Without discussing it with his wife, Gail, Kevin invited his parents to go with them on a vacation to Hawaii. She was disappointed and angry but being conflict avoidant, didn’t speak up and instead told herself it was no big deal.
Gail's response to her anger offers an example of suppression, a conscious act to cover up a thought, feeling, or urge toward a behavior that may be anxiety-provoking. Many of us use suppression from time to time in the management of anger. It can at some moments be constructive, as when we postpone a heated discussion of conflict for a more suitable time. However, the impact of employing this defense mechanism is significantly more detrimental if it is routinely used to deal with anger. Suppressed anger doesn’t just go away.
In my practice, many of my clients have shared moments of anger that they suppressed, whether regarding a partner, a friend or in the workplace. Some employed suppression due to fears of hurting a loved one’s feelings. Others have reported using suppression due to fears of abandonment. And some suppressed anger in the workplace due to a fear of undermining their status or even being fired.
The anticipation of shame may also play a part in the anxiety that fuels suppression of anger. When we feel compelled to disavow anger, experiencing or expressing it form a threat to our sense of self, which may consequently yield shame.
All of our feelings are messages to us
Our feelings provide us important information about our inner landscape. Our anger is typically a reaction to some form of emotional pain: i.e., feeling disrespected, powerless, diminished, shame, guilt, or sadness. However, our feelings and thoughts seek to be acknowledged and honored.
Each time we overlook them we diminish self-awareness and, in the process, lose touch with what we value. Recognizing, accepting, and honoring our anger are distinct from impulsively reacting to it. They require the capacity to pause and reflect on, rather than react to our anger.
Some negative consequences of suppression
When we suppress our anger, we disavow a part of our humanity. Short of full acceptance of our feelings, including anger, we distort the lens through which we view our world and react to it through that distorted perception. When we engage in suppression of anger, we also take flight from the emotional pain that fuels it. As such, suppression is just one form of emotional avoidance that may inhibit emotional investment in our lives and in those around us. It is then not surprising that suppressing anger can contribute to depression.
Suppressing anger can at times blind us to the pain and anger of others, as our anxiety competes with attending to their feelings and thoughts. Consequently, we may shy away from discussions of conflict, a pattern that often leads to more serious discord in intimate relationships—and only enhances feelings of isolation for each partner.
One recent study explored the impact of suppressed anger on facial expressions of emotion and recognizing anger in others (Cristiano, 2020). A group of college students viewed videos in which a face changed from a neutral expression to a full expression of emotion (happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust).
Those assessed as being high in suppression of anger were slower to perceive facial expression of anger, rated such expressions as more pleasurable and less exciting than individuals who were low in suppressed anger. Further, they rated fear as less pleasurable than those who were low in suppressed anger. Based on this finding, it is easy to understand how such suppression can hamper effective communication in our relationships.
Impact on behavior
In another study, 97 participants were assessed for expressive suppression (suppressing behavior) and trait anger (an ongoing tendency for anger arousal) (Sullivan & Kahn, 2019). They then viewed two anger-inducing and two non-anger-inducing film clips.
While viewing the film clips, their facial expressions were recorded and later coded for the behavioral expression of anger. After each viewing, participants rated their subjective experience of anger and wrote about their experiences. In response to the anger-inducing films, those who scored higher with respect to expressive suppression were lower with respect to their subjective experience and behavioral expression of anger. By contrast, the groups showed no difference with respect to the non-anger films.
This study highlights how suppression can add to misunderstandings in our relationships. Following a discussion, one partner may walk away anxious regarding an unexpressed concern while the other has no awareness there was an issue. Or, a partner who is suppressing anger may not recognize cues of anger in the other.
Suppression of anger, as a reaction to anxiety, can negatively influence how we react to rejection. In one study, 170 undergraduate students were asked to describe their experiences with everyday situations that were designed to elicit anger; with some including rejection. It was found that individuals with low social anxiety reported the least anger and anger suppression (Breen & Kashdan, 2011).
Suppressed anger in the workplace
Suppressing anger in the workplace can have a negative impact on advancement, effective collaboration, and even work satisfaction. It may contribute to passive-aggressive behavior that might include not voicing opinions that could be helpful and not relaying communications that are essential for the flow of business.
In one study, a group of managers and non-managers (187) were asked to maintain a diary of anger arousing events over a four-week period (Booth, Ireland et. al. 2017). Additionally, they were evaluated for trait anger and job satisfaction. More than half reported such events, with trait anger being higher in those identifying such events.
Additionally, another study found that those who were high in suppressing anger tended to express their anger to uninvolved persons or remained silent (Stickney & Geddes, 2014).
As a clinician, I’ve worked with individuals overwhelmed by the tension of suppressed anger in the workplace. Some stay with their job but ruminate about their grievances, while others have left their jobs without voicing them.
Suppression requires energy and effort and, as such, interferes with being fully present with ourselves and with life in general. This can impact both personal and work-related relationships.
For example, effective negotiations require being fully present to our desires—while being present with those with whom we are negotiating. One study evaluated its impact with 204 undergraduate students who were asked to participate in a computer-mediated negotiation (Shao, Wang, et. al., 2015). Negotiators high in suppressed anger were less able to focus on the negotiation and exhibited inferior negotiation performance. The recommendation was that those who suppress anger develop awareness of its impact and cultivate strategies that can assist them in focusing.
Suppression of anger involves a deflection of attention and energy. Yet, it is only by being fully present with ourselves that we can be more fully present in our relationships and with life in general.
Addressing suppression of anger is a challenge that requires cultivating an increased sense of safety with our anger. In part, it starts with increased awareness of the fears associated with our anger and how our suppression stems from an attempt to protect us from harm.
Meeting this challenge also calls for identifying developmental factors that support our suppression and how to move past them. And it requires learning communication skills that reflect compassionate attention to our needs expressed in a compassionate way with others.
Few of us have grown up in families that provided these skills. Fortunately, it is important to remember that we can learn them. And through acknowledging and honoring our anger in a constructive manner—we become more grounded and empowered in our daily lives.
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Cristiano, S. (2020). Suppressed anger and response to facial expressions of emotion. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 81(5-B).
Sullivan, S., & Kahn, J. H. (2019). Individual differences in expressive suppression and the subjective experience, verbal disclosure, and behavioral expression of anger. Personality and Individual Differences. Advance online publication
Booth, J., Ireland, J., Mann, S., Eslea, M., & Holyoak, L. (2017). Anger expression and suppression at work: Causes, characteristics and predictors. International Journal of Conflict Management, 28(3), 368–382.
Stickney, L., & Geddes, D. (2014). Positive, proactive, and committed: The surprising connection between good citizens and expressed (vs. suppressed) anger at work. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, 7(4), 243–264.
Shao, B., Wang, L., Cheng, D., & Doucet, L. (2015). Anger suppression in negotiations: The roles of attentional focus and anger source. Journal of Business and Psychology, 30(4), 747–758.