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Repression vs. suppression: What’s the difference

The main difference between repression and suppression is that suppression is a conscious effort, while repression is an unconscious strategy to remove unwanted memories or emotions from a person’s mind.

Repression and suppression are two psychological concepts that are equally fascinating – but frequently get confused with each other. The definitions and existence of phenomena such as repression have been contested over the years.

Over a century ago, Sigmund Freud, often called the “father of psychoanalysis,” proposed that memories can be forgotten by pushing them into the unconscious, a process called repression.

Some researchers point out that Freud often used “suppression” and “repression” interchangeably. Later, his daughter, Anna Freud, made a clear distinction between them by claiming that repression must be unconscious.​1​

Nowadays, most researchers believe that the two have clear differences while others describe them as more similar than different.

woman trying to suppress her feelings

Difference between suppression and repression

People differ in their tendencies to openly show, share or conceal negative emotions, thoughts, and experiences.

Suppression is a conscious strategy that pushes unwanted or anxiety-provoking memories, emotions, thoughts and desires out of awareness. People may actively suppress unpleasant or uncomfortable feelings by distracting or numbing themselves.​2​

Unlike suppression, repression is unconscious. Individuals may not consciously know or be aware that they are forgetting or ignoring negative emotions or thoughts.​3​

Memory repression is sometimes believed to be the tendency to inhibit the experience of painful feelings or unpleasant thoughts. It is a psychological defense mechanism that can protect a person from overwhelming experiences such as childhood abuse.​4​

The subconscious mind is assumed to block unwanted impulses or emotions because they are seen as potentially harmful and disruptive to one’s mental well-being, stability, and self-image in situations such as betrayal trauma.​5​

Similarities between suppression and repression

Emotional repression and suppression are both aimed at avoiding suffering or negative stimuli. Commonly avoided negative feelings include

  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Embarrassment
  • Grief
  • Sadness

While they were once used as synonyms, a distinction is now made in the role of conscious awareness between the two.

Examples of emotional suppression vs. repression

Suppression examplesRepression examples
A husband holds back tears at his wife’s funeral because men are expected to be strong.Despite feeling that he should, a husband cannot feel sorrow at his wife’s funeral but doesn’t know why.
The survivor refuses to talk about a fatal car accident that killed her best friend to avoid bringing painful memories into the conscious mind.The survivor of a fatal car accident that killed her best friend is unable to talk about the incident because she cannot recall the traumatic memories.
After an emotionally draining breakup, the woman pretends to be fine in front of her friends even though she’s hurting inside.A woman seems fine despite an emotionally draining breakup and feels blank when it comes to the recall of memories related to it.

Effects of suppression vs. repression

Both mechanisms serve to manage distressing emotions but operate at different levels of consciousness. As a result, they have distinct impacts on emotional, mental, and physical well-being.

Emotional Experience

Suppression: Individuals who use chronic suppression of emotions can experience less positive and more negative emotions than others.​6​

Repression: Emotional repressors experience fewer negative emotions than people who do not repress their emotions. They also experience similar levels of positive emotions as other people. They also appear to be optimistic and upbeat.​7​

Mental health

Suppression: It is associated with decreased mental well-being.​8​

Repression: Despite appearing optimistic and upbeat, a repressive coping style is considered psychologically unhealthy. People with repressed memories may also experience extreme ‘fight-or-flight’ responses.​9​

Physical Health

Suppression: Linked to an increased risk for cardiovascular disease​10​ and a higher possibility of earlier death.​11​

Repression: While downplaying their anxiety or stress, emotional repressors may still feel repressed emotions in their bodies. They are also associated with a higher risk of heart attack and mortality.​12​

Social and Interpersonal Relationships

Suppression: Often results in poorer interactions and relationships with others, as it hinders genuine emotional connections with others.​13​

Repression: While many emotional repressors are viewed as valuing a rational, non-emotional approach to life, they tend to show an avoidant attachment style in their romantic relationships.​14​

A final note on the debate on repression

Like many others, the field of psychology is constantly evolving and changing. Therefore, repression, a subconscious defense mechanism, continues to be hotly debated with practitioners and researchers taking alternate sides.

For the majority of people, concepts, and research on suppression and repression are helpful reminders to take practical steps toward handling our emotions better. 

Whether it is finding effective ways to regulate or working through unresolved trauma emotionally, it is ultimately worthwhile to healthily manage emotions and experiences rather than trying to shove them away.


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