Here are the Signs that Repression is Keeping You from Healing

Beginning the journey of healing is often very difficult for abuse survivors.

I speak from experience. For so long, I couldn’t heal because I wouldn’t acknowledge the abuse in my past. I used a powerful tool to keep my memories at bay: repression.

Like many other abuse survivors, my mind tried to defend me by burying my traumatic memories because they were too painful to deal with and understand. However, those memories began to leak out in other ways that affected every aspect of my life.

Bruce W. Cameron, a licensed professional counselor and psychologist, put it this way: “These unresolved memories can stifle [your] growth and development [and lead] to a ‘stunted’ adulthood in terms of self-esteem and personal identity.”

Why do we tend to use repression instead of confronting the abuses in our past? And what are the signs we’re repressing our trauma? Let’s dive into both questions.

Why Trauma Gets Repressed

Men struggle with repression even more than women because of the cultural messages we receive. We’re told, “Men don’t cry. Toughen up and deal with it. Be a man.”

That message is harmful; it tells us not to feel. That message ends up producing a lot of insensitive, angry, pain-filled men. As Mr. Cameron says, they’re “stunted” adults.

Repression starts with actively trying to not remember.

I tried to help that process along by drinking, doing drugs, and taking stupid risks. I wanted to deaden the painful memories. There’s a problem with that though.

As we repress memories, we also repress the feelings that went along with them.

Researcher Brené Brown explains the problem this creates in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection: “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” Don’t miss that:

When you deaden your feelings, you deaden them all.

Repression may feel a lot tidier, but it's like being in jail; it holds you in bondage.

As a child, repression served you. You were powerless to stop the pain of abuse, and repression was a tool you used for your protection and survival. As an adult, repression no longer serves you; it actually holds you back from real healing.

Signs of Repression

You might be thinking, One problem though. If I’ve repressed memories, and the whole point of repression is to hide the memories from my conscious self—how would I know I’m repressing them? Carolyn Steber, writer for Bustle Magazine, lists key signs you might be carrying repressed memories of trauma. Here’s what she wrote:

You have strong reactions to certain people.

Specific places or situations freak you out.

It’s difficult for you to control your emotions.

Keeping a job has always been difficult.

You’ve always struggled with fears of abandonment.

Friends often say you’re “acting like a child.”

You have a tendency to self-sabotage.

Friends have called you “impulsive” on more than one occasion.

You often feel emotionally exhausted.

You always feel anxious.

You seem to have issues with anger management.

Many of those symptoms described me, before I started dealing with my past. Perhaps they describe you. Let’s look at one of those symptoms in greater depth.

Self-Defeating Behavior

Many abuse victims report a pattern of self-sabotage. After I’d quit drinking and start to feel good about it, I would decide my good behavior was worth a celebration.

Do you know what I’d do to celebrate? I’d have a drink.

My self-sabotage affected my relationships too, like my high-school sweetheart and the girl I later got engaged to. When each relationship started getting close to real intimacy, I got terrified and I bailed. I was inconsiderate and cruel to them—the kind of “stunted” adult described earlier, who doesn’t know how to feel or show empathy to others.

Self-sabotage showed up in my work as well—even when I was successful. I remember one high-powered job I was offered. It would have been a great opportunity, but I knew the work would expose the stutter I’d developed because of my repressed trauma, so I turned it down. I always ran when the going got tough.

Other signs of self-sabotage might be divorce, job instability, or business failures. The motivation for these self-defeating behaviors may get back to a deeply held belief that you don’t deserve good things. When something beautiful comes along—like a great relationship, or an exciting new job—self-sabotage kicks in.

Abuse survivors may simply believe they’re not worthy.

Healing is Possible for You

If these symptoms spoke to you, or you find yourself falling victim to self-sabotage in the ways I did, I want to close this article with a message of hope: healing is possible.

Abuse left me feeling ashamed, isolated, unloved, fearful, and dead inside. Yet now, I am known. I am loved. I have learned to face my fears and overcome them. I’ve gone from a pattern of self-sabotage, to understanding that I’m worthy of good. No longer do I self-medicate with alcohol—I drink up life itself, and it’s beautiful, and there’s real joy.

But I had to work to get to this point. I had to look inside and deal with the abuse in my past. I could no longer let repression “keep me safe” by holding me hostage.

I had to break free of that prison, and if I can do it, so can you.

Rick Huttner