Short sharp, to the point and written by Freud. His full quote is ‘Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways’. What does he mean and is he right?
With this statement Freud is defining on the pillars of psycho-analysis and psychotherapy – to uncover repressed and unconscious memories and provide a relationship in which those ‘traumas’ can be expressed through language and contact.
What evidence is there that unexpressed emotions don’t die, after all, is passage of time not a great healer as the popular expression goes? We know that unexpressed emotions don’t die because otherwise people with traumas would simply recover and live contented and fulfilling lives. Instead we know that this is not the case and trauma gets ‘stuck’.
And with regards to the glib statement that ‘time heals’, this is only true when feelings can be expressed – losses grieved – and reality come to terms with, otherwise the past will continue to repeat itself in unconscious ways in the present. After all, the unconscious has no concept of time.
How do unexpressed emotions come forth?
Unexpressed emotions – in other words emotions that cannot be acknowledged for fear of their impact on the psyche – express through a variety of means and present in an infinite number of actual behaviours or presentations. For me it brings to mind a quote from a Woody Allen movie where a character (played by Allen) says ‘I never get angry …. I grow a tumour instead’.
Some of what we see as clinicians with clients who are defending against expressing difficult feelings can be:
Acting out – Engaging in behaviours that are destructive to self and or others the reasons for which the client is often unaware of;
Mania – Frantically ‘doing’ to avoid being in touch with one’s inner world;
Depression – A pervasive deadness and inability to be in touch with desire as a result of emotions being unexpressed. Being dead is preferable to feeling;
Repetition compulsion – The compulsion to repeat an event or behaviour over and over again without an ability to clearly think about and consider why that may be;
Reaction formation – A defence against the anxiety produced by feelings towards something causing the person to over-compensate in the opposite direction – an example would be someone terrified of death who engages in dangerous sports or activities;
Mental illness – This is a catch all phrase, a product of the medicalisation of psychiatry whereby clusters of ‘symptoms’ are given different diagnoses. Essentially, mental health diagnosis or not, the work remains the same. And psychosis can be seen as the mind protecting itself from unbearable feelings and emotions by ‘going mad’.
Somatic (body) symptoms – Back to the Woody Allen quote – in lieu of feeling, many of us develop physical ‘pains’ far less dramatic than tumours, but chronic nonetheless. Examples could be gastro-intestinal problems (IBS), migraines or other more obscure symptoms.
Dissociation – We all dissociate, which broadly means to ‘zone out’, however dissociation can manifest in powerful and extreme ways whereby the person ‘splits’ their mind akin to ‘the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing’, however rather than it being about one hand not knowing what the other is doing, it is in reality one hand not knowing what is BEING DONE to the other.
And this list is by no means exhaustive or conclusive.
Expression vs repression – living vs dying
Expression of emotion is essential, however, cruelly paradoxically, those who have needed to repress have done so because there has not been a sufficiently available adult (in chronological as well as psychological terms) to be in relationship with. This is the role of the therapeutic relationship.
Without titrated expression of emotion – I am no fan of new-age catharsis – and done in the context of relationship, living is simply not possible; only existence is possible where the client is at the mercy of powerful unconscious forces and exposed to their repressed emotions coming forth later in uglier ways.
Grieving is part of living
Grieving is extremely painful – whether that is grieving a loss in the present, or grieving the loss of what never was. However, without grieving we cannot feel alive – we cannot be born.
Being born in the biological sense means leaving the safety of the womb, but also the ‘nothingness’ of the womb. In the womb we cannot experience reality other that filtered through our mothers. And so it is psychologically too – being born through psychotherapy means to face losses and bear reality, however painful that may be, and through that to come alive. If loss can be borne then desire for life can emerge and emerge it will.
Psychotherapy is about expressing what has previously been inexpressible and it is in the context of the therapeutic relationship and encounter using language that this takes place: language gives trauma shape and form.
Mark Vahrmeyer, UKCP Registered, BHP Co-founder is an integrative psychotherapist with a wide range of clinical experience from both the public and private sectors. He currently sees both individuals and couples, primarily for ongoing psychotherapy. Mark is available at the Lewes and Brighton & Hove Practices.
Further ready by Mark Vahrmeyer –