By: Arthur Wenk , Oct 27, 2012

I've suppressed emotions for a long time. What can I do change?

The following exercises may assist in recovering a long-suppressed emotional life.

Traumatic experiences sometimes lead to emotional numbness as a defense mechanism for sensations too strong or too unpleasant to be felt. This pattern of “numbing out,” when carried over into adult life, can play havoc with one’s ability to initiate and maintain intimate relationships. After all, nobody wants to be married to an emotional robot. Yet the defense mechanism of shutting down, though no longer necessary to protect a vulnerable self, often cannot be easily shed. Becoming emotionally alive and aware usually requires more than simply wishing for it to be so. The following exercises may assist in recovering a long-suppressed emotional life.

1.  Sensory Exploration

This game, commonly played with children, can assist adults in developing atrophied sensory responses. Have your partner or a trusted friend blindfold you, then pass you different objects to identify by touch. Start with something easy before proceeding to more challenging objects. Continue the game by having your partner produce different sounds and asking you to name the source. You can also try to identify spices and herbs from the kitchen by scent alone, or different materials brushed against your bare arm.

2.  Colours and Feelings

Locate a number of examples of vivid colorus, preferably large enough to fill your field of vision. They may be framed paintings or painted walls or a stretched out blanket or towel. Avoid neutral shades like beige or tan; aim for bright hues. Sit in front of each example, allowing it to fill your field of view, and concentrate on the colour. Then get in touch with your emotional response. At first you may notice only a subtle physiological response: perhaps your heart beats slightly faster when faced with red, or slower in front of blue. But as you continue to repeat the exercise you may be able to draw connections with one of the basic emotions: fear, anger, grief, love, joy, surprise, disgust.

3.  Do You See What I See? 

Sit beside your partner, or an assisting friend, in some unfamiliar setting. Concentrate on each of your senses in turn: what do you see, hear, feel, or smell? As a rule, we tend to screen the information coming into our brains. Try to reverse that process: let all the sensory information in. Once you have established the overall sensory picture, go for the details. What have you missed? Then compare notes with your companion and try to pick out sensory details that you overlooked the first time. 

4.  Alive and Aware

Take yourself to an unfamiliar setting and repeat the preceding exercise alone. After establishing the principal foreground sounds, for example, try to pick out the subtle, faint sounds in the background. Listen for occasional silences between the sounds. Survey the scene before you and then seek out little details you overlooked the first time. After becoming as keenly aware as you can of all the sensory input from the scene, tune in to your emotional response. How do you feel in this scene? Is there anything in particular that contributes to that feeling? Try to recall when you have felt like this before. Repeat this exercise in a variety of settings and notice how many of the basic emotions you manage to trigger by your choice of surroundings.

5.  The Silver Screen

Watch a movie and explore your emotional responses. In my experience, bad movies can be even better for this exercise than good ones. If possible, compare notes with a companion, then try to get in touch with feelings that your companion experienced that you did not. Try to identify elements of the movie that contributed to your emotional response.

Do not expect to reverse traumatic numbness in a couple of sessions, but do measure your progress and over a period of time ask your partner or close friend to comment on any observable changes in your emotional responsiveness.

Arthur Wenk holds a doctorate in musicology and masters degrees in information science, music theory, and psychology.

Art‘s client-centered approach is based on empathic listening, helping clients integrate thoughts, feelings and actions, and assisting them to revise self-stories that have kept them enmeshed in problems: all in the interest of achieving mental, emotional and spiritual wholeness.

Art currently practices at Wilson Counselling Associates in Oakville, Ontario.