A question about repression - how allowing are you in daily life?
January 8, 2019 10:56 PM   Subscribe

This is a question about psychology/how other people handle their thoughts and feelings partially out of curiosity and partially because this is something I struggle with. When you are in any given situation, do you ask yourself how you feel about it and then allow what comes up in your mind, or do you try to act how you want to feel? Pls see extended explanation as this is a bit complicated.

For instance. Let's say you are chatting with a friend. You can be in a presence of mind where you are just listening to what they are saying and responding without trying to control yourself, just allowing your feelings and thoughts to come out as they are. Or, you can try to control how you are perceived and try to say things a certain way and try to push things to feel a certain way. Kind of like having a vision for how you want the interaction to go and sticking to it. In the first instance, you are allowing what is, it's like letting it unfold in you what happens, and the second instance, you are taking control of yourself.

I ask this because I think I usually approach situations in the second way, and I am starting to wonder if that is repression. After learning about emotional acceptance, I'm wondering if the first one is the healthier way to go. To me they seem like completely different states of being. When I try the first way of being I feel more emotionally connected but I feel there is no control. The second way of being I feel very aware of myself, sometimes a bit numb and agitated, but I feel more in control.

I find I almost always am trying to have control over my thoughts and direct my thinking, rather than allowing thoughts and then letting them go if I don't want to think them at that point. Is this also repression or normal? How much attention do you pay to your thoughts and how much do consciously try to be the voice in your head vs. just allowing the voice in your head to be there?

I've been studying buddhism and different psychologies, and these questions of mind and thought/what is effective for finding emotional balance have been plaguing me a little bit.
posted by oracleia to Human Relations (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I feel a lot like I‘m enacting the part of „me“, the way I want to be seen in the world. The part is not NOT me, but it‘s only a certain part of me. To an extent I believe that everyone does it and it is often socially appropriate (like, being your gregarious „self“ at a work event when you‘d rather be at home because you‘re a natural introvert). It‘s a matter of degree.

However, it‘s such a habit, it‘s like a subroutine I run without consciously paying attention. It takes more attention for me to just be myself than to act myself. I‘m making that effort, especially around friends, because I think it‘s important to have real relationships. I think it‘s healthier.
posted by Omnomnom at 11:12 PM on January 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

I don't know what's normal, but here's what I do:

I don't try to control my thoughts and feelings at all. I don't think I could if I tried! I mean maybe, but then I'd worry that I might give off a stilted vibe, or be less "in the moment", which isn't something I want.

I DO control my behaviour (words, body language, major facial expressions) in most situations.

So for instance, if I feel bored or annoyed, I think that's totally reasonable- I feel bored or annoyed because something boring or annoying is happening. I'm allowed to live that truth!

However- if I allow my expression or body language to LOOK bored or annoyed, that's rude, and rudeness generally isn't warranted or productive. So generally I'll try to control my behaviour enough to be polite in the moment.

But I really value my feelings, and I usually try to honour them by eventually ending non-enjoyable interactions as soon as I can. And in ongoing relationships, I use my feelings as a guide to eventually try to shift the relationship dynamic to something better, like through changed behaviour on my part, and/or conversations with the other person about our dynamic.

So yes, in many situations I will control my words and body. More with strangers, coworkers, and acquaintances; less with close friends and relatives (partially because of comfort/trust, and partially because of restraint collapse!).

But I believe feelings are very important, so I would never repress them. I mean- I'm pretty much gonna feel them anyway, even if I try to repress them, so I figure I might as well accept them and use them productively.

Also, I love thinking more about my feelings later, and maybe writing about them, looking for patterns, analyzing them, and talking about them with friends. So not only do I let feelings happen, but I also do the opposite of repression: I tease them apart and examine them.

As a data point, I tend to be fairly extroverted & direct, and I really value authenticity. I personally would rather interact with people who express "too many feelings" than people who share "too few".
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:42 PM on January 8, 2019 [18 favorites]

When you are in any given situation, do you ask yourself how you feel about it and then allow what comes up in your mind, or do you try to act how you want to feel?

What comes up in my mind is not a thing I can control. So I limit the exertion of control to what shows on my face and what comes out of my mouth. It's generally quite similar to what comes up in my mind, just much much much less sweary.
posted by flabdablet at 2:29 AM on January 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think there's a couple of slightly different things here. The first is what you describe as "control over my thoughts and direct my thinking". The second is "just allowing your feelings and thoughts to come out as they are".

I don't see how you can exert direct control over thoughts and prevent them from occurring, at least not in a healthy way. That's a lost battle for me, anyway. The trick, I suppose, is to acknowledge whatever thoughts you have, but to not necessary treat them as being all equally valid or helpful. Pushing thoughts or feelings aside without addressing them can be helpful if it's just not an appropriate time to do that. But where possible, it's better to acknowledge a thought or feeling and then consider the context of that thought. Why did I think that? Is it a fair/true/reasonable thought? Is it a helpful thought? Is there something I ought to do in response to it, or would expressing it or acting on it be harmful to me or someone else? An example would be anxiety; you can learn to cope with anxiety by recognising the thoughts, labelling them as anxiety-thoughts, and using a bit of positive self-talk and distraction to calm yourself.

In terms of allowing thoughts to come out 'as they are', that's about having a 'filter', isn't it? I think generally we prefer people to have some filter between what they think and feel, and what they say or otherwise express. Thoughts can be intensely selfish or unreasonable, and don't always reflect the self we want to project, or be. I don't think that's a bad thing. On the other hand, keep too much to yourself, and you feel stifled, unable to be understood, and other people find you cold. difficult to read and standoffish. In the anxiety example above, the degree to which you'd want to express the feelings would depend a lot on circumstances (a job interview vs. being among friends).

There's a balance to be found, and that balance comes about by developing a feel for the kinds of thoughts you have in different situations, and where they lie on a scale that runs from 'keep it to myself', through 'express it partially or in a different way', to 'just say it directly'. I don't think any of us are 'all-or-nothing' in terms of the thoughts we express.

Not expressing a thought, or not accepting it as a 'good' thought, isn't necessarily repressive. We all shape ourselves to try to become what we'd like to be in terms of what other people see and how we feel about ourselves; this can be healthy or it can be a source of unhappiness. I think you just have to be kind to yourself, a little reflective at times, and treat the self as a slightly messy work in progress.
posted by pipeski at 3:36 AM on January 9, 2019 [10 favorites]

A little of both, but the "control" part is more in a mindfulness sort of framework; if I notice myself getting totally distracted by thoughts or feelings, I try to refocus on what's in front of me in the present moment. It also depends on how well I know the person in front of me, and my relationship with them. With good friends, there's much less of any sort of filter (though I still don't want to be saying any ol' thing that comes into my head, just for etiquette/kindness's sake); with newer friends, I am more likely to be evaluating, "Do I want to share this part of myself with this person at this moment? How do I want to frame it?" Not as a "How do I want other people to think of me?" thing quite so much as a "What's an appropriate level of intimacy?" thing.

That said, I still am generally considered by others to be a bit closed off, so I think I do more controlling than I realize. I have been working on my social anxiety the last two years, though, and striving toward being my authentic self in as many different settings/relationships as possible. Part of my authentic self is wanting to be kind and thoughtful and polite to others, so that kind of wraps the "control" part into the "authentic self" part, if that makes sense.

Also, you may already know this, but meditation helps get the idea of "thoughts" or "mind" unstuck from the idea of "self," which I think makes navigating this general question a bit easier.
posted by lazuli at 5:43 AM on January 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

It depends on how much trust, closeness, and intimacy I feel wrt the person, and how much history has shown that I can count on them to be safe as far as my expressing feelings goes. (Are odds decent they’re going to flip out? If so, you bet I’m going to be guarded and careful!) If I don’t know them well, but I feel like I’m on my back foot for whatever reason (gut feel), I’m going to take a step back and self-monitor. Especially if I don’t trust myself not to compromise my sense of comfort or safety (by say exposing a vulnerability they might exploit, if they have a shark-ey vibe).

Context matters too - are there good reasons to manage impressions of me (eg job interview, new work-related person)? Stay cool

But among friends and most family, and new people who give me a good vibe, sure, I feel ok being relaxed and spontaneous.

If you’re self-monitoring a lot, it could be social anxiety.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:31 AM on January 9, 2019

I'll echo pipeski's point and say that feeling something does not necessarily mean acting upon something. This idea is explored in cognitive behavioral therapy - the classic book for that is Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy and a related workbook. It was really helpful to me 10-15 years ago, but as with anything, your mileage may vary.

It seems like you want to apply the term "repression" to what's happening here, and I feel as though that may not be the right term. But I am not in the field except as a patient.

Also, you do not have to control everything. That can be scary, but it's well worth exploring.

Also also, I'd gently push back on the quest to define things as Normal or Not Normal. I've done that a lot in my day. Maybe Healthy for You vs. Not Healthy for You.

For me, I have a combo of an emotionally restrictive upbringing and mild/moderate depression. I am constantly checking in: "is this thought / feeling authentic to me? Am I trying to fit into what I think others want me to feel? Is this the depression talking? Or is this me?" That's all inside the head. Expression is another thing, and that's heavily dependent upon context.

If it's available to you, therapy can help you learn to sort these things out and learn those skills. So there's the usual plug.
posted by cage and aquarium at 7:41 AM on January 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

You mention studying buddhism. From my studies, and yes, therapy, I was able to entertain the concept of not needing to find emotional balance. Maybe this would have value for you. It did me.
posted by jtexman1 at 7:46 AM on January 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Typically my initial internal reaction to something comes from instinct — this is what we refer to as a gut reaction, right? But if I find that that gut instinct doesn't serve me will I try to reframe my thinking. For example — I found out I had to leave a city I loved (due to work issues). I was really sad. But I had no control over the leaving, so after feeling sad for a few days I decided to start thinking about all the things I could do in the new city. And it really helped the way I felt about the movie, both physically and emotionally.

WRT reacting in conversations or publicly, I am a pretty open book and I am also an EXTREMELY empathetic person. Like, crying at truck commercials empathetic. I used to be super embarassed by this but a number of people have told me it's a quality they like in me, so I no longer try to control it. Because I am also an introspective person, a lot of times I'm working out the process I mention in the above paragraph verbally in the middle of a conversation with a friend or loved one.

I appreciate and cultivate vulnerability, but I don't view people who are more reserved or stoic as "holding back."
posted by Brittanie at 1:08 PM on January 9, 2019

Hmm, I am a tense and anxious person, but I definitely don't try to control my conscious thoughts. I ruminate a lot, but I am pretty comfortable with the contents of my own brain.

Instead, I am sometimes distracted from my thoughts (a lack of mindfulness) in social situations that make me anxious. But that sounds a bit different from what you are describing.
posted by toastedcheese at 1:26 PM on January 9, 2019

What you’re describing with the way thoughts and feelings come and go and refraining from trying to control them is plain Mindfulness. I suggest reading anything from Jon Kabat-Zinn on the topic. I think I can safely say that mindfulness is much, much better than trying to force yourself to feel a certain way. Mindfulness will teach you how impermanent thoughts and feelings are by their very nature. Allowing yourself to find the spaces beteeen thoughts and emotions is very, very freeing.
posted by tcv at 3:47 AM on January 13, 2019

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