to extrospection.

Focal awareness entails a process of discriminating certain facts or elements from the wider field in which they appear, and considering them separately. This is equally true of the perceptual and the conceptual levels of consciousness.

2. There are degrees of awareness. There is a gradient of diminishing mental clarity along the continuum from focal awareness to peripheral awareness to total unawareness or unconsciousness. To use a visual metaphor, the continuum involved is like that between two adjoining colors on the spectrum, say, blue and violet'; the area of pure blue (focal awareness) shades off by almost imperceptible degrees to blue-violet (peripheral awareness), which shades into pure violet (unconsciousness).

The phenomenon of degrees of awareness makes it possible for a man not to let his left hand know what his right hand is doing. A man can be aware of something very dimly—but aware enough to know that he does not want to be aware more clearly.

The mind can contain material which, at a given moment, is neither subconscious nor in focal awareness, but is in that wider field of consciousness whose elements must be distinguished and identified by a directed effort which will bring them into focal awareness—an act that a man may or may not choose to perform.

3. Man is a self-programmer. To an extent immeasurably greater than any other living species, he has the ability to retain, integrate and automatize knowledge.

As a man develops, as he learns to form concepts and then still wider concepts, the quantity of programmed data in his brain grows immeasurably, expanding the range and efficacy of his mind. Cognitions, evaluations, physical skills—all are programmed and automatized in the course of normal human development. It is this programming, retained on a subconscious level, that makes possible not only man's continued intellectual growth, but also the instantaneous cognitive, emotional and physical reactions without which he could not survive.

When a man's mind is in active focus, the goal or purpose he has set determines what material, out of the total content of his knowledge, will be fed to him from the subconscious. If, for instance, a man is thinking about a problem in physics, then it is the material relevant to that particular problem which will normally flow into his conscious mind. Focal awareness controls the subconscious process by setting the appropriate goal(s)—by grasping the requirements of the situation and, in effect, issuing the appropriate orders to the subconscious.

The subconscious is regulated, not only by the orders it receives in any immediate moment, but by the "standing orders" it has received—i.e., by a man's long-term interests, values and concerns. These affect how material is retained and classified, under what conditions it is reactivated and what kind of subconscious connections—in response to new stimuli or data—are formed.

This is very evident in the case of creative thinking. Creative thinking rests on the establishment of a standing order to perceive and integrate everything possibly relevant to a given subject of interest. The problem with which he is concerned may not occupy a thinker's mind day and night; at times he will focus on other issues; but his subconscious holds the standing order to maintain a state of constant readiness, and to signal for the attention of the conscious mind should any significant data appear. The phenomenon of the sudden "inspiration" or "flash of insight" is made possible by a final, split-second integration which rests on innumerable earlier observations and connections retained in the subconscious and held in waiting for the final connection that will sum them up and give them meaning.

Now let us turn to the psychology of repression.

Repression, mechanically, is simply one of the many instances of the principle of automatization. Repression entails an automatized standing order exactly opposite to the one involved in creative thinking: it entails an order forbidding integration.

The simplest type of repression is the blocking from conscious awareness of painful or frightening memories. In this case, some event that was painful or frightening when it occurred and would be painful or frightening if recalled, is inhibited from entering conscious awareness.

The phenomenon of forgetting as such, is not, of course, pathological; memory, like awareness, is necessarily selective; one normally remembers that to which one attaches importance. But in cases of repression, memories do not simply "fade away"; they are actively blocked.

Consider the following example. A twelve-year-old boy succumbs to the temptation to steal money from a friend's locker in school. Afterward, the boy is tremblingly fearful that he will be found out; he feels humiliated and guilty. Time passes and his act is not discovered. But whenever the memory of his theft comes back to him, he re-experiences the painful humiliation and guilt; he strives to banish the memory, he hastily turns his attention elsewhere, telling himself, in effect, "I don't want to remember. I wish it would go away and leave me alone!" After a while, it does.

He no longer has to eject the memory from conscious awareness; it is inhibited from entering. It is repressed. The act of banishing the memory has become automatized.

Should the memory ever begin to float toward the surface of awareness, it is blocked before it can reach him. A kind of psychological alarm-signal is set off and the memory is again submerged.

Twenty years later, he may encounter the friend from whom he stole the money and greet him cheerfully; he remembers nothing of his crime. Or he may feel vaguely uncomfortable in his friend's presence and disinclined to renew the acquaintance—but with no idea of the reason.

Repressed memories are not always as localized and specific as in this example. Repression has a tendency to "spread out," to include other events associated with the disturbing one—so that memories of entire areas or periods of a man's life can be affected by the repressive mechanism.

People with traumatically painful childhoods sometimes exhibit something close to amnesia concerning their early years. They do not simply repress individual incidents; they feel that they want to forget the events of an entire decade, and they often succeed to a remarkable extent. If any questions about their childhood are raised, they may feel a heavy wave of pain or depression, with very meager, if any, ideational content to account for it.

Thoughts and evaluations, like memories, may be barred from awareness because of the pain they would invoke.

A religious person, for example, might be appalled to find himself entertaining doubts about his professed beliefs; he condemns himself as sinful and, in effect, tells these doubts, "Get thee behind me, Satan"—and the doubts retreat from his field of awareness. At first, he evades these doubts; later, it is not necessary: he has repressed them. He may then proceed to reinforce the repression by intensified expressions of religious fervor, which will help to divert his attention from any lingering uneasiness he cannot fully dispel.

Or consider the case of a neurotically dependent woman who is married to a cruel, tyrannical man. She dares not let any criticism of him enter her awareness—because she has surrendered her life to him, and the thought that her owner and master is irrational and malevolent would be terrifying to her. She observes his behavior, her mind carefully kept empty, her judgment suspended. She has automatized a standing order forbidding evaluation. Somewhere within her is the knowledge of how she would judge her husband's behavior if it were exhibited by any other man—but this knowledge is not allowed to be integrated with the behavior she is observing in her husband. Her repression is reinforced and maintained by considerable evasion; but her blindness is not caused only by evasion; to an important extent, she has programmed herself to be blind.

Not uncommonly, one can see a similar pattern of repression among children whose parents are frighteningly irrational. Children often repress negative evaluations of their parents, finding it more bearable to reproach themselves in the case of a clash, than to consider the possibility that their parents are monsters. One can observe this same phenomenon among the citizens of a dictatorship, in their attitude toward the rulers.

Perhaps the most complex instances of repression are those involving the attempt to negate emotions and desires.

An emotion can be attacked through the repressive mechanism in two ways: the repression can occur before the emotion is experienced, by inhibiting the evaluation that would produce it—or it can occur during and / or after the emotional experience, in which case the repression is directed at a man's knowledge of his own emotional state.

(As was noted earlier, emotions as such cannot be repressed. Whenever I refer to "emotional repression," I mean it in the sense of the above paragraph.)

A man seeks to repress an emotion because in some form he regards it as threatening. The threat involved may be simply pain, or a sense of loss of control, or a blow to his self-esteem.

Consider the case of a mild, amiable woman, who tends to be imposed upon and exploited by her friends. One day, she experiences a violent fit of rage against them—and she is shocked and made anxious by her own feeling. She is frightened for three reasons: she believes that only a very immoral person could experience such rage; she is afraid of what the rage might drive her to do and she is apprehensive lest her friends learn of her feeling and abandon her. She tells herself fiercely, in effect, "Do not judge their actions—above all, do not judge their behavior toward you—be agreeable to everything." When this order is automatized on the subconscious level, it acts to paralyze her evaluative mechanism: she no longer feels rage—at the price of no longer feeling much of anything. She does not know what any events really mean to her. She then proceeds to compound her repression by instigating an additional block to prevent her from recognizing her own emotional emptiness; she assures herself that she feels all the emotions she believes it appropriate to feel.

Or: A man finds himself spending more and more time with a married couple who are his friends. He does not note the fact that he is far more cheerful when the wife is present than when he and the husband are alone. He does not know that he is in love with her. If he knew it, it would be a blow to his sense of personal worth—first, because he would see it as disloyalty to the husband; second, because he would see it as a reflection on his realism and "hard-headedness," since the love is hopeless. If brief flashes of love or desire enter his awareness, he does not pause on them or appraise their meaning; their significance does not register, the normal process of integration has been sabotaged. He no longer remembers when the first dim thoughts of love rose to disturb him, and his mind slammed tightly closed before they reached full awareness, and a violent "No!" without object or explanation took their place in his consciousness. Nor does he know why, when he leaves his friends' home, his life suddenly seems unaccountably, desolately arid.

Or: A man who has never made much of himself is resentful and envious of his talented, ambitious younger brother. But the man has always professed affection for him. When his brother is drafted into the army, there is one brief moment when the man feels triumphant pleasure. Then, in the next moment, the knowledge of the nature of his emotion is evaded—and then repressed—and he jokes with his brother about the army "making a man of him." Later, when he receives the news that his brother has been killed in action, he does not know why all he can feel is a heavy numbness and a diffuse, objectless guilt; he tells himself that his grief is too profound for tears; and he drags himself around, strangely exhausted, not knowing that all of his energy is engaged in never letting himself identify the repressed wish which some enemy bullet had fulfilled.

Or: A woman sacrifices her desire for a career to her husband's desire for children and for a wife who has no interests apart from the family. Then, after a while, she feels an occasional spurt of hatred for her children, which horrifies her. She represses such feelings and is not aware of them again—except that sometimes she is inexplicably and uncharacteristically careless of her children's physical safety. Then she is horrified to discover feelings of contempt for her husband. She represses them, she throws herself with renewed fervor into the role of devoted wife—except that sexual relations with her husband become empty and boring. She takes great pains to present to their friends the picture of a cheerful, "well-adjusted" wife and mother—except that she begins to drink when she is alone.

Or: Since childhood, a man has regarded the emotion of fear as a reflection on his strength, and has struggled never to let himself know when he is afraid. He has instituted a block against recognizing the emotion when it appears. His manner is superficially calm, but he tends to be somewhat stiff and monosyllabic; he backs away from any sort of personal involvement. No values seem to arouse any response in him. An enormous amount of his energy goes into simply maintaining the illusion of inner equilibrium—into keeping his face pleasantly inscrutable and his mind cautiously empty. He feels safest when social conversation involves "small talk"—or some neutral subject where no moral judgments are expected of him or are expressed by anyone else. At home, he practices body-building stolidly and earnestly, and admires the emptiness of his face in the mirror, and feels manly—except that he tends to avoid women because he is close to being impotent.

There are two particularly disastrous errors that can drive a person to repression.

1. Many people believe that the fact of experiencing certain emotions is a moral reflection on them.

But a man's moral worth is not to be judged by the content of his emotions; it is to be judged by the degree of his rationality: only the latter is directly in his volitional control.

A man may make errors, honestly or otherwise, that result in emotions he recognizes as wrong and undesirable; it may be the case that some of these inappropriate emotions are the result of past errors or irrationality. But what determines his moral stature in the present is the policy he adopts toward such emotions.

If he proceeds to defy his reason and his conscious judgment and to follow his emotions blindly, acting on them while knowing they are wrong, he will have good grounds to condemn himself. If, on the other hand, he refuses to act on them and sincerely strives to understand and correct his underlying errors, then, in the present, he is following the policy of a man of integrity, whatever his past mistakes.

If a man takes the content of his emotions as the criterion of his moral worth, repression is virtually inevitable. For example, the Bible declares that a man's sexual desire for his neighbor's wife is the moral equivalent of his committing adultery with her; if a man accepts such a doctrine, he would feel compelled to repress his desire, even if he never intended to act on it.

All of the foregoing applies equally to the repression of "immoral" thoughts.

Freudian psychoanalysts teach that irrational and immoral desires are inherent in man's nature (i.e., contained in man's alleged "id"), and that man cannot escape them; he can only repress them and sublimate them into "socially acceptable" forms. The Freudians teach that repression is a necessity of life. Their secularized version of the doctrine of Original Sin compels them to do so. Since they do not recognize that a man's emotions and desires are the product of acquired (not innate) value-premises which, when necessary, can be altered and corrected—since they regard certain immoral and destructive desires as inherent in human nature at birth—they can have no solution to offer man except repression.

To quote from psychoanalyst A. A. Brill's Lectures on Psychoanalytic Psychiatry:
"Please note that it is not repression, but the failure of it, which produces the (neurotic) symptom. People constantly misinterpret Freud as having said that one gets sick because of repression, and, ergo, they deduce that the best way to remain healthy is never to repress. Now only a complete fool could believe or say such a thing. No one—not even an animal—can do just what he pleases; and certainly Freud and his school never advocated such nonsense." 
This leads us to the second major error that prompts men to repress:

2. Many people believe that if one feels an emotion or desire, one will and must act on it.

This premise is implicit in the above quotation from Brill. Note the alternative he sets up: either a man represses certain desires, i.e., makes himself unconscious of them—or else he does "just what he pleases," i.e., surrenders to any impulse he happens to experience. This is absurd.

A rational man neither represses his feelings nor acts on them blindly. One of the strongest protections against repression is a man's conviction that he will not act on an emotion merely because he feels it; this allows him to identify his emotions calmly and to determine their justifiability without fear or guilt.

It is an interesting paradox that repression and emotional self-indulgence are often merely two sides of the same coin. The man who is afraid of his emotions and represses them, sentences himself to be pushed by subconscious motivation—which means, to be ruled by feelings whose existence he dares not identify. And the man who indulges his emotions blindly, has the best reason to be afraid of them—and, at least to some extent, is driven to repress out of self-preservation.

If, then, a man is to avoid repression, he must be prepared to face any thought and any emotion, and to consider them rationally, secure in the conviction that he will not act without knowing what he is doing and why.

Ignorance is not bliss, not in any area of man's life, and certainly not with regard to the contents of his own mind. Repressed material does not cease to exist; it is merely driven underground, to affect a man in ways he does not know, causing reactions he is helpless to account for, and, sometimes, exploding into neurotic symptoms.

There are occasions in a man's life when it is necessary for him to suppress thoughts and feelings. But suppression and repression are different processes. Suppression is a conscious, deliberate, nonevasive expelling of certain thoughts or feelings from focal awareness, in order to turn one's attention elsewhere. Suppression does not involve a denial of any facts, or a pretense that they do not exist; it involves the implicit premise that one will focus on the suppressed material later, when appropriate.

For example, if a student is studying for an examination, he may have to suppress his thoughts and feelings about an eagerly awaited vacation; he is not evading or repressing; but he recognizes that at present his attention is required elsewhere, and he acts accordingly. Or: a man finds himself becoming angry in the midst of a discussion; he suppresses the anger, he does not deny its existence—in order to think more clearly and to address his mind exclusively to the issues that need to be resolved.

Sometimes, however, there is a certain danger in suppression: a man may suppress thoughts or feelings when there are still unresolved conflicts involved that require further attention and analysis. He may do so with no intent of dishonesty. But a suppression that is repeated consistently can turn into a repression; in effect, the suppression becomes automatized.

Although repression is often preceded and reinforced by evasion, evasion is not a necessary and intrinsic part of the repressive process. A person may mistakenly (but not necessarily dishonestly) believe that he can (and should) order undesirable or painful emotions out of existence; such orders, repeated often enough, can result in an automatized block.

However, the more a man practices evasion, i.e., the more firmly he establishes in his mind the principle that the unpleasant or disturbing need not be looked at—the more susceptible he becomes to the instantaneous repression of negatively charged material. In such a case, the policy of repression becomes generalized—it becomes a characteristic, automatic response.

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