How can we bring up repressed experiences?
What techniques can we use to better understand ourselves?
A while ago during an open group coaching session, a woman shared a problem she currently had.
Whenever a man was interested in her, but she wasn’t in him, she had a problem communicating it clearly without causing confusion and false expectations.
Well, this seemed to be a typical communication problem.
After reflecting on some questions that went deeper, however, it turned out that the core problem was a different one.
The core problem in a nutshell was that as a child the woman was being rejected by families of other children and did not have any friends to play with because her own family was poor.
So she wrongly associated being rejected with her feeling of being worthless and abandoned and build a belief system around it.
In the present, since she projects this belief from herself onto others, she thinks they will also feel worthless and abandoned if she tells them that she is not interested in a relationship with them and is therefore hesitating to communicate clearly.
So what initially and on the surface appeared to be a communication problem, actually was a deeper rooted problem of self-esteem and mislead beliefs.
Childhood & Depth Psychology
This is why coaching and psychology are so fascinating.
Most of the time it turns out that the issues we deal with are only external symptoms, only representations of our deeper rooted issues, which very often stem from wrong belief systems established during childhood.
How does this happen?
During our upbringing, especially in the first seven years, we absorb new information like a sponge and accept most of it as true without questioning it, especially what we learn from our parents and immediate surroundings.
As children, we are longing for recognition, love, and attention. Therefore we label everything what gets us towards that as good and what denies us that as bad, even if it means to label parts of ourselves as bad.
That’s why experiences of rejection and abandonment, as well as a lack of recognition, attention and, love, can lead to the blind adoption of false beliefs about our personality, the formation of trauma and a negative self-image.
And most prominently it is the lack of being loved unconditionally that results in the false belief of not being good enough and that our self-worth depends on the approval of others.
The Subconscious Mind
These misled assumptions and belief systems lie at the sub- and unconscious part of our mind.
It is not only the storage of our habits, impulses, drives and our self-image but also of more unconscious emotions like trauma, unresolved issues, resentment, shame, and guilt.
But also experiences that only at the time were traumatic to us and that we now see as totally normal are found there.
This could be laughing, speaking up for and expressing yourself or caring about others.
Even though we now objectively see them as good things, we have unconsciously labeled them as bad, if we have had a traumatic experience connected to them.
For example, if we have been shamed or punished for it, for example in school or at home.
In the same way, emotions can be repressed too, whether it is anger, jealousy, grief, showing feelings, or avoiding confrontation.
As a child it is very likely to be shamed for expressing or doing one of these things, therefore we all experience trauma in some form or another.
The Double Edged Protection Mechanism
These experiences can feel so overwhelming at the time, that the feeling is close to facing the risk of death.
To protect you, your mind tries to disown these experiences, label them as unacceptable, bad and not a part of you anymore.
It then represses these experiences into the unconscious part of your mind, to avoid having to think about them consciously and face the pain again.
From this place, these experiences build your belief system and unconsciously influence your behavior, your feelings and what you seem as acceptable.
The Pain Body
Eckhart Tolle calls this collection of repressed experiences and beliefs the pain body.
If you try to escape this pain body, you again reinforce it because you disown and resist it, just as anything that you resist, persists.
Therefore, hiding and suppressing this pain body is never the solution. You rather have to bring these repressed parts of you up from your subconscious, use your awareness to shed light on them and by that allow them to let go.
Psychologist Carl Gustav Jung summarized it perfectly:
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will control your life and you will call it fate.”
What is it that we do instead?
We escape these experiences, try to hide and disown them and rather inflate our ego by accumulating external things to cover up what we want to hide.
This is why we might still have an inner feeling of lack, of not deserving even though on the outside it all looks great.
So, real change has to happen on the subconscious level, conscious willpower and effort are not enough if they go against your self-image on a subconscious level.
The goal is to dissolve the ego, which is the false mental image about yourself, and unify the acceptable parts of yourself with those parts of yourself that lie repressed in the unconscious and that you deem as unacceptable.
This is it what makes you whole, confident and comfortable in your own skin.
This is the very foundation for going through life being grounded, which means feeling that you’re good enough and that you’ll be fine whatever happens.
Techniques For Self-Discovery
How do you get to these repressed experiences? How do you become aware of them again to be able to bring them up and let them go?
How can we detect the malware which is running in the background of our computer, which hampers the proper functioning of the device?
Whenever we want to make the unconscious conscious we need to look inward with some form of self-reflection.
There are different techniques that can be used to gain a better understanding of the root causes of these repressed experiences.
One of them is mindfulness meditation.
The essence of this type of meditation is to sit down in silence and start focusing on the sensations in your body. You start to scan your body and develop an inner body awareness.
You start to pay attention to the sensations and feelings you have. Then you go deeper and try to feel when was the first time that you felt these emotions and sensations.
You then might get mental associations that tell you when these feelings started to appear for the first time.
So you can backtrack the thoughts, emotions, and sensations you feel right now to their initial occurring in the past by being present with them and not resisting them.
Once you are aware of these repressed experiences that are the cause for the sensations you experience in the present, you can start to let go of them and transform from within. I wrote a series of five parts about this, with the first part available here.
While mindfulness meditation is an effective tool to bring repressed experiences back into awareness, it requires the ability to remain present and develop inner body awareness.
Especially meditation beginners might not yet have developed that skill, which needs continuous practice to master.
So for the vast majority, a more guided form of self-reflection would be necessary.
Sentence Completion Work
The American psychotherapist and author of the book “The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem” Nathanial Branden developed a more guided and strategic form of self-discovery and self-reflection which he called “sentence completion work”.
He used this method in his therapeutical practice and achieved continuous results with helping his clients to become aware of the experiences they had repressed.
He shared parts of his case studies and results in his book “The Art of Self-Discovery”.
How Does The Technique Work?
The main idea of sentence completion work is to use an incomplete sentence, a “sentence stem” and complete it with different endings, between six and ten, with the only requirement that the endings are grammatically correct completions of the sentence.
During therapy, Branden used this technique in a group or one-on-one setting, where he gave the sentence stems to his clients and they completed the sentences orally.
Outside therapy and for the purpose of the general population, this technique can also be used in a written form.
This would look like the following:
Suppose your given stem, is:
To me, self-responsibility means…
First, you preferably write down this stem in a file on your computer.
Then as quickly as possible, without pausing for reflection, write as many endings for that sentence as you can in two or three minutes — never less than six, and ten is enough.
Do not worry if your endings are totally true or make sense or are “profound.” Write anything, but make sure to write something.
After doing six to ten endings for the first stem, go on to the next stem on you list and continue until you completed a section.
In the book “The Art of Self-Discovery” you will find a large list of stems grouped together in different chapters ranging from general topics, to childhood, relationship to parents, negative emotions, sexuality and so forth.
Completing the book is a very good method to get a holistic understanding of oneself and uncover repressed experiences from different areas of your life.
You can go through this book at your own pace. Instructions are given and after each section, there is some time for reflection about what you have written so far.
If you want to make sentence completion work a habit, it makes sense to start Branden’s 30-week program, which can be found on his website.
The approach here is to complete a couple of stems every morning from Monday to Friday before starting the day and reflecting on the writing on the weekends.
Effects & Best Practice
Once you do sentence completion for the first time you will realize that you enter a trance like state. You will be surprised by the experiences that come back up which you thought to have forgotten or repressed a long time ago.
The stems are intelligently placed in a strategical order to make sure you are going down deeper towards the root cause of your current situation, behavior or feelings.
To make sure you get the most out of sentence completion work, keep the following points in mind:
- Don’t read any sentence stem in advance. You want them to catch you off guard and react on them spontaneously.
- Don’t judge what you are writing, even if some endings contradict each other, just keep going and invent if necessary.
- After each reflection point or end of your section, make sure to reread what you have written, add some more endings if you can and reflect on what you have written.
What To Do With The Insights You’ve Gained
Especially the last point is of high importance. When reflecting on your endings, highlight the things that surprise you or that gave you some form of new insight.
You can then copy these insights into a different file or in a journal and reflect about them.
This will be your journal of self-discovery and self-knowledge.
Once you write about the experiences and realizations you have gained from the sentence completion work, you will bring up more and more repressed experiences and already start the process of dealing with them.
You can then combine this act of self-reflection with some kind of release meditation to allow the sensations and emotions to come up.
Developing the awareness of repressed experiences through sentence completion work is actually the first of the three-step process as described in my previous article on how to let go permanently.
You can then allow these sensations to come up, experience them fully, stay with them and finally allow yourself to let go of them.
Making the unconscious conscious and allowing yourself to feel it, even if it is painful, is the first step to regain control.
What Happens Afterward?
Once you have let go of the resistance to feel the repressed experiences and let them run their course, it is very likely that these experiences have less influence on your behavior in the present.
They will remain there as memories or sheer data, but the emotional charge that had been connected to them and the control they have had over you will be gone or gradually fade away.
To accelerate this process you can then use reframing methods from Cognitive Based Therapy or Neuro-Linguistic-Programming to change the associations and thoughts that remain connected to these memories.
Finally, should it be possible to have a conversation with the person or persons involved in your repressed experiences, then this would be another recommended step.
Expressing your emotions and feelings regarding a situation to the ones who were directly involved, can cause a great amount of relief and healing to take place.
If this conversation is not possible, an alternative would be to talk to your coach or another person you trust about this. The sheer act of talking about these experiences already gives you many benefits.
To sum things up, get to the cause of what is holding you back.
As in the example of the thorn buried deep in your skin, you could try to hide your repressed experiences, avoid them and design your whole life around them.
Or you become aware of them again, face them and let them go.
The only way out is through.
Remove the false foundations you‘ve based your life upon.
This will allow you to build a new foundation of being grounded and totally at peace with yourself.