Repression vs Suppression in Psychology (Differences + Examples)

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Our minds are like big, complicated puzzles. They have many parts that help us deal with tough times and big feelings. Two of those parts are called repression and suppression. Even though they sound kind of similar, they do different things in our minds.

Repression means our brain hides bad memories or feelings without us even knowing. It's like our mind's way of protecting us from hard stuff. Suppression is when we choose to not think about something on purpose.

Knowing about repression and suppression is important. As we learn more, we'll see how they touch every part of our life and feelings.

What are Repression and Suppression?

child with bad memories

Understanding the mind can sometimes feel like figuring out a jigsaw puzzle with a billion pieces. But don't worry, when it comes to suppression and repression, we're here to break things down.

Defense mechanisms are like the walls and moats around a castle. They're tools your brain uses to protect you from emotional harm. When life throws challenges, like hurtful comments or traumatic memories, these mechanisms jump into action. They can help you cope, adapt, and move forward.

Some, like repression and suppression, might hide feelings, while others, like humor or daydreaming, offer a comforting escape. Just remember, it's all about balance. Like using a shield in battle, it's good to know when to put it up and when to let it down.

What is the Defense Mechanism of Repression?

First up, let's talk about repression. Picture your mind as a big, messy room. Now, imagine there are toys in this room that you don't want to play with anymore because they remind you of a time you tripped and fell. Without even realizing it, you push these toys under the bed, out of sight.

That's kind of how repression works. Your brain pushes away certain painful memories or feelings without you even noticing. It does this to protect you from anything that might hurt or upset you. It's your brain's way of saying, "Let's keep things calm and carry on."

Repression can be part of a larger disorder called Dissociative Amnesia (DA). Most of the time, we don't know that we are repressing things--that's the whole point! But a person who has Dissociative Amnesia knows there are entire gaps of time they don't remember.

This is similar to Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), except DID is more complicated in that it's not only about forgetting certain memories, but also about thinking you're a different person altogether. It's a little too complicated to get into here, but just remember that repression can be a sign of a larger issue.

Some professionals suspect that too much repression can make us develop dissociations like DA and DID. Which is why it's important to get help if you think you are repressing something and don't know how to deal with it.

Other times of mental illness also involve repression. Remember, repression is a psychological defense mechanism. Whether it's emotional repression or memory repression, there is no conscious effort in repression.

So, some people who have mental illness, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will unconsciously use repression to hide their traumatic experiences.

That's a pretty severe form of repression, though. As we said, most people don't realize they are forgetting things. But those memories don't disappear altogether. They may be out of sight, but they are not out of mind. Repressed memories still influence our behavior and how we understand the world.

For instance, we might interpret someone's kindness as a way for them to manipulate us. In our past, we had someone manipulate us by using kindness, and it was traumatic, so our minds repressed it.

So even though we have no reason to believe that this person's kindness is a manipulation tactic, we believe that all kindness is a manipulation tactic.

What is the Defense Mechanism of Suppression?

Now, let's chat about suppression. Let's go back to that room with the toys. This time, you see toys that remind you of homework. You know you should deal with them, but you decide to put them in a closet and deal with them later.

That's suppression. You're choosing to put certain thoughts or feelings on the back burner. Unlike repression, you're making a conscious choice here. It's like telling yourself, "I'll deal with this later when I'm ready."

Suppressing unwanted thoughts is actually a healthy way to open up space for healthier thinking habits.

What's the Difference Between Repression and Suppression?

These two concepts, though different, play a big role in how you handle challenges. The main difference is that repression is optional and suppression is not.

DefinitionUnconscious forgetting of painful memoriesConscious decision to avoid certain thoughts
Type of ProcessUnconsciousConscious
PurposeProtects the individual from traumatic memoriesAllows for temporary avoidance of distressing feelings
InitiationAutomatic and involuntaryDeliberate and voluntary
AwarenessPerson is usually unawarePerson is aware and chooses to push thoughts away
ExamplesForgetting abuse from childhoodChoosing not to think about an upcoming exam


  • Repression is not optional. It happens without our realization. It is almost always a response to trauma or something we don't know how to handle.
  • Suppression is optional. It happens very intentionally. We can choose to suppress a memory or feeling for many reasons. Some of those reasons might include difficult thoughts, fear, or emotion.

Your mind uses repression and suppression to help you navigate life's ups and downs. It's all part of the amazing way your brain works to keep you feeling okay.

Where Did the Terms Come From?

The concept of repression was brought into the spotlight by a man named Sigmund Freud in the late 1800s. Imagine him as one of the earliest detectives of the mind. He believed that our brains hide, or repress, certain memories that are too painful or hard to deal with.

According to Freud, it's like a safety lock on a treasure chest. The chest holds memories we don't want to see, and our mind locks them away to keep us safe. The space inside the chest is called our subconscious mind.

Simply put, our conscious mind is what we are aware of, and our subconscious mind is what we are not aware of.

These ideas are a big part of what people call psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is a fancy word for the theory of the unconscious mind and how to use it to treat mental distress.

On the other hand, suppression is a bit like when you see a plate of cookies and decide not to eat one. You might really want to, but you're making the choice not to. The idea here is simpler and didn't need a specialist like Freud to uncover it.

Throughout history, everyone, from teachers to leaders to everyday people like you and me, have sometimes chosen to suppress feelings or thoughts.

Repression vs suppression in psychology is a big field. Most therapists still use these terms.

How Our Brain Uses Repression and Suppression

stuffed bear

Your brain is an incredible protector. Just as a superhero might have different tools or moves to save the day, your brain uses repression and suppression to help you out during tricky situations.

Think of repression as your brain's automatic safety switch. Imagine you're riding a bike and have a bad fall. Ouch! The memory is painful, both physically and emotionally.

Now, your brain doesn't want you to feel bad every time you see a bike, so it might just push that memory a little out of reach.

Suppression is more of a team effort between you and your brain. Let's say you're preparing for a big presentation at school. But you're feeling a little nauseous because of the anxiety.

To focus on your task, you decide to set your anxiety aside and focus only on memorizing the material.

Keep in mind that there are individual differences between people. Some might use suppression more often than others, and the differences might work better for them. You'll have to find a balance that works for you, but being more aware can help you deal with unpleasant thoughts, one way or another.

Repression and Suppression in Psychoanalysis

As mentioned earlier, psychoanalysis is about understanding deep feelings, desires, and thoughts. It's like being a detective for the mind.

Freud came up with the idea that our minds are like icebergs. The part of the iceberg you can see above the water is just a tiny piece. There's a huge part hidden below the surface.

Similarly, we have a lot going on in our minds that we're not even aware of. This hidden part is where repression comes into play.

Freud believed that sometimes our brain hides traumatic memories, traumatic feelings, or certain wishes because they might be too big or scary for us.

Think of it like putting a spooky book in a drawer because you don't want to read it before bedtime. The memory or feeling is still there, but it's hidden deep down.

Sometimes, these repressed memories can show up in surprising ways, like in dreams or unexpected feelings.

But what about suppression? Well, in psychoanalysis, suppression is seen as a more mature way our minds handle problems.

Have you ever decided to not think about a big test until after your friend's birthday party? That's suppression. In the world of psychoanalysis, it's like you're working with your brain to say, "Let's deal with this later."

So, thanks to the study of psychoanalysis, we've learned a lot about trauma and how our brains use repression and suppression. These tools of the mind help us cope, grow, and understand ourselves a little better each day.

Real-Life Examples of Repression and Suppression

Both of these defense mechanisms are common in daily life. They can influence your personality, or just influence how you go about your day. Let's look at a few examples.

1) Childhood Trauma

Repression: Imagine a person who doesn’t remember the details of a traumatic accident from when they were five. Their mind has shielded them from this painful memory.

Suppression: A child who had a bad fall while learning to ride a bike decides not to think about the accident as they muster the courage to try again the next day.

2) Relationship Struggles

Repression: Someone might not recall a painful breakup from their teenage years, even if it deeply affected them at the time.

Suppression: After an argument with a friend, an individual might consciously choose to set aside their feelings of anger and hurt to attend a group gathering.

3) Job-Related Stress

Repression: An employee might forget the stress and anxiety related to a past project that went awry, even if it caused them sleepless nights back then.

Suppression: Amid tight project deadlines, a team member might decide not to dwell on their mounting stress, focusing instead on completing the task at hand.

4) Health Concerns

Repression: Someone might not remember the distress they felt during a health scare years ago, even if they had a lot of anxiety at the moment.

Suppression: After a minor medical procedure, an individual might choose not to think about their fear of needles to calm their nerves.

5) Triggered by a Toy

Imagine it's a sunny day and you're at a park. Kids are playing, birds are chirping, and everything seems just right. But as you see a group of kids playing with a specific toy, you suddenly feel uneasy.

You can't place why, but something about that toy makes you want to leave the park. This could be repression at work. Maybe when you were younger, a similar toy was involved in an incident that scared or hurt you.

Your mind chose to "hide" that memory to protect you. But seeing the toy now triggers a shadow of that hidden memory, even if you don't recall the exact event.

Repression is really common in cases of childhood abuse. If someone was traumatized, it wouldn't necessarily be a good thing to have conscious awareness of it. Forgetting it might be safer for them. Again, as a defense mechanism, repression is meant to protect us.

6) Presentation at School

Now, let's look at suppression. Picture yourself at school, about to give a presentation. Your stomach's doing flips because you had an argument with your best friend this morning. But you tell yourself, "I need to focus on this presentation now. I'll think about the argument later."

This is a classic example of suppression. You're aware of the upsetting event, but you're choosing to set it aside for the moment. In other words, you have full conscious awareness of the feelings and are making the choice to come back to it later.

7) Sad Movie

Or consider this: you've just watched a sad movie, and it reminded you of a pet you lost a year ago. You're about to meet friends for a fun outing.

You decide to shake off the sad feelings for now, planning to think about your pet later when you're alone. Again, that's suppression of behavior.

Life is full of moments where our brain uses these tools, either hiding memories or helping us set feelings aside for a while.

Whether it's feeling weird about a toy in a park or focusing on a school presentation, defense mechanisms are always at work, guiding our reactions and feelings.

It's like having a built-in compass, helping you navigate the seas of life, making sure you stay afloat even when the waters get a bit choppy.

Physical and Mental Health Impacts of Repression and Suppression

man and his dog

Your brain, with all its complexities, is a bit like the control center of a spaceship. It manages everything, from making your heart beat to helping you decide which ice cream flavor to choose.

But sometimes, the tools it uses, like repression and suppression, can have side effects on both your physical and mental well-being.

Starting with repression: When your mind hides unwanted memories, or feelings, it's doing so to keep you safe. But imagine a toy box that's overfilled. If you keep adding toys without ever sorting or removing some, it might burst open.

In the same way, if your mind keeps pushing memories and feelings down without ever addressing them, it can lead to stress, anxiety, or even physical symptoms like headaches or stomachaches. It's as if your body is saying, "Hey, there's something we need to deal with."

Now, suppression might seem like a handy tool because you're choosing to set things aside. But picture a water dam holding back a river. If the water keeps piling up and the dam isn't occasionally opened to release some pressure, it might crack.

Similarly, if you always suppress feelings without ever facing them, you might feel overwhelmed or drained. You could experience mood swings, fatigue, or even problems sleeping.

But it's not all gloomy! Recognizing when you're using repression or suppression can be a big step towards better health. Talking to someone, whether it's a friend, family member, or a professional, can help. It's like opening that toy box or water dam in safe, manageable ways.

In short, while these tools can be helpful, it's essential to check in with yourself. Balancing emotions, just like balancing anything in life, from diet to screen time, is key. Remember, your mind's primary job is to protect you. But sometimes, it needs a little guidance to ensure you're feeling your best, inside and out.

Other Defense Mechanisms

Repression and suppression are just two types of defense mechanisms. There are other kinds too, and they mean similar but slightly different things.

To help us understand the differences better, let's look at these similar ideas.

First, let's discuss sublimation. Think of it as an art class for your emotions. Let's say you're really angry about losing a game. Instead of letting that anger boil inside or taking it out on someone, you channel it into painting an intense scene or running faster on the track. Essentially, you're transforming a raw feeling into something productive or creative.

Next up: denial. Denial is when you outright refuse to accept a fact or reality. Imagine you broke your favorite toy but can't come to terms with it, so you act as if it's still intact and perfect. It's your mind's way of saying, "If I don't believe it, it didn't happen."

Then there's projection. This one's a bit like movie magic. Imagine you're feeling super jealous of a friend's new bike. Instead of admitting to yourself that you're jealous, you believe that they're jealous of your old bike. It's as if your mind is projecting your feelings onto someone else, like casting a movie of your emotions onto another person.

Lastly, let's touch on rationalization. Picture you ate a big piece of cake before dinner. Instead of admitting it wasn't the best choice, you tell yourself, "Well, I did walk an extra mile today, so it's okay." You're providing reasons to justify an action or feeling.

Therapy and Repressed Memories

So, you've learned that while repression and suppression can be helpful, sometimes they might get a bit overzealous. Like a guard dog barking at friendly visitors. When that happens, there are ways to help the brain strike a balance.

A popular path is therapy, especially talk therapy. It's like having regular chats with a trained friend. The therapist listens and provides insights, helping you uncover and address repressed memories or feelings. It’s like using a gentle flashlight to peek into those hidden corners of your mind.

There's also something called cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT. It's a bit like mental gymnastics. Here, you learn exercises to identify and change harmful patterns.

For instance, if you're suppressing feelings a lot, CBT can teach you to recognize, express, and deal with them in healthier ways. Imagine it as training your mind to do the right lifts and stretches.

For those who find comfort in sharing with peers, group therapy might be a good fit. Think of it as a club where everyone gathers to share stories, support each other, and learn together.

Hearing others talk about their experiences with repression or suppression can provide new insights and make you feel less alone.

Then there are relaxation techniques like meditation and deep breathing exercises. Picture these as mini-vacations for your mind. They help calm the waves in your brain, making it easier to address suppressed or repressed emotions. It’s a bit like calming a stormy sea, so it’s easier to see what’s beneath.

Lastly, never underestimate the power of a good chat with friends or family. Sometimes, just talking things out can act like a mini therapy session.

Remember, reaching out for help is a sign of strength. Just like you'd see a doctor for a broken arm or a persistent cough, seeing a therapist for your feelings is a smart move.

Your mind, like any other part of you, sometimes needs a little extra care and understanding. And that’s perfectly okay.

Suppression in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) teaches us how to accept and deal with negativity.

The opposite of resistance is acceptance. Suppression is often used as a way to avoid a negative feeling. It might be a healthy thing to do, such as when you need to give a presentation but are thinking about a fight you had with a friend.

But suppression is also used as a way to avoid our feelings altogether. If we can learn how to deal with negative feelings, whether it's on the spot or when we're in a safer place later, we can use suppression more constructively.

Using Repression and Suppression Constructively

friends comforting each other

Alright, you've journeyed far into the land of emotions and memories. By now, you know that repression and suppression aren't outright villains. They're tools your brain uses. But how can you use them wisely, like choosing the right utensil for your meal?

Firstly, recognize when you're using suppression. Let's say you're in a tricky spot, like in the middle of a crowded bus and suddenly remember an embarrassing moment.

It might not be the best time to process that memory. So, you can tell yourself, "Alright, I'll think about this later when I'm comfy at home." That's using suppression wisely.

But once you're in a safe and cozy spot, allow yourself to revisit and feel. It's a bit like letting out steam from a pressure cooker slowly. This way, you prevent the cooker – or your feelings – from exploding.

Now, repression is a bit trickier because, remember, it’s hiding memories without you even knowing. But as you grow and learn about yourself, you might start spotting signs.

Maybe a certain song or smell makes you feel odd. Instead of shrugging it off, be curious. Wonder, "Why does this make me feel this way?" It's like being a gentle detective for your own unconscious feelings.

Also, embrace healthy outlets. If you've repressed or suppressed a lot of negative emotions, activities like writing, painting, or even dancing can help you express and process. Think of them as different colors on a canvas, helping you paint your emotional picture.

And always remember, it's okay to seek help. Friends, family, or professionals can be like guides, helping you navigate the maze of your mind. They can offer new tools, insights, and perspectives.

In the end, repression and suppression are just tools in your vast toolbox of emotions. Like any tool, the key is to use them correctly and know when to put them down.

By understanding and balancing them, you're on your way to a healthier, more aware version of yourself. Cheers to that journey!

The Evolving Understanding of Repression and Suppression

So, here you are, equipped with a fair bit of knowledge about these two mental tools. But did you know that our understanding of repression and suppression has shifted over the years?

Back in the day, when psychology was in its infancy, there were pioneers like Sigmund Freud who laid the groundwork. We talked about his idea of the mind being like an iceberg earlier.

Fast forward a few decades, and along came researchers who wanted to peek beyond Freud's lens. They dived into the world of neuroscience, using tools like brain scans to understand what happens when someone suppresses a thought.

These studies showed that when you suppress a thought, parts of your brain literally dial down their activity.

But here's where it gets even more interesting. In recent years, with the rise of positive psychology, the focus has shifted.

Instead of just looking at disorders or problems, experts started exploring how these mechanisms can be used for well-being. It's a bit like switching from studying why bridges collapse to designing ones that stand strong and beautiful.

Today, some experts believe that repression and suppression can be beneficial in moderation, while others emphasize the importance of emotional expression and awareness.

There may not be one right answer. Some people will find that repression and suppression have allowed them to live better lives. But other people might feel better if they express themselves on the spot.

While there isn't a right answer for every person, there also isn't a right answer for every situation. Some situations might be better handled if we don't deal with our negative emotions right then and there.

As in everything, understanding the difference between the defense mechanisms of repression and suppression, and how they can be used, is important for each of us to live a better life.


  1. What is the main difference between repression and suppression?
    • Repression is an unconscious process where troubling memories are pushed out of the conscious mind, while suppression is a conscious effort to set aside certain thoughts or feelings.
  2. Are repression and suppression bad for mental health?
    • While they can serve protective functions, over-reliance or prolonged use of these mechanisms might lead to negative emotional and psychological outcomes.
  3. Were repression and suppression concepts introduced by Sigmund Freud?
    • Yes, Freud was instrumental in introducing and developing these concepts, particularly within the context of psychoanalysis.
  4. Can I control repression?
    • Repression is typically automatic and unconscious, making it hard to control. However, therapy and self-awareness can help in addressing repressed memories or emotions.
  5. How can I manage suppression constructively?
    • Recognizing when you're suppressing thoughts or feelings and finding appropriate times to process them can help. Also, using healthy outlets like writing or talking can be beneficial.
  6. What role do repression and suppression play in defense mechanisms?
    • They are both defense mechanisms used by the mind to protect an individual from potential emotional harm.
  7. Can therapy help in addressing repressed and suppressed emotions?
    • Yes, therapy, especially talk therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy, can be effective in exploring and addressing these emotions.
  8. How have our understandings of repression and suppression evolved over time?
    • From Freud's foundational theories to modern neuroscience and positive psychology, our grasp of these concepts has grown, diversified, and become more nuanced.
  9. Is suppression always a conscious choice?
    • Generally, yes. Suppression involves a conscious decision to avoid or set aside specific thoughts or emotions.
  10. Can both repression and suppression be beneficial?
    • In moderation and specific contexts, both can serve as useful coping mechanisms. However, it's essential to strike a balance and seek help if they lead to distress.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2023, October). Repression vs Suppression in Psychology (Differences + Examples). Retrieved from

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