Repression and suppression are very similar defense mechanisms, which people use in order for them to cope with a stimulus that can harm them.
What is suppression?
Suppression is a useful psychological mechanism; here we force the unwanted information out of our awareness. We consciously choose to not indulge in conscious thought, feeling or action even though we are aware of it. This permits us to focus on our affairs without being distracted by every impulse that arises, and without having to act on those impulses.
We suppress because of the impulse’s inappropriateness with regard to the situation or because of time constraints in which we feel that “I just can’t deal with that right now.”
For example, a wife may be peeved about her husband’s behaviour. Because of some guests around her, she may control her reaction and decide to bring it up later when no one is around them. Until the guests are around, she may continue chatting/serving them, internally she may tell herself “I need to look after the guests, forget about him right now, I’ll speak to my husband later.” Thus, she is focusing on the other areas, managing feelings of anger, and controlling her actions in the present, consciously. This is helpful because she is buying time to take action.
What is repression?
Repression, also known as dis-associative amnesia, is similar to suppression but it involves unconsciously forgetting or blocking some unpleasant thoughts, feelings and impulses. Individuals might use repression to become unconscious about traumatic past memories. Some examples of repression include:
- A person having no recollection of the abuse suffered during childhood
- A man having no recollection of an accident he had met with
- A woman having no recollection of intense pain she had gone through during childbirth
This is helpful in the short run because it is saving the person from the intense negative emotions associated with these memories. However, these memories don’t just disappear; they manifest through a symptom, or series of symptoms and may continue to influence our behaviour. In the first example above, the person may find it difficult to get into relationships later or in the second one, the man may develop a fear of driving without knowing the reason behind the same.
Thus, the protective purpose that repression has also given us side effects, which may cause hindrance.
So, how is it different from forgetting?
One can overlook unimportant information or even the information that is a part of our normal routine life but forgetting important information in the absence of more important aspects is more unconscious in nature. Normal forgotten material can be recalled due to a trigger e.g. I forgot to call the doctor for an appointment; later a phone ring may remind me about the same. Repression is on the other hand unconsciously forgetting an idea, an incident, or an experience. Just a normal/routine trigger may not be enough to recover these repressed memories.
Suppression vs Repression
Freud mentioned; suppression is generally considered to have more positive results than repression. First, it deals with unpleasant but not extremely contemptible actions or thoughts. It can be a good idea to focus on one thing at a time, suppressing other problems until that one is solved like the wife’s example mentioned above. Counting to ten when angry before taking action is a good example of suppression, this technique is also very useful in everyday life.
As an adult the person who has repressed an incident cannot get to this material by a conscious act of will; it’s simply not available. On the other hand, suppressed material can often be recalled, since the act of suppression is more the result of conscious intention.
Now that we understand repression and suppression both, it is quite clear that both serve a purpose in the short run but may lead to complications in the long run.
If you would like to learn to help clients deal with issues resulting from Suppression and Repression, check out the comprehensive course on an eclectic approach to psychotherapy, Cognitive Hypnotic Psychotherapy Diploma.