Anger: To Suppress or Not to Suppress

In Aging Well, George Valliant’s fascinating book in which he summarized the findings from the longitudinal studies of three diverse groups, he listed suppression as one of the adaptive defenses of people who made successful adjustments in their senior years. Suppression means experiencing an emotion but deciding not to express it, whereas repression is the unconscious inhibition of a feeling. 

Is this all true? I thought the Esalen people told us to let it all out. Holding feelings in left you with headaches and ulcers and made you dull. Being authentic and speaking from the heart was the message years ago from the gurus on the Pacific Coast.

So, what is the answer to this controversy? Is it the message of the Harvard Professor with his aristocratic bearing or that of people in the ’60s who advocated self-expression and emotional freedom?

Both are correct. Valliant found that adaptive people knew when to hold emotion and express it. Think about your own experience. Most of us have had numerous occasions when we were frustrated and angry. Someone cuts us off while driving, makes an uncalled-for sarcastic remark, or mistreats us. To express anger feels good but may have negative consequences. Road rage can escalate into a physical altercation while exploding at a boss can hasten a trip to the unemployment office. The adaptive person modulates emotion and picks his spots. The degree of emotion expressed depends on the context with an understanding of the path ahead. Emotion is regulated, not denied. It is not repressed but put on a back burner. The adaptive person knows when to express feelings and when to inhibit them.