Films can take us on an emotional thrill ride, but have you ever thought your emotional experience might run a little deeper than the film itself? Film viewing experiences can help us express emotions on levels that may astound us, whether they’re obvious, like laughing at Prison Mike from The Office US, or subtly deeper, such as tearing up while watching Forrest Gump discover he has a son. Do you ever notice the emotions that come up while you’re watching a film? The truth is, films have the ability to draw feelings out of us, including emotions we weren’t aware of — in other words, repressed emotions.
How Can Repressed Emotions be Described?
The general belief is that repressed emotions are the mind’s way of protecting us from processing distressing emotions. How does this happen? Repression is considered to be a way for the unconscious mind to shield itself from some unpleasantness before it even enters our subconscious.
Studies explain repressed emotions as the inability to process primary emotions, which feeds our tendencies to avoid unpleasant or uncomfortable feelings. This mainly happens as a result of us refusing to process and express primary emotions, creating bigger issues such as attention and memory disorders and “an overall sense of dysphoria” in the process.
Want to know for sure whether you’re repressing any emotions? Let’s see how you can recognize and deal with them!
How Can We Recognize Repressed Emotions?
Our repressed emotions are often embodied in our dreams. Basically, during an unpleasant or painful experience, our unconscious minds try to shield us from experiencing painful emotions. Our subconscious minds allow us to process these painful and repressed feelings in a safe environment, hence, bringing them up in the form of a dream. These repressed emotions might be seen vividly, like in a scary nightmare, or manifested to us in a more symbolic or metaphorical manner. And here lies the role of films in helping you express repressed emotions. But before we tell you how, let’s look at some of the benefits of expressing these smothered feelings!
Can Expressing Repressed Emotions Help With My Wellbeing?
YES! Managing to express repressed emotions is a huge step toward a better understanding of your thoughts and emotions —even the ones your mind is trying to protect you from. Here are some of the benefits you’ll gain once you manage to express your repressed emotions.
- Emotional intelligence: being aware of our emotions ultimately leads to us processing them in a healthy and balanced way.
- Emotional skills: managing to express repressed emotions will help you deal with confrontation in a healthier manner, rather than avoiding it to steer clear of possibly unpleasant emotions.
- Emotional acceptance: emotions are emotions – we don’t need to place some in a smiley box and others in a frowny box. Acceptance allows us to fully process our emotions, even the ones we try to avoid, such as anger, fear, and sadness.
- Emotional wellness: exploring our positive and negative emotions and thoughts in an empowering manner can help us feel better, both physically and mentally.
Of course, the benefits of expressing deeply repressed emotions wouldn’t be entirely fulfilled without us knowing how exactly our emotions are triggered through films, along with the reasoning behind it! So here are some of the essential emotional experiences you might go through when viewing a narrative.
Exhibiting Repressed Emotions Through Films
The Shape of Water, set in the 1960s, is about a janitor with a speech disability who works night shifts at a highly secretive government-owned research facility. When she accidentally stumbles across an amphibian man, they both recognize that they’re similar in many ways and form a connection that transcends verbal interaction. How you choose to perceive such a relationship is entirely up to you! We, as viewers, have the freedom and the power to perceive and reflect on the content of any film according to our liking.
Have you ever liked a film so much, you felt it was speaking to you, but you couldn’t really explain how or why? Well, this means you definitely experienced at least one of four essential experiences: sympathy, empathy, antipathy. . .and, if you’re lucky, catharsis.
While sympathy and empathy are mistakenly used in an interchangeable way during our day-to-day conversations, there is actually a difference between the two; feeling sympathy for someone is remarkably different from actively empathizing with someone.
Here’s how: in films, experiencing sympathy means you have managed to engage with the character, despite being unaware of it, to the extent that you’re processing the same feelings and thoughts that the on-screen lead is experiencing. Have you ever felt a connection with a character before? When we feel sympathetic towards a film’s character, this ultimately means we already have a “pre-existent connection” with them.
In that sense, if you’re sympathizing with a film character, the emotions you experience as a result may be your unconscious mind nudging you towards a deeper connection you share with the character’s journey or struggle.
Empathy, however, is entirely different. You see, being empathetic doesn’t necessarily mean you must have a pre-existent connection with the character – far from it! Being empathetic means that although you might be intrinsically different from the character, you’re able to feel with them, reflect on their psyche and their thoughts, and experience every situation they’ll encounter during the film. Your ability to distance yourself from what makes you who you are helps with this process; your thoughts, values, beliefs, and yes, even your emotions enable you to immerse yourself in the protagonist’s world.
Now, I know what some of you may be thinking: wouldn’t that mean this is a job for someone with highly developed emotional intelligence? Actually, that’s not necessarily the case. Your feeling of empathy for a fictional person is dependent on two main factors: your ability, as a viewer, to distance yourself from the ‘‘here and now’’ in order to engage yourself in the story, and the filmmakers’ ability to captivate and immerse you with carefully crafted storytelling techniques.
A perfect demonstration of empathy can be experienced when watching a film like Interstellar. Although our caregivers or parents may not be astronauts, the film itself compels us to place ourselves in the protagonist’s shoes, enabling us to fully immerse ourselves in their psyche. Makes you wonder if you’ve ever felt empathy for a character and confused it with sympathy, doesn’t it?
Antipathy is the most subtle way to recognize and express repressed emotions. Being antipathetic towards a film character means you notice how this specific on-screen personality is bad news. There’s a lot of reasoning behind this, but here’s how it relates to expressing repressed emotions: being repulsed by a film’s antagonist, by a film’s content, or by whatever you’ve been exposed to in a film, reflects on your own social and moral values and beliefs.
You guessed it, being antipathetic wouldn’t necessarily mean that you’re disapproving or against illicit behavior per se, but it might carry a deeper emotional meaning behind it, indicated in the form of symbolism. Or, it could be less covert, like my personal experience of watching Something Borrowed.
Something Borrowed is about a love triangle made up of two best friends, Rachel and Darcy, and a love interest, Dex. Throughout the narrative, we identify Rachel as a textbook people-pleaser and Darcy as a self-absorbed person who’s dismissive of other people’s feelings. Then there’s Dex, Darcy’s fiancee and Rachel’s previous classmate, whose main trait is that he’s a pushover, with his indecisiveness driving the drama of the film. Rachel and Dex cheat together on Darcy, so according to conventional morals and social norms, they’re the antipathetic characters; however, I couldn’t help but view Darcy as the antagonist of the film. I couldn’t unsee the similarities of Darcy’s persona to a former friend of mine, and suddenly all the repressed feelings of anger and disappointment I felt towards this former friend emerged.
Catharsis can mean a lot of things to someone; however, it’s mainly referred to as emotional and intellectual clarification. What that means can be explained through two different approaches, the first of them being psychological. This involves the ability to process and express emotions that stem from a past trauma. The second approach is philosophical, stating that when we resolve a certain personal conflict, we’re more likely to experience catharsis. Either way, how could simply watching a film help with that? Experiencing catharsis through films sounds a little unorthodox.
A study from the Scientific Study of Literature proved that not only is catharsis through film viewing possible, but it also has long-term therapeutic effects on the viewer. For the study, the researchers set two groups: the first group was made up of people who had endured traumatic experiences in their pasts, and the second group consisted of people who had never experienced it. Both groups were then presented with films that contained traumatic elements. Despite the fact that the members of the two groups came from different backgrounds, emotionally and mentally speaking, they all identified an improvement in their mental health, and it was also recorded that, within the span of four weeks, members of both groups had become emotionally healthier. How did that happen?
In social issue dramas, catharsis resonates with us in the way the film makes us reflect and contemplate on common humanitarian subjects — the most obvious of these being the recognition of one another’s agony and suffering. In other words, “we’re stronger together” becomes more than a saying to keep our spirits high; it is a practical concept experienced when watching a film that speaks to us of our pain, or someone else’s.
Cinematic Techniques and How They Can Elicit Repressed Emotions
The film industry in its entirety is built on its ability to elicit emotions from us. Even if the emotion felt is disgust, the film is regarded as being of good quality if it managed to engage us to that extent. Film scores, “prosthetic memory,” and mirror neurons are three of many techniques filmmakers like to play around with to guarantee we experience at least one of the four stages involved in the cinematic experience: sympathy, empathy, antipathy, and catharsis.
Given the proven fact that music has therapeutic effects on its listeners, it would make sense that film music can help viewers and listeners to release repressed emotions.
Are you a rational thinker, or have you got more of an emotional brain? Well, here are two ways you can experience expressing repressed emotions through film music — choose your weapon!
The first, rational reasoning, suggests that we express emotion when we’re exposed to film music because of the ability of our minds to recognize certain feelings. Despite the fact that our unconscious minds shield us from unpleasant feelings (repressed emotions), that doesn’t mean we can’t identify them; we’re able to feel the emotions submerged in our subconscious. Because of this, when we listen to film music that communicates an emotion we recognize, we can’t help but express it, even though we’ve been trying to avoid it.
If you’re an emotional thinker, you might be inclined to stand behind the idea that film music arouses our emotions, whether or not we’re able to recognize them. This means that we don’t necessarily need to understand the emotion to elicit it; in this case, film music evokes our feelings, even the ones we weren’t aware we were repressing! We’re kind of forced to feel the emotion, to confront it, even if we can’t really link it to a past emotional experience. Have you ever watched a film and couldn’t explain what you’re feeling or why you’re feeling it?
The purpose of prosthetic memory is to compel you to identify with the people in the film’s story. Here’s how it works: the film attempts to engage you personally and deeply with the historical event they’re conveying; e.g., Schindler’s List, The Pianist, The Patriot, etc., so that you’re more able to distance yourself from your reality, subsequently, being able to empathize with the characters.
With an implanted memory, you may be able to process and express emotions from a perspective entirely different from yours, allowing you to reflect on how people lived and how social and moral values change. Such reflection might stir up new emotions you’ve yet to explore within yourself. Have you ever noticed feeling a wider range of emotions after watching a historical film?
Although this is a purely scientific phenomenon, there’s a literary aspect to it, and this applies to viewing films. The idea behind the mirror neurons phenomenon is that humans possess a neuronal mechanism which “fires” when observing any species performing an action; we fire the same neurons when we watch any action as if we are the ones executing it.
For instance, have you ever watched the protagonist of a movie being chased, and despite the fact that you were sitting still, you felt restless? If you have, you’re certainly not alone! It’s simply because we can see the protagonist is frightened and anxious, leading us to become frightened and anxious too.
How Can Expressing Repressed Emotions Improve Holistic Wellness?
Our conscious minds protect themselves from harmful feelings, but this doesn’t mean it’s good for our mental health. Being able to recognize your repressed emotions and then express them can have a major positive impact on your overall mental health. Mental wellness is about experiencing and processing all of your thoughts and emotions. Confronting feelings that seem negative is a part of this. Expressing repressed emotions will help you handle stress and anxiety with more self-awareness — you won’t shy away from understanding why you feel a certain way.
It’s normal to be skeptical of the connection between expressing repressed emotions and our physical health, but did you know expressing your repressed emotions can boost your immunity?! The International Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research published an article that details the catastrophic connection between emotional repression and the deterioration of our physical wellbeing. For instance, the researchers reported that 84% of patients with common illnesses, such as chest pain and fatigue, “indicated no medical diagnosis” and were advised to seek psychotherapy. The researchers added that diagnosed patients who vent their emotions show physical improvements, unlike patients who use repression as a defense mechanism, stressing that they “suffer the most.” Carrying such a burden can never be easy, so if you’ve been diagnosed with an illness, we implore you not to shy away from expressing how you’re feeling about it!
Contemplating your repressed emotions is part of a spiritual journey. So, if you’re discovering your bottled-up emotions already, the good news is you’re halfway to spiritual wellness. Expressing repressed emotions will help you better connect with yourself, and it can also help with spiritual exercises, such as meditation, contemplative arts, and journaling.
There’s no doubt that expressing repressed emotions helps promote acceptance and leads you to become more conscientious in your relationships. Since expressing pent-up emotions will help you better understand and reflect on your feelings and thoughts, it guarantees a more keen reflection on your behavior. It’s inevitable that this will help you with your social interactions and result in an enhanced understanding of the people in your circle.
Confronting our painful emotions isn’t an easy task as our minds are constantly in auto-protective mode, so if you’re able to recognize that you’re repressing emotions, that’s already a massive step towards holistic wellbeing. Let your choices speak to you, and when they do, try and listen — you’ll be amazed by what your mind would like you to know about yourself.