How to Deal with Repressed Emotions and How They Might Be Hurting You: Micro-Traumas

Noam LightstonePsychology 11 Comments

You’ve probably heard a common saying that goes something like:

Don’t bring up the past in arguments. Only deal with what’s going on right now.

This could be directed at the angry girlfriend who yells at her boyfriend about something not putting a dish away, but is really still mad about the fact that he went out with his friends instead of her last week. I’ll talk more about that kind of situation towards the middle of the article.

The more difficult thing to know is if traumas from the past, from when you were a kid, are coming up in an argument.

So your dating partner saying something mean to you isn’t just your boyfriend, it’s feels like every time your Dad reprimanded you when you were a little girl.

So your Professor saying that you could do better on a test isn’t just talking about you in that class, you feel like it’s every time you couldn’t measure up to your parents’ desires of you, to your teachers’ expectations, and to the kids at school who thought you weren’t cool.


If you deal with this, you could be at risk of avoiding relationships and emotions altogether which can make you lose out on life.

Exclusive Bonus: Download the checklist that shows you 9 common character traits someone displays when they’re having a hard time dealing with repressed emotions and how to move forward.

What Are Micro-Traumas? How Do They Develop and Why Do They Come Back?

When we were kids, we dealt with difficult situations. Sometimes we were bullied. Sometimes we didn’t get a new toy. Sometimes we were yelled at.

We then developed defences based on these events.

The problem is that a lot of the times we don’t grow up and move on past these defences or events. They stay repressed and lodged within our brains, and come out if we feel something similar to the past occurring.

As the saying goes:

You don’t fear the future, you fear the past recurring.

So the reason you are so scared to talk to girls isn’t because of a single girl herself, it’s because of all the times in the past when a girl called you a name and your Mom blew up at you. It’s the fact that the first time you kissed a girl, it went horribly horribly wrong… I don’t know, maybe you were both smashed and she puked on you.

The reason you get so frustrated when you don’t get something you think you deserve isn’t because of not getting that one thing, it’s because you were always told “No, you can’t have X” in the past, and you started to believe it.

Here’s an example:

A couple has an argument where the woman complains that the man never listens. It may be that the man dismissed something very small or didn’t engage heavily in conversation because he thought it wasn’t necessary.

The woman’s first ex-boyfriend ALWAYS did this and she hated it, so she starts getting INCREDIBLY upset for no reason. In turn, the man might have had a complicated relationship with his Mother where she was prone to aggravated reactions for little things. She would take out her aggression on him, frantically yelling and blaming him for no reason. His behaviour as a child was to retreat in to his room without saying a word, physically and emotionally locking her out. So, he does this again with his girlfriend because it’s all he knows.

Then, they just keep getting angry and frustrated with each other ad infinitum, until something happens – maybe it’s a break up, maybe it’s violence but either way, it’s not going to be good.

Can You Tell Me When My Micro-Traumas Are Getting Triggered?

It’d be nice if I could give you a list of signs to see if that was happening.

But I can’t. It’s different for everyone.

For example, I know that if people try to shame me it hits on my past. Same with when people call me a name (even if jokingly). I get a bit unnverved when girls get angry, upset, or they raise their voices. I feel anxiety or sadness which manifests as tightness in my throat or chest, I started feeling scared.

I have my own ways of dealing with all of these based on some experimentation and knowing what type of person I am. No, I’m still not perfect, but much more of an adult than ever.

Repressed emotions can also come in to play in recent altercations between people. For example, my recent landlord (unjustly, *sigh*) yelled at me and freaked out over something small. I decided to try and not yell back, because I didn’t think that that would do anything. I communicated that I understood her feelings, but wasn’t aware of certain rules, and would talk to my roommates about the situation.

But then she blew up again about something different a week later, even after apologizing for the first outburst.

So at first I stayed calm, but then I let out a bit of steam with some yelling… but not all of it.

Then when I got an e-mail from her later about something unrelated I could FEEL the anger that I hadn’t fully expressed bubbling up inside me.

How to Work through Repressed Emotions

So, how do you deal with your own micro-traumas? What is the way out?

A word of warning – if you have repressed A LOT of emotions for A LONG time, it will be hard work and most likely be very painful.

Sorry, just trying to prepare you and I’m speaking from personal experience :s.

 1. Work through your past in therapy

The emotions are still lying dormant until they become triggered. If you deal with them and go into the emotions, they will either no longer reside and stay dormant, or you will become emotionally aware when they arise. This requires therapy – a safe place to let out the emotions with a trained professional.

If you find you react EXTREMELY aggressively to small items, feel hurt easily, have great trouble socializing, or have a complicated relationship with either of your parents…. you probably need a bit of psychotherapy. Do it now and profit for the rest of your life feeling happier and being more free.

 2. Communicate with “I statements” during arguments

You do not blame. You don’t shout. That doesn’t mean you don’t feel anger, repression doesn’t work. But you communicate in three parts:

  1. Feeling
  2. Why
  3. What you want/set a boundary

For example: “I feel hurt when you lash out at me, and I will not talk to you when you do that. I want you to talk to me directly and without calling me names.”

I didn’t say that the person would automatically grant your wishes. Perhaps if they don’t or can’t, you may have found a deal breaker in terms of continuing a relationship with them.

By using “I statements” you are dealing with your emotions now by feeling them and expressing them in a healthy way, versus throwing tantrums

… or chairs.

3. Express your emotions in the moment

As per my landlord example, holding emotions in does more harm than good. Emotional energy has to go somewhere. As the First Law of Thermodynamics says: “Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change form”. – excuse my inner nerd coming out.

In that case, emotional energy too, must go somewhere. And yes, it can be buried and bubble up during certain circumstances.

I would rather not have negative emotional energy inside me, thanks!

So instead, learn to express your emotions in an adult way – e.g. when you are angry, state it directly and feel the entire emotion. Do not repress it. When you are sad, be OK with being sad.


Emotions might still might come back even when they are “worked through”. It would be praying to a false god to believe is that once you “work through” things they’ll be completely done when it comes to the past. Some micro-traumas can be greatly eased by working on them through therapy and discovering your own tools, but they may be so strong that they still rise up.

Stay confident and strong, as you will learn how to deal with challenges as you grow. I know I suffered from this in the past, thinking that after doing X thing finally things would be OK. I still believe it to a point but I am more aware now that this is not true.

As you are able to handle your emotions better, you will become less anxious, more stable, and better able to deal with any challenge that arises in life.

I wish you luck.

Image Credit: Cover picture courtesy of Luis Rasilvi under the Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Comments 11

  1. I have a problem, that will be 40 years old June 2016. I forgot about it 33 years. I saw a picture and felt a strong desire to resolve the problem.
    I am a Christian, so my belief is to reconcile stuff, rather than just forget it.
    I dated the his girl, Michele 3 times in 18 months. When each date was over she seemed to get a boyfriend, the next week. After the third date, I gave up, she made me so nervous, that I told myself I would not ask her out again. Six weeks later I was attending her senior prom.
    It went well, I was not the first choice, and I knew it, I had a real good time. The next day we went to a amusement park, a picture was taken where we were walking hand in hand. The picture taken as a joke, see Michele told her friend that we were going to prom as friends, and when they saw us walking hand in hand, the friend took a beautiful picture then started giggling.
    8 days later I met with my youth pastor to discuss dating this girl, he didn’t respond like I thought he would. Rather he steered me away with comments like Michele thinks your a nice guy, but your not the one. Finally just as I was to leave the meeting the youth pastor 8 years older than Michele and myself, asked me: do you mind if I date Michele?
    I left that day never to return, I think he blew every circuit in my little brain? Now 33 years later I write Michele who married the youth pastor. I want to talk, and for the last 6 years she has refused to speak to me, even in letter? I realized just this year that pastor never told her of our meeting!
    A friend of mine saw her in public, and she froze didn’t say a word to him either, my friends wife used the word dreary!
    I am having trouble putting this away now, I wish I could forget again!
    Thanks for listening.

    1. Post

      Hey Eric, that sucks plain and simple. Seems like the pastor wasn’t giving unbiased advice at all. In fact, he was probably trying to steer you away so that he could date her.

      But on the other hand, I think you could have seen the signs that this wasn’t meant to be, if every date you go on she goes off with another guy after, if it isn’t progressing, and if she especially tells her friends you and her are just friends.

      I will agree with one thing the pastor said – it seems like you have nice guy syndrome (NGS), in that this girl was using you for some good emotions and male attention, but didn’t have interest in pursuing things further. If you haven’t, I’d suggest checking out the book on NGS here. I think you’d learn a lot from it as I did.

      Why do you want to talk with her now though? It seems like you still are holding on to some idea that she’ll come back and connect with you, when all her actions state she’s not interested or that she’s using you. She’s not healthy for you, and I’d suggest keeping this relationship closed, not trying to contact her again, and finding a woman you can connect with without all these games.

      It might suck and hurt, but it’s for your own good so you can move on. I understand wanting to reconcile things, I’m the same way. But sometimes it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie especially when it comes to relationships so you can invest your emotions into someone else.

  2. Hi I don’t know what to do,
    I have a boyfriend and he truly is amazing and we’ve been together for about a year now.

    However he represses his emotions and it causes so many arguments, problems and mostly it makes me feel so sad. It makes me feel like he doesn’t care about me even though I now he does his actions don’t show it.

    I have realized he represses emotions and it all clicked – the relationship with his mother is very intense (she is just like from the example described above) and i know that he doesn’t like to show how he feels. Whenever I want to talk about how i feel, he gets over defensive and goes to sleep or do something that would make him forget how he feels.

    I understand but its so hard for me because we can’t ever move past any issue because of this. He does everything he can to avoid taking a look inside of him. Ive tried everything but every time i bring out the topic of emotions he just refuses to talk about it or changes the subject.

    Please how can I help him become more emotionally intelligent and aware?

    1. Post

      If you keep pushing him he’ll get frustrated and annoyed. NOBODY likes being bothered or told that they’re doing something wrong.

      A better way is to make him aware/OK with the fact that it’s OK for him to open up to you.

      You could also ask him to share himself in smaller ways. BE PATIENT – he’s not going to change overnight and start spilling everything out – for someone who’s repressed a lot their entire life (*ahem* present), it’s INCREDIBLY SCARY because he/she feels like they might get rejected or thrown aside, or their emotions will trick them.

      So he could just share his opinions on his day, or his choice of music even… Then you keep asking deeper questions about what he thinks, how he feels, on certain situations, and so on.

      He’ll sub-consciously start feeling like it’s OK for him to open up to you.

      HOWEVER – the best way is for him to realize this on his own, and either work with you or a therapist. If he’s really not changing though, “Love them as they are, or leave out of love.” Sometimes people reach the emotional limit of what they can give us, and we have to accept that – and find someone else who can meet our needs.

      It sucks, but we can’t always change people to be how we want them to be.

  3. Hi, what kind of psychotherapy do you recommend? Strictly certified psychologists or something else as well?

    1. Post

      Hey Magnus – it depends on the person, but I usually recommend cognitive behavioral therapy because it is very ACTION focused. Talk therapy can be helpful too if you have a lot of trauma.

      More important than the type of therapy is finding a therapist you work well with. If you can get that, the techniques matter less because you feel comfortable with them and can talk things out.

      I do recommend sticking with a same-sex therapist (e.g. girls with girls, guys with guys) so that you don’t introduce possible filters that may happen with the opposite sex.

      Also e-mailing you with some more options.

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  5. Hi.

    I have a lot of repressed emotions. It’s how I dealt with my parents divorce growing up. I actually emotionally shut down. For a long time I couldn’t feel anything except anger and depression. I thought about suicide almost everyday growing up. A few years back I started feeling again, but I don’t always know what I’m feeling or how bad it is.

    Something has happened twice now, where I just kind of blow up over something seemingly trivial. My trigger seems to be when people invade my time and/or space. When it happens repeatedly over a long period of time I blow up. The first time I went to a hospital and threatened to commit suicide. The second I blew up at my boss when he asked me what was wrong. I tell people I need my space but they don’t always listen.

    I know they don’t understand but I don’t know how to talk to people about that. What am I supposed to do? Walk up and say “Hey if you don’t let me leave at a reasonable time every day someday I might blow up on you?” It really sucks, because they’re triggering it and then I get blamed for the consequences. And I don’t even realize what I’m feeling or how bad it is until after I’ve hit my breaking point.

    I just don’t feel like there’s any good way to deal with this. When it happens I have to sift through the emotional wreckage and try to figure out what happened and why. And then even if I can properly articulate it it’s probably too late. The only things I can come up with are trying to avoid my triggers and having better coping skills, but that still only works if I can identify what I’m feeling and why. I’ve seen therapists off and on over the years and it does help to some extent, but it still only works if I know what I’m feeling. How can you say “Hey, I’m pissed off about X” when you don’t realize you’re feeling pissed off?

  6. Hi, I have a reoccuring problem and I don’t know how to move on. As a child my mum used to yell at me a lot for little things. I would apologise, over and over again and she would acknowledge it but then continue to keep going on and on about it. This coupled with not being allowed out to see friends outside of school hours destroyed my confidence and meant that I could not deal with the thing in my life that really hurt me: my friends at school found out I had certain religious beliefs and started acting really awkward around me and I sensed it and lost all of my friends – I was about aged 5 or 6. I ended up withdrawing from everyone as I thought there was something wrong with me especially as whenever I made a mistake my mum would not let me forget it and it was as if the world had ended. Now I am an adult I suspect she is on the autism spectrum – but the problem for me is whenever I get critizism I burst into tears and end up with reactive depression. This happens even for little things, and even when joking with friends and start teasing in jest and they say something that makes me think I may have offended them – even if they seem ok with it I still hold back the tears and I seem to be very sensitive to critizism. Do you have any advice for me?

  7. Hi Noam,
    Thank you for your very candid and down to earth sharing of your experiences via this blog. It is by far the most practical and solution focussed source I have found in extensive Internet trawling for information about Avoidant Personality Disorder (Dismissive Attachment Disorder) on my quest for understanding and ways in which a loved one can navigate and take steps towards healing Attachment Wounds & limit self destructive behaviours that impair a functional and happy existence.
    The man that I love is afflicted with the negative throwbacks of broad use of deactivating strategies in his every day life regarding interpersonal relationships & allowing himself to connect with others emotionally.
    From what I can tell this has been a consistent feature throughout his life,his very few intimate relationships breaking down at a certain point where his attachment system appeared unbearably threatenimg to him & that resulted in his default mode of shut down and withdrawal.
    I was his first serious long term partner at age 30, which overall was a loving and positive relationship that rarely saw us at odds. I think that he was only able to sustain an attachment and committed relationship with a vocation that required he be on a Fly In Fly Out roster interstate.

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