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The Difference between Emotional Suppression, Reinforcement and Non-Response

Updated: Aug 16, 2023


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. I probably did the same thing 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 those terms really are. The reason it matters that you understand the difference, is that by understanding how your brain and body work, any change work you decide to take on will be far more effective - which also means you'll experience calmer, more confident and connected relationships a lot sooner. And by now, you probably know I think that's a pretty big deal.


So let's start with some basics. And then I'll give you an analogy that I hope will drive the message home.


Emotional suppression is a form of resistance. It's 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, try to 'keep a lid on' our emotions, 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 an intensifying effect.


Emotional reinforcement happens when we go with an emotional wave of activation. It's when we act and behave in ways that maintain the activation threshold as it currently is. Reinforcement can be hard to recognize. It can happen in ways that are high-quality and helpful, and in 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).


Emotional suppression, reinforcement and non-response

Emotional non-response is different than either of the first two examples. It's simply a ‘holding’ pattern of behavioral response. Non-response allows the emotional activation in our bodies to run its full cycle. BUT without mentally resisting or suppressing it..and without reinforcing it through an action or behavior.


We simply 'hold'. And ‘sit’ with it.

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

Not responding to emotional activation (especially when it's intense) takes practice. And it does take energy and can be uncomfortable. Quite uncomfortable. Quite uncomfortable, in fact. But discomfort has yet to kill me. And with time and repetition, non-response did slowly raise my threshold of emotional activation - especially when I paired it with more supportive thinking patterns or what we call beliefs.


It's the way a feedback loop operates. And feedback is the way our brains and bodies learn.


feedback loop

The repetitive caller


Here’s a simplistic story as an analogous example. Imagine your current emotional activation threshold as a long-term lover, with whom you've decided to change your relationship.


You decide to change this long-time relationship, because it's no longer healthy to have in your life. 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... the frequent calls keep coming. Why? Because answering the ringing phone is giving the feedback that if the phone rings, you’re gonna pick it up.

This is reinforcement.



a woman screaming into a phone

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 resistance. And the person might even keep calling you because although you screamed at them, you did answer the ring. 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 as a third option… if instead of picking up or screaming at them when the annoying, persistent phone rang…you took a deep breathe, looked at the phone as it rang and thought with compassion, "I understand why the phone is ringing. Breakups are hard and the nature of us being together for so long... it formed a bit of a habit of them calling, and me answering”. And then, instead of acting and answering 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 - that's 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 through one call would end it. But breaking patterns and creating new ones...well, it doesn't happen that way. That 'ex' 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 taking action and picking up the call or mentally bashing it ….. eventually, the caller will start to get the message that your relationship has changed.


It's not easy. I can attest firsthand that in the beginning those 'rings' can go on for a long time before they subside. Which means it can get pretty uncomfortable. And the temptation to distract yourself from it, numb yourself from it or to just get up and move, DO something or offload it in some way while it's happening....is powerful. Yet eventually the attempted call does end and the uncomfortable ringing does stop. All phone calls (and emotional cycles) have a beginning and an eventual end.


And so... the calls slowly become less frequent. And when and if they do come, the phone rings fewer times before ending. Granted, there will be times - like holidays and memorable dates - that the 'ex' may get a bit 'triggered' and call you again. But by now, sitting through the ring of the phone isn’t quite as uncomfortable. And now you know it’s working because the call 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 ‘ex’ is slowly learning that calling doesn’t get the old response that it used to.


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, activation patterns and behavioral response.

Pattern change doesn't happen through suppressing intense emotions. And it doesn't happen through avoidance, distraction or any other reinforcing activity. It only happens with compassionate, objective non-response to our intense emotional activation.



happy couple

Keeping the objective in mind


Note the word 'intense' in that last sentence above. Keep in mind that the objective isn't to completely rid ourselves of emotional activation. The goal is merely to raise its 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!

Our emotional response becomes far more appropriate to each situation we encounter. And it doesn't get so out of hand that we have to continually 'manage' it with coping skills. And that moderation includes the emotions that don't feel so great. Natural human feelings like sadness, doubt, or hurt...sure, they still happen on occasion. But not only are they less intense and quicker to subside, our growing experience with getting through them is what contributes to self-confidence.


Image of a brain  asking a question

Our brain is just doing what it does


The work of changing an emotional response pattern is initially uncomfortable because our brain is designed to hang onto patterns in order to save energy. And new patterns (of any kind) are viewed as conflicting to already-established patterns and take much more energy to process. In fact, a new pattern – even a healthy one – may even be a bit ‘alarming’ to your brain.


If it had a voice, your brain might even say...


Hey, what’s happening here? Are you SURE we want to do this? This is 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 you really want. 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?


Well…is it? That's a question you have to answer. Is a new way of experiencing life and relationships worth the effort and natural discomfort that 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 hardier than you may think you are.

And you can totally do this.


I'm in your corner.

 

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 tool for refining your emotional response, I encourage you to check out this free presentation here.



 

The Human Infusion Project is a grassroots, philanthropic 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 and affordable ways. 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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