Suppressing Emotions and Borderline Personality Disorder

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Many people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) will report that they spend a lot of time and energy suppressing emotions. If you have ever had an intense thought or feeling that you couldn't handle in the moment or felt overwhelmed by and tried to push away, you have experienced emotional suppression for yourself. Research shows that not only is it ineffective in eliminating thoughts and feelings, but it may even worsen the situation.

Suppressing Emotions 

Emotional suppression is a type of emotion regulation strategy, strategies that we use to try to make uncomfortable thoughts and feelings more manageable. There are many different emotion regulation strategies and some are more helpful than others. For example, some people use meditation or mindfulness techniques to handle intense feelings, helping them relax and cope healthily. Others turn to alcohol or drugs to get rid of painful emotions. While this may work as an emotion regulation strategy in the short term, it definitely has negative long-term consequences.

Suppressing emotions, or just trying to push emotional thoughts and feelings out of your mind, is an emotion regulation strategy many people use. When used from time to time, it doesn’t have dramatic negative consequences. However, particularly for those with BPD, there is reason to believe that if you try to push emotions away all the time, it can lead to serious issues later on.

The Consequences of Suppressing Emotions

Researchers have studied what happens when you try to push away thoughts and feelings for decades. A famous 1987 study on this topic involved one group of people who were instructed to push away thoughts of a white bear. The other group was allowed to think about anything, including thoughts about a white bear. The group who had suppressed thoughts of a white bear actually ended up having more white bear thoughts than the group that had been allowed to think freely.

This result is called the rebound effect of thought suppression. Essentially, if you try to push away a thought on some topic, you will end up having more thoughts about that topic. The same effect happens when you try to push away emotional thoughts.

What This Means for You

If you frequently try to push away thoughts and feelings, you may be making more trouble for yourself. In fact, it's possible that this is setting up a vicious cycle: You have a painful emotion. You try to push it away. This leads to more painful emotions, which you try to push away and so on.

Some researchers believe emotional suppression may be a reason that people with psychological conditions such as BPD, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and​ obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) struggle with so many painful thoughts and emotions.

New Strategies for Emotion Regulation

The solution to suppressing emotions is to learn new, healthier ways to regulate your emotions. If you have lots of techniques to rely on, you're less likely to resort to pushing those thoughts away. For example, distracting yourself from an emotion by engaging in another activity may be a more effective way to regulate your emotions.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) can also be helpful. One study showed that DBT significantly improved emotional regulation after 12 months.

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  • Goodman M, Carpenter D, Tang CY, et al. Dialectical Behavior Therapy Alters Emotion Regulation and Amygdala Activity in Patients With Borderline Personality Disorder. Journal of Psychiatric Research. October 2014;57:108-116. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2014.06.020.
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