The Meaning of Repression
In the larger scope of counseling, you are working with individuals who are sometimes repressing, sometimes suppressing, and sometimes expressing their emotions. By creating a warm interpersonal climate that is conducive to emotional exploration and discovery, you help counselees learn to sense and manage their feelings in personal and interpersonal ways.
Freud discovered the defense mechanism of repression, which occurs when a person feels temporarily overwhelmed by a powerful emotion. It takes a considerable expenditure of physiological energy to push an emotion out of awareness and keep it from re-emerging. This drastic measure is accomplished through a series of instantaneous maneuvers. The repressed emotion is disowned so that it takes the appearance of something foreign and threatening, not something that belongs to the person.
The person blocks it from cognitive assimilation by locking it in the dungeon of muscle tension, which entails tensing the interlocking actin and myosin protein molecules in millions of muscle fibers that extend throughout the body, forming bands of muscular armor that keep the emotion buried and inaccessible, a kind of iron curtain that bars the emotion from consciousness.
This is why counselees are “in the dark” about feelings they have repressed, and it is why these feelings cannot be brought into the light of awareness without a temporary sense of anxiety and foreboding.
Techniques to Handle Repressed Emotions
Good counseling makes the unconscious conscious by creating an interpersonal atmosphere of trust and acceptance, releasing previously bound up energy and repressed emotion into spontaneous catharsis.
For this reason, you don’t need to feel alarmed if your counselee experiences a few minutes of crying, wringing the hands, or grimacing. Rather, you coach them as gently as possible into a Lamaze-like birth of emotion by employing two techniques:
1) Expanding the affect, and 2) Normalizing a feeling.
You do this by saying:
“This is very good that you’re in touch with this feeling…Breathe and let it flow …It’s safe here…That’s good, stay in touch with this emotion while it flows through your body…It’s okay to have this feeling, it can’t hurt you now…Relax and give this emotion a new voice. You’re taking this feeling out of the dark and bringing it into our presence, where we can finally understand what it’s been trying to say.”
You can see as the person responds to your coaching how the feeling is un-repressed before your eyes. It will grow more vivid and intense only to a certain point. But when the muscular and psychological resistance melts enough to allow the counselee to surrender fully to the feeling, it quickly passes through the body and is integrated into the whole of their human nature. Then lo and behold, it dissipates to the point where it no longer bothers them.
3) Immediately following an emotional catharsis, you soothe a person’s temporary loss of control by saying, “That was excellent emotional expression.” Often they will smile with pride, a kind of self-congratulation for the courage they expressed to stay in touch with the emotion long enough for it to pass, like a kidney stone, through their system.
4) Next you move into debriefing, which means talking over the original situation that led to the repressed emotion, and exploring healthy ways to handle similar situations in the counselee’s current life. You might say:
“What have you just learned from this powerful emotion?”Or, “Now that you’ve brought this old memory into awareness, what do you think about it?”
Your counselees will tap into your relaxed curiosity and articulate their own creative insights.
Some particularly traumatic events in a counselee’s history may need several passes in order to fully assimilate and work through, as when there exists considerable bitterness in divorce after twenty years of marriage, or when sexual abuse or rape is involved.
The healing can take place over the course of several months, but eventually the trapped emotions of rage, terror, or grief pass through the self system so that the spiritual core—not the repressed emotions— can take its rightful place as the center of the self. Other less intense emotions, however, can be assimilated almost immediately and not present any further problems.
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