Repression vs. Suppression: What’s The Difference?

The English language is complicated and full of words that sound very similar but mean different things. Switching two words in English is very common and people often don’t even know they are saying the wrong thing. One of the main reasons English can be so difficult to master is because there are words that are interchangeable despite their spelling, and there are words that are not. It is very hard to tell when this is the case. Let’s take a look at two very similar words, repression and suppression, and their differences.

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Definition of Repression

The best place to start when trying to understand a word is to look at what it means. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, the word repression is defined as, “the action or process of repressing” or “a mental process by which distressing thoughts, memories or impulses that may give rise to anxiety are excluded from consciousness and left to operate in the unconscious.”

History and Origin of the Word

Another way to examine a word is by looking at the history of it and where it came from. The etymology of the word repression is from the Latin word repressus, meaning “hold back, curb”. It was first used in the late 14th century and was used in its psychological sense in 1893.

Sigmund Freud said that repression is “the cornerstone on which the whole structure of psychoanalysis rests.”

Synonyms of Repression

Exploring words with similar or related meanings can be a great way to solidify a word into your vocabulary.  Here are some common synonyms for the word repression:

  • Subdue: overcome, quieten, or bring under control (a feeling or person).
  • Extinguish: put an end to; annihilate.
  • Quell: put an end to (a rebellion or other disorder), typically by the use of force.

Examples of the Word in Context

Another good way to learn a word and apply it to your vocabulary is to hear it used properly.  Reading it or hearing a word used in its correct context is a great way to learn how to use it yourself.  Here are some common examples of the word repression used in conversation:

  • They survived over 50 years of political repression.
  • The therapist wanted to look into the repression of her childhood.
  • His repression is caused by his stiff-necked, stifled upbringing.

Definition of Suppression

Suppression is a word that is easily confused with repression. While their meanings are not extremely different, they do have certain nuances. Let’s look at how suppression is defined.

The dictionary definition of suppression is, “the conscious intentional exclusion from the consciousness of a thought or feeling.” The word suppress is defined as, “to put down by authority or force, to keep from public knowledge.”

History and Origin of the Word

To further distinguish the word suppression from the word repression, let’s look at where it comes from. The word suppress is also from the late 14th century and it meant “be burdensome”. In the 1520s it was used to mean “put down by force or authority” from the Latin word suppressus which meant “press down, stop, hold back, stifle.” It was used in the medical field during the 1620s. 

Synonyms of Suppression

To better grasp how to use the word suppression, it is useful to look at some synonyms. 

  • Conquer: “successfully overcome (a problem or weakness).”
  • Vanquish: “defeat thoroughly”
  • Extinguish: “put an end to; annihilate.”

Examples of the Word in Context

Just as we looked at examples of the word repression in context, let’s do the same thing for the word suppression so that you know how to properly use it. 

  • People standing in front of the polls is voter suppression due to time constraints.
  • Becoming part of a team should not mean the suppression of individuality.
  • A mother’s suppression of her feelings can cause problems.

Repression and Suppression in Psychology

In the study of psychology, psychotherapy, psychopathology, psychiatry, and the field of mental health in general, these words are quite commonly used. Suppression is all about consciously pushing one’s feelings and thoughts away as a kind of defense mechanism. This means the person has a conscious awareness that it is an unwanted memory and makes an effort not to think about it. For example, if you are very hungry but you are in class and cannot eat, you could try to suppress the feelings of hunger that you have. 

Repression, however, is the subconscious act of ignoring your traumatic experiences, traumatic memories, and traumatic events called repressive coping or memory repression. When someone has repressed memories, they are not even aware that the impulses are there. The subconscious mind may block these painful memories or unwanted thoughts because they might be harmful or disruptive to your well-being thanks to negative emotions. In some cases of neurosis, clinicians say that the activation of the prefrontal cortex in the brain can even create false memories surrounding the event to protect the individual’s cognition, psychodynamic, and self-image, among other things. 

In Summary

Both of these words are used to describe “holding back” something or someone. But it is important to pay attention to the context of the sentence so you understand which one is correct to use. In general, it can be helpful to remember that repression is usually subconscious, whereas suppression is a conscious action. 

The English language is very difficult because of words like this. People who learn English as a second language often scratch their heads at words like suppression and repression. Without the first syllable, the words are the same. But the first two or three letters make all the difference for the usage of these words.

English largely borrows from other languages which of one of the reasons it is considered to be so complex. Words in English can come from Latin, Greek, German, and several others. This is why English often breaks the rules for grammar or spelling. It can be difficult to make sense of the way English is constructed because of all the contradictions. 

Hopefully, after reading this article you feel more prepared to use both words correctly in conversation and otherwise. Good luck!