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The Difference between Emotional Suppression, Reinforcement and Non-Response

Updated: 2 days ago


woman sitting outdoors near a lake

I've found along my own path of personal development that emotional non-response is often confused with emotional suppression or resistance. I probably intermixed them myself at one time. The terms do sound sort of the same. Yet as I've studied the physiology behind emotional activation and pattern formation, and as I've learned how meditation as a tool can affect them both, I now understand just how different these terms really are. The reason it matters that you understand the difference, is because by knowing how your brain and body work, any change work you decide to take on will be far more effective. You'll feel calmer, more confident and more connected in your relationships a lot sooner because you'll know how to leverage this knowledge to your benefit.


So let's start with some basics and a few images that describe what I've learned. And then I'll give you a functional analogy at the end that I hope will drive the message home.


stick figure pushing against a wave of water

Emotional suppression


This is basically a form of resistance. Suppression is when we mentally go against an emotional wave of activation. It’s what we're doing when we grit our teeth, 'white-knuckle' our way through something, or try to 'keep a lid on' our emotions. Suppression also occurs when we shame ourselves for feeling a certain way or try to force ourselves to not feel an uncomfortable emotional wave that's happening inside our bodies. Suppression creates a lot of inner turmoil, consumes a lot of energy and can sometimes have a cumulative, intensifying effect. Not fun.


stick figure walking in same direction as wave of water

Emotional reinforcement


Reinforcement happens when we go with an emotional wave of activation. It's when we act and behave in ways that maintain our baseline emotional activation threshold as it currently is. And it's easy to reinforce our current state without realizing it, especially if we have really good coping skills. Most people choose to work with their current state 'as is' simply because it can be quicker and easier to cope with it, than radically change it at baseline. (watch this video to understand more about the difference).


To fully understand this point, it's important to remember that the purpose of emotional activation is to get us to move or take action in some way. However, an uneven upbringing or a traumatic experience when we're young can have our emotional system activating at high intensity, inconsistently and for longer than a situations warrant. This is why we adopt coping skills - to manage that unruly, raw, unrefined emotional activation. Behaviors or actions that reinforce our current state can be hard to recognize until we understand this. And this reinforcement can happen in ways that are high-quality and helpful, as well as ways that are low-quality and unhelpful. Reinforcement can even happen inadvertently through behaviors that distract from or ‘numb’ how we feel in our bodies. Reinforcement has a maintenance effect and consumes very little energy (hence it's appeal).


When I used to cope with over-activating emotions by 'staying busy' or going for a run to manage anxiety or calm an over-activation, my body movement told my brain that the high-activation I experienced was 'correct'. So it kept activating in the same way the next time I was in a similar situation. This isn't always a bad thing, its more about where it shows up, how often and if this activation pattern starts to interfere in other life areas, which it did for me.


It’s the same with under-activating emotional systems. If someone feels ‘low’ and follows that energy by laying down in the middle of the day, their laying down is a response that tells their brain that the low-activation level is ‘correct’. And sometimes the laying down behavior is ‘correct’, like when we’re tired after a long day of work. But if we’re feeling this way chronically, it could be for other reasons. Now, don’t get me wrong. If you need to move to calm yourself or channel emotional energy, or if you need to lay down when you feel low, that’s totally okay! Managing your current emotional activation state in healthy ways is something I encourage everyone to do. I just want you to understand how behavior and emotion, emotional activation and how we respond to it relate to each other. Remember that many patterns are not a problem, until they become a problem. It’s more about where it shows up, how often it shows up and if your current emotional activation pattern starts to interfere in other life areas.


stick figure standing and letting a wave of water pass over him

Emotional non-response


This is different than either of the first two examples. Non-response is simply behavioral ‘holding' or pausing. Non-response allows the emotional activation in our bodies to run its full cycle. BUT without mentally resisting it or suppressing it..and without reinforcing it with a typical action or behavior response.


We simply 'hold' or not take the usual action we typically would take. Instead, we ‘sit’ with it, and let the uncomfortable wave roll over us.


Non-response isn’t avoidance and it isn’t distraction. It’s full-on, conscious, present, objective ‘spectating’ of the emotional response as it’s happening…. but without responding with your typical behavior.

woman with white hat running in the mountains
I used running as a coping mechanism that would offload my over-activating (anxious) emotional nervous system

A personal example


I lived with high-functioning anxiety for decades of my life. Which meant my emotional nervous system was highly active all the time and over-activating even when it wasn’t necessary. My typical coping response was to run, cycle or stay busy. Action was my ‘go-to’ coping strategy. These were healthier ways to manage my over-activating state, but it wasn’t changing or developing my state at its baseline.  So when I finally burned out from ‘managing it’ all the time, I committed to the work of developing and differentiating my emotional state at its baseline by sustainably down-shifting my emotional response. I had to learn how to NOT respond physically, to intense emotional activation. And it took a lot of practice. And initially I judged myself harshly when I couldn’t do it for very long, which wasn’t being mentally neutral. It took effort to not run. It took effort to sit still. And it took effort to not move. The urge to do something, anything, to offload the over-activating emotion in my body was powerful. And at times it was highly, highly uncomfortable. But I’m here to say that the discomfort didn’t kill me. And with time and repetition, non-response and sitting objectively through my over-activating emotions (what we call triggers) slowly raised my threshold of emotional activation (especially when I paired it with supportive thinking patterns )


I don’t have the experiential knowledge of an emotional under-activator. But if we use the same neuro-physiological mechanism, non-response in this case is the same. A typical behavioral response to feeling ‘low’ might be to stop working, stay home from a planned event or go to bed early. All of which can be very healthy ways to manage or cope with this feeling when you have it. However, if you’re working on developing and up-shifting your emotional activation at baseline, then that requires NOT responding to intense activation in the way you typically would. Because any time we behaviorally respond to emotional activation the way we typically do, it reinforces the current activation threshold. In this case, non-response to feeling ‘low’ would again simply be pausing, ‘holding’ and sitting still while objectively letting the emotional ‘wave’ run its course and noting how it feels in your body. This is the way a feedback loop operates..


image of 3 arrows making a circle

Feedback Loops


Responding to something the same way we always do says to your brain, “yes, this is correct. Do it again”. And not responding to something the way we always do says to your brain, “no, this isn’t what’s needed. Do it differently next time”. The classic example we all can relate to is how social media feeds are determined. Algorithms are designed off the same feedback mechanism our brain uses! They keep putting things in your feed that you take action on (when you like or comment on something). Your action reinforces or says “yes, do it again” to the algorithm’s choice. And when you don’t respond with a like or comment , eventually the algorithm learns and stops putting something in your feed. So you’re basically either reinforcing the social media bot or training it, through your actions and non-actions. This is a feedback loop. And feedback is the way our brains and bodies learn and create patterns as well.


woman in yellow sweater looking at a orange phone on the desk

The repetitive caller


To drive the point home, here’s a story that some of you may relate to. Imagine your current emotional activation state like a long-term partner, with whom you now want to change your relationship.


You decide to change this long-time relationship, because it’s no longer healthy or doesn’t supports with the life you want. So you ask the person to stop calling you so much. Yet… the frequent calls keep coming.


The sound of the phone repeatedly ringing is highly uncomfortable. So sometimes you answer it and talk to them a bit, just to stop the ringing and stop feeling soo uncomfortable.


And so… the frequent calls keep coming. Why? Because by answering the ringing phone you gave this feedback: if the phone rings, you’re gonna pick it up.


This is reinforcement.


a woman screaming into a phone

Now if instead when the phone rings……


…you grit your teeth, shake your head in frustration for a few minutes and finally pick up the phone and scream, “f**k off!” — well, that’s a bit like push-back or resistance. And the person might even keep calling you because although you screamed at them, you did pick up the phone. So….they may as well keep calling because you have such a long history, maybe you’ll eventually respond differently and maybe even take them back.


And then there's a third option. If instead of picking up or screaming at the person when the annoying, persistent call came in…you took a deep breath, looked at the phone neutrally as it rang and thought with compassion,”I understand why the phone is ringing so much. Breakups are hard and the nature of us being together for so long formed a bit of a habit of them calling, and me answering”. And then, instead of responding the way you typically do by picking up the phone you just sat still, listening uncomfortably to the ring but not picking up. And maybe while you’re sitting there, you start to consider that your discomfort is possibly about the loss. Maybe that body discomfort that you’re feeling is really about natural, reasonable grief. And maybe that emotional, body-felt discomfort is simply about letting go of something you know was both familiar and unhealthy — this is a natural discomfort that comes with transition of any kind.


man looking at a phone in his hand

It takes repetition and consistency


Now, it sure would be nice if just sitting uncomfortably through one call would end it. Right? But breaking emotional patterns and creating new ones...well, it doesn't happen that way. That former-partner most likely will call again. I mean, you have to acknowledge that you had a long-standing ‘ring and pickup’ routine when you were together. So it’s understandably a tough pattern to break. Yet, if you keep simply ‘holding’ and sitting through the discomfort of the ring without responding by picking up the call or mentally bashing it ….. eventually the caller will start to get the message that your relationship has changed. And the calls will become less frequent.


Changing your emotional activation pattern at baseline is not easy. And as someone who has recovered from a long relationship with anxiety, I can attest firsthand that in the beginning those emotional activation 'rings' can keep happening for a long time before they subside. They eventually subside, become less frequent and stop ringing as loudly. But it can sometimes be pretty uncomfortable in the initial stages of your development work. And the temptation to distract yourself from the discomfort, or numb yourself from it, or the urge to just get up and DO something while it's happening....can be powerful. Yet with consistent, congruent repetition over time, eventually our brain and nervous system learn and start to adopt a different pattern of functioning.


This is roughly how emotional pattern interruption and activation refinement works — it slowly changes the relationship or association that your brain and emotional nervous system has with certain situations, by way of modifying your behavior when you’re in them.

Behavior modification is an example of a bottom-up strategy for healing. And I found that when coupled with a top-down strategy (like creating new thought patterns and learning to think flexibly), this combo got me the results I was looking for, a lot sooner.

(if you want to learn more about the differences between Top-Down and Bottom Up healing strategies, watch this video)


Now to wrap up our ‘breakup’ story, I want to point out that although the ‘calls’ slowly become less frequent, there will be times — like holidays and memorable dates — that an old pattern may get a bit ‘triggered’ and the phone will ring again. Many of us have strong emotional associations between holidays and relationships. But if you’ve been practicing consistently, sitting through the ‘ring’ isn’t quite as uncomfortable. And now you know that non-response is working because the calls are less frequent and the ringing doesn’t last as long. Why is that? Because the pattern of ‘calling and answering’ has been interrupted and the caller ( or your emotional nervous system) is slowly learning that it doesn’t get the old response that it used to.


Summary


Lasting emotional baseline change only happens with compassionate, objective, non-(typical) response to our current emotional activation. So if you want to feel differently long-term? Learning to sit through and observe an intense emotional response is part of the recipe for getting there.


Image of a brain  asking a question

The Takeaway


I want to remind you that the end goal isn’t to completely rid ourselves of emotional activation. We wouldn’t be fully human if we did. The goal is merely to raise (or lower) our current threshold of emotional activation, so that we can experience a wider range of moderate emotions.


When our emotional response is moderate, varied and relevant, it makes our life and relationships so much more enjoyable! And there’s less frequent need to ‘manage’ it.

And lastly, as you’re sitting uncomfortably through an intense emotional response and not responding with an action or behavior, realize that your brain is designed to hold onto patterns and only lets them go with consistent, congruent repetition. If your brain had a voice, it would probably be saying…


Hey, what’s happening here? Are you SURE we want to do this? This is very new and different. Is it temporary or permanent? Is this a phase or fad you’re going through? Or is it 'for-real', like long-term? Because I don’t want to make the effort to automate it unless you do it enough times that I’m convinced it's what we're really gonna stick with. It takes a lot of my energy to process and adopt new patterns. I want to make sure it’s worth my energy to do that. So is it? I better keep sending you the old signal for a while, just to be sure”

Well, is the work you’re doing for real? Is it a fad? Something ‘for now’, or only for a particular person? Or are you looking for long-term growth and change that will translate across all areas of your life? That’s a question only you can answer. Lasting growth and change takes some effort in the beginning. So the question to ask yourself is this: is a new way of experiencing life and relationships worth the effort and natural discomfort that initially comes with getting it?


It was for me. It was for my husband. And it is for many others.

You're not alone.

You're also hardier than you think you are.

And you can totally do this.


I'm in your corner,

Jen

 

If you’d like to learn more about how your brain and body works to create patterns in a simplified and practical way, go here.


 

And if you’re already working on breaking some patterns but are getting stuck or struggling a bit, it may be worth checking out if you have any thought patterns that may be unknowingly stalling your progress. You can learn how to find those thought patterns here.


 

And if you haven’t started using meditation yet as a non-response tool for refining your emotional state, I encourage you to check out this free presentation here.


 

The Human Infusion Project is a grassroots, not-for-profit personal development platform that draws from the combined fields of modern brain science, applied psychology and spiritual philosophy. Our mission aims to augment and supplement the work of professional practitioners in simplified, practical ways, and to give clients an affordable home program they can use in between sessions. 100% of all online class profit funds the Wellness Assistance Grant. If financial constraints limit your participation, please contact me and we'll work something out.

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