My association with the word “repressed” always precedes the term “memories.” I think of repression as an active stuffing down of memories I don’t wish to recall. While this is partly true, the term repression has more to do with emotional experience, rather than isolated moments in time. We repress memories, yes, but we do so for fear of experiencing the emotions they trigger.
According to Sigmund Freud, “the essence of repression lies simply in turning something away and keeping it at a distance, from the conscious.” In other words, repression is a defensive measure, taken by the psyche, to keep the most painful human emotions at bay. In his book, Why Do I Do That? Joseph Burgo states “anything that enters the realm of the unconscious must have been repressed from awareness.” Thus, our conscious minds filter out the most burdensome emotions and lock them away in unlit recesses within the expansive unconscious domain.
The psychological unconscious archives those moments of personal experience which threaten to incite unbearable emotions. However, the conscious mind cannot compensate for the distortion produced by the unconscious. As a result, we develop conscious habits and behaviors that oft betray the hidden truth. These are known as defense mechanisms, and while they are effective barriers to those most troublesome of emotions, they are not necessarily healthy habits and can be destructive to relationships and personal development.
“We tend to develop ongoing strategies that are designed to keep the repressed feelings from breaking free of their dungeon. Learning to recognize the signs of that extra mental effort to keep something repressed is one of the ways we can identify when a defense mechanism is at work.”Joseph Burgo, Why Do I Do That?
I think most of us want to have healthier, happier lives. Many of us look to religious practice, self-help, or behavioral therapies to excise those most damaging habits from our experience. However, “if you don’t understand how repression operates, real growth is nearly impossible since you’re unlikely to come into contact with that pain you’re warding off” (Burgo). In the end, the cost of liberation is the journey to the past–the endeavor to embrace those emotions we’ve long resisted feeling.
I used to think I had some special skill–a sixth sense that enabled me to dive into the pain of the past in order to reconstruct the trajectory of my future. I realized, however, that I am not immune to repression. What I have found is that those most painful emotions are unique to each of us. I can bear fear. I can bear deep sadness. I can even bear shame. What I stave off, more than any other feeling, is grief. Just typing the word is like plunging a dagger into my own heart.
With that said, I understand that as I encourage others to unlock unconscious chambers, I must now do the same.
I commit to the journey.
I hope you come along.