Repression: I once knew what this was and then I forgot.
Last weekend, I attended the EMDRIA conference in Minneapolis where physician, Gabor Maté, spoke about the connections between trauma, emotional repression, and disease. He told the story of his Jewish infant self, crying all the time, in Hungary, 1944, just before the Nazi invasion. He quickly learned to negate his own childhood needs in order to protect his mother from further stress. Maté’s book, “When the Body Says No,” tells about the emotional coping styles we learn as children – and how they become precursors to adult diseases. Here’s an excerpt.
Repression, the inability to say no and a lack of awareness of one’s anger make it much more likely that a person will find herself in situations where her emotions are unexpressed, her needs are ignored and her gentleness is exploited. Those situations are stress inducing, whether or not the person is conscious of being stressed.
I came home and bought all Maté’s books, so I could read about my two selves . . . the child version that, long, long ago, learned to cope through repression (who put her difficult feelings into lidded jars and set them on a high shelf to collect dust); and the adult version that survived cancer.
Anger & Repression & No . . . just No
Maté reviews the mountain of research that’s been done since I first studied women’s anger. He reads obituaries and tells stories about his work and interviews with dying patients . . . people with breast cancer, ALS, and other life-threatening diseases. This passage captures his premise:
Emotional experiences are translated into potentially damaging biological events when human beings are prevented from learning how to express their feelings effectively. That learning occurs –or fails to occur – during childhood.
Bottom line: these patients repress their true feelings most of the time.
If you grew up in a fundamentalist religious group, I have no doubt you learned to repress your true feelings in favor of what someone wanted you to feel or be. I once got scammed while making change in my college retail job because I didn’t want to be a disappointing Christian young lady and hurt the perp’s feelings. Just . . . NO.
Repression & Dissociation in Everyday Life
Here’s how it looks. I have stress, but dissociate (cut off) from my stress. You have anger, but stay out-of-touch with it. You have anxiety, but distract from your true feelings. I may be grieving the loss of my father, but not shedding tears, just desperately trying to save a friend from his addiction. I may be furious at how women are objectified in this world, yet only aware that I feel old and unattractive. You may be afraid of being alone and unloved in the future, but only know you’re driven to work harder, be fitter, and produce more now.
How do you dissociate from the reality of the moment? (e.g., food, alcohol, work). How do you repress pain? (e.g., humor, obsessive thoughts about your body). With whom do you avoid saying no? (e.g., your mate, your boss, your mother). What do you use to distract from the real pain at your core? (e.g., religion, politics, shopping, talking). What ingenious strategies did you develop as a kid that keep you shielded from what you really feel?
These are all the same question.
Now, where in your body does the physical impact live?
How to deal? For me, writing draws out hidden feelings. When I write, I connect with the serious little girl who forgot how to say no and, instead, left her instincts in sealed jars.* I move abstract emotion out of storage and into the realm of paper and ink where it can be touched and smelled and targeted with EMDR. Also, regular, focused exercise helps me stay attuned to my body/mind, so I’m more likely to feel No and say No when I need to.
*Once upon a time, you did this too.