We should be able to differentiate — here’s how and why it matters.
Holding onto negative emotions is unhealthy for the mind, body, and spirit, so we must learn to let go, in order to move forward.
In relation to this, “letting go” and “repressing” are two diametrically opposed concepts — and yet, many people seem to have trouble telling them apart.
When used interchangeably, it becomes problematic.
The Misconception of “Letting Go”
Picture this: you’ve come out of an argument or a similarly unpleasant experience and are feeling angry, hurt, and disappointed.
How would you feel if someone were to tell you to “let it go” in an attempt to soothe or comfort you?
It’s highly likely that you’ll be even more triggered.
That’s because what they probably mean is “get over it” — which is the opposite of “let it go”.
Even if they have the best intentions and may say it with kindness, “let it go” can be dismissive. It signals that your emotions don’t matter all that much, or that you’re making a big deal out of something trivial.
But letting go isn’t the same as repressing uncomfortable emotions.
The former is a process — a long and winding road — while the latter is a glaring stop sign.
What “Repressing” Looks Like
Repressing means to deny, ignore, or run away from something. It’s about avoiding certain negative feelings and experiences.
In psychoanalytic theory, repression is a defense mechanism marked by the unconscious motivated forgetting of unpleasant material.
How does this sound and look like in our heads?
- Thinking “I shouldn’t be thinking that or feeling this way. I need to let this go” while paradoxically obsessing about it.
- Fear of opening up (“It’s best if I don’t bring this up and forget about it”) or spiritual bypassing, which involves over-emphasising the positive and avoiding the negative (“It’s just life. I’m fine, really!”).
- Not allowing oneself to fully experience a range of emotions or feeling uncomfortable around someone who does.
- Reliving the same events over and over, while feeling a sense of hurt, anger or injustice — thinking “how could they”, “How dare they”, or “If I only I would have said/done that…”
- Perceiving and labelling an event in polarised terms such as good or bad. Judging, blaming or criticising oneself or the situation.
- Holding onto something or someone because we are afraid of change.
- Avoiding scary thoughts and decisions by diverting one’s attention to something more pleasant (which works the opposite way).
“What you resist, persists.” — Lucian Freud
Repression starts with judgement and denial — emotions that compound over time and that impact us negatively further down the line.
Whether we repress our uncomfortable emotions around a difficult situation in order to protect ourselves or someone else, it has the opposite effect of what we intend.
When we shove our “bad” feelings and thoughts away, they tend to pop out in the most inappropriate times.
I can think of a few episodes when someone said something that tipped me over the edge — and I found myself shouting back or bursting in tears a few minutes later, seemingly out of the blue.
Even if what they said may have been insensitive, my reaction was disproportionate, because it was linked to some strong emotions that I had been suppressing.
Ultimately, shutting the door on painful feelings repeatedly can manifest in unhealthy or harmful ways, such as projecting our anger on others, emotional instability and dissatisfaction. It can lead to stress, disconnection and feeling emotionally shut down.
What “Letting Go” Looks Like
All our feelings are valid.
This doesn’t mean we should be making a big deal out of everything that upsets us or fall into a victim mentality when things don’t go our way.
Letting go means learning which battles to pick. It involves accepting what we can change and releasing what we can’t.
Letting go starts with awareness.
Instead of judging, or checking out from what’s happening, we might be better off simply observing ourselves and the situation.
For instance, if something or someone is strongly affecting us very negatively, we can try to ask ourselves where this discomfort is coming from. Am I having a disproportionate reaction? If so, could it be related to my childhood programming? Did someone just activate an old wound I am carrying, or am I upset because I have repeatedly repressed this feeling before? Why don’t I feel heard or understood at this time?
Here is how does the process of “letting go” looks like:
- Not labelling emotions as they occur. Becoming aware of the sensations in the body and mind. Accepting the experience and allowing emotions to run their course.
- Allowing the body and mind to come back to neutral before reacting in destructive or defensive ways, or jumping to conclusions.
- Not taking everything personally. Seeing every experience as an opportunity to become better or improve, rather than as something “good” or “bad” that happens to us.
- Not blaming circumstances or people in the past for how we feel today.
- Accepting that we cannot control others or certain situations, only how we choose to react. Not allowing emotions to control us.
- Being able to sit with our own emotions and becoming curious about our internal experience— whether through nature, meditating, or journalling. Allowing ourselves and others the space to feel without judging or intervening.
- Choosing acts of self-care and love instead of acts of fear and escapism, such as drinking or drugs. Channelling strong emotions into art or releasing them by doing something we love.
This is easier said than done, of course.
Letting go is probably one of the hardest skills we’ll ever have to learn, but like most things in life, we can become better at it with practice.
“In the process of letting go you will lose many things from the past, but you will find yourself. “— Deepak Chopra
The moment we observe, rather than react, we take our power back. We are owning the experience, rather than rejecting or avoiding it.
When we are within our power, we allow ourselves to feel everything without fear nor judgement — because we feel safe in the knowledge that we can handle it and that it too shall pass.
The more we are able to accept a situation, confront our emotions, and work our way through them; the more we can shed the load and take the right steps toward letting go.
Repressing is not the same as letting go. It’s the opposite.
Repression is a form of resistance. Letting go is about acceptance.
We always have a choice.
By repressing our feelings, we are rejecting a part of ourselves and detaching from reality. It’s not healthy or sustainable coping mechanism. How can we release the weight of painful emotions, if we refuse to accept them? How can we learn from our experiences if we don’t acknowledge how they are affecting us?
Instead, by consistently facing and dealing with our uncomfortable emotions, we learn to accept and trust ourselves more. The more we do it, the better equipped we are to move on, let go — and live in the present moment.