Why HSPs Should Not Repress Their Emotions

An emotional highly sensitive woman looking down

Emotions are like a beach ball — the more you try to keep them submerged under water, the stronger they’ll be when they reemerge.

Our society tends to have a complicated relationship with emotions. On one hand, people are condemned when they are considered to be “too emotional,” all while “rationality” is placed on a pedestal and people who appear to exhibit this trait are praised. 

On the other hand, emotions are a natural human phenomenon, something society tends to either forget or ignore. Unsurprisingly, this can result in not knowing what to do with our feelings. So when this essential experience does occur, it is not uncommon for people to repress their emotions.

However, as a psychotherapist, I have seen how keeping our feelings bottled up can have unintended consequences, especially for those of us who identify as highly sensitive people (HSPs), who feel our emotions more deeply than our non-HSP counterparts do.

7 Reasons Why HSPs Should Not Repress Their Emotions 

1. It is not healthy in the long-run.

Whenever we try to repress a natural human experience — whether it be our hunger, thirst, pain, fatigue, or emotions — we can only do so “successfully” for only a limited period of time. Eventually, our innate need grows strong enough that it overpowers our abilities of suppression. 

This is especially true for HSPs, as our tendency to feel our emotions more deeply makes it even more difficult to keep them at bay. A metaphor I often use is attempting to keep a beach ball submerged underwater. Since this goes against the beach ball’s natural state of being, it takes considerable effort in order to accomplish this. However, even with this effort, the beach ball can only stay submerged for so long before it bounces back to the surface. And the greater the struggle, the more force the beach ball will have when reemerging. This is the same for our emotions. Try as we might, we cannot keep our emotions repressed forever. And when they reappear, they will be even stronger than before.

2. Like it or not, your body keeps score.

In the book The Body Keeps the Score, psychiatrist and author Dr. Bessel van der Kolk describes how trauma impacts our physicality. Specifically, through research, he shows that individuals who experience trauma are more likely to exhibit physical conditions later in life, including diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and heart disease. 

Emotions, especially strong ones (such as those associated with trauma) live in the body. If they are repressed instead of processed, this can lead to the negative physical outcomes, as van der Kolk documents. Since we HSPs are already more prone to experiencing bodily ailments when we are off-kilter, we may be especially vulnerable to this.

3. Repressing emotions makes them (more) scary.

If we consistently repress our emotions, they become foreign and unfamiliar to us. When this is the case, actually feeling emotions can be a scary (or scarier!) experience since we are uncertain of what to do. Chances are, we will do anything to escape this discomfort, which can often result in us engaging in “emotional buffering,” turning to maladaptive coping mechanisms that briefly numb our emotions. For instance, we may glue ourselves to our phone and mindlessly scroll through social media, watch Netflix or play video games obsessively, or even misuse substances, binge-eat or restrict our eating, or engage in self-harm. 

These behaviors may be temporarily useful in helping us manage our emotions. However, they ultimately perpetuate the notion that we are unable to handle our emotions by providing reinforcement through means of escape, even if for a limited time. This is in contrast to adaptive coping skills, which help guide us through our feelings.    

4. You become disconnected from your authenticity.

Authenticity is one of our primary traits as HSPs and is vital in helping us lead our overall best lives. An important aspect of authenticity is being in connection with our emotional experience. Indeed, knowing what we are feeling, the reasons and purpose of our feelings, and how to communicate these feelings are all a part of being in touch with our authentic experience. 

However, when we repress our emotions, we become disconnected from an essential part of our being, and by extension, our authenticity. Repressing our emotions is essentially lying to ourselves. Being in touch with our authenticity is notably important for HSPs due to our strong relationship with our intuition. Consequently, when we live outside of our authenticity, our intuition will try to guide us back to a place of living in alignment with our authenticity by invoking distress. Conversely, when we allow ourselves to feel our emotions, this subsequently allows us to know ourselves better.

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5. Emotions are a necessary part of the human experience.

Emotions are a vital element of living life. It is impossible to go through life without experiencing a vast array of emotions. This not only pertains to more difficult ones, such as sadness, guilt, anger, and fear, but also more positive ones, such as joy, contentment, excitement, and peace

However, when we are in the habit of repressing our more difficult emotions, this also lessens our ability to truly feel our more positive ones. This can be especially detrimental to the well-being of highly sensitive people, since it’s in our nature to feel deeply. Furthermore, our emotional experiences help connect us to other individuals on a deeper and more intimate level, too. After all, relationships are built upon sharing vulnerable moments, which requires feeling together. Can you imagine going throughout life without rejoicing after accomplishing a major goal, mourning with a loved one after a painful experience, feeling discomfort that motivates you to change your life for the better, or experiencing utter bliss when engaging in your favorite activity? Indeed, a life without emotions lacks the depth that HSPs crave and is limited in its fullness.

6. Feeling your feelings leads to better mental health.

When we repress our emotions, this negatively impacts our mental health. In order to properly move through our emotions, we must first recognize our emotional state (“name it to tame it”), and then feel our feelings (“we can’t heal what we don’t feel”). When we do this, we can effectively work through our emotions. For example, you can name your current feeling, like “anger,” and then feel that anger by processing it with someone you trust, journaling, setting a boundary with the person who upset you, or even crying — in essence, working through the anger.         

Conversely, when we repress our feelings, our emotions become stuck and we become emotionally stagnant as a result, unable to process our feelings and truly heal. And when we have difficult emotions constantly lying under the surface, we experience worse mental health and overall well-being.   

7. We lose out on the benefits of emotions.

We have emotions for a reason. Our feelings hit us faster and more deeply than our thoughts do, meaning that emotions are the quickest way to motivate us to take action. That being said, one primary benefit of feeling our emotions is that they each have a message to communicate with us. For instance, because sadness often indicates a need of ours is not being met, this can motivate us to make changes in order to satisfy that need. This is well-illustrated in the Disney/Pixar movie Inside Out. For the majority of the movie, the main character, Riley, represses her sadness that has been caused by her family’s recent move. In this case, Riley’s unmet need was receiving emotional support during this difficult time. When she finally feels and expresses her sadness, her parents provide her with comfort and support, thus fulfilling her need while also helping her heal from her pain and connect with joy again.

How We Can Feel Our Emotions

Due to the way our society approaches emotions, many people are understandably confused about how to properly deal with (and feel) them. Here are some tips I recommend to my psychotherapy clients (and that I utilize myself) to aid in this process.

  • Be mindful. Mindfulness is often defined as “nonjudgmental present awareness.” When we are aware of our current state of being, we can better identify when a feeling arises. This can be done by noticing our mood, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Don’t forget the “nonjudgmental” component — as much as possible, try to show yourself compassion for whatever emotions you may be feeling in the moment. Plus, mindfulness does not need to mean sitting on a cushion and meditating. You can be mindful by noticing the falling leaves of a tree or just listening to the sound of birds chirping outside your window. Just sitting still, noticing, and feeling is the point.
  • Identify the emotion(s). As mentioned before, we have to “name it to tame it.” Indeed, we are better able to feel and move through our emotions when we know what it is we are feeling. If you are having trouble, an emotions wheel, which lists basic core emotions in addition to more specific emotional states, can be a helpful aid. For instance, you may first recognize the core emotion of feeling mad, then become more specific and identify feeling jealous.           
  • Express yourself. We need to let our emotions out by expressing our feelings. Crying, for example, is a great way to experience and feel more difficult emotions, such as sadness, anger, and fear. Listening to music or watching something with a similar mood to what we are feeling is another great catharsis. There are countless examples, but do what works best for you.         
  • Process the feeling. By processing our emotions, this can help us contextualize and understand our experience better. Some methods of processing include journaling, talking to trusted others, or going to therapy. The latter two offer the additional benefit of social support from an outside source (vs. a friend or loved one, who may be biased). 
  • Find the message behind the emotion and take action. As discussed previously, our emotions are here to give us a message. Once we are able to discover what the message is behind our emotion, we can take action to rectify the situation. For example, if we are feeling anxiety about public speaking, the message behind the emotion is that doing well is important to us and we don’t want to fail. Our actionable steps may be to prepare for the public speaking event, seek out support from loved ones, and remind ourselves that our worth is not based on the outcome of this event.
  • Move your body. Our emotions resonate not only in our minds, but in our bodies, as well. After all, each emotion is coupled with physical sensations. Because of that, we need to move our bodies to work through our emotions. The type of movement may depend on which emotion we are experiencing. For example, with “softer” emotions, like sadness, gentle stretching could do the trick. For “stronger” emotions, such as anger, we may want to engage in more physical exertion, such as running or a sport in which force is used.

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