There’s a reason you “forgot” to answer that email

Let’s face it, you have emails sitting in your inbox from months ago that you just didn’t get around to. You might see them and say that you’ll answer eventually, or that you just forgot to respond. But the truth is that there could be a reason why you might unconsciously want to forget to respond.

This phenomenon has a name, and ultimately, it’s both preventable and easy to understand: “motivated forgetting.

There are a number of reasons as to why one forgets, everything from neurodegeneration to cancer, lack of brain stimulation or vitamin deficiency. But generally, if you’re a healthy person whose biggest problem is stress management, there are usually two categories of motivated forgetting that can plague one into forgetting emails – that we can control, and that we can’t. This is known as “repression” and “suppression.”

Repression

Coined by Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, repression theory was first developed in 1915. Repression, which is known as a defense, is when one pushes thoughts and feelings into the unconscious without realizing it as a way to avoid thinking about things that make them feel sad, hurt, angry, or other unpleasant emotions. Still, these memories that seem long forgotten can influence behavior, emotions, dreams and decision making.

Generally, in a psychological context, one usually finds themselves repressing certain traumatic events, most likely in early childhood. But one can continue to repress memories both large and small throughout the course of their lives, especially if it relates to the trauma they once had.

For instance, if you were yelled at often by a parent in childhood, and your boss tends to raise his voice fairly often, you could be putting off responding to that email because of an unconscious connection between the fear you felt with your parents and the fear you would relive in an exchange with your boss.

If you’re skeptical about how someone like Freud’s theories would hold up in the face of modern science, you’d be surprised as to how repression can be found in the brain. Scientific American details a number of studies on the neuropsychological manifestation of repression, and studies from Oxford University are researching the physiological model of repression using somatosensory activations of one’s motor control.

Suppression

Suppression, as opposed to repression, is a conscious mechanism. A 2014 study from Trends in Cognitive Science defines suppression as an “active process that down-prioritizes unwanted experiences in service of creating or sustaining an emotional or cognitive state,” which is more than often perceived to be a more positive state than the unpleasant memories would generate. In this way, one can jump through various mental hoops to tamp down disagreeable thoughts, feelings or memories.

The best way to suppress thoughts or feelings? Just think about something else! If you’re faced with an unpleasant memory or thought, such as a long, boring email you have to skim, the most common way to suppress the notion that you have to confront this daunting task is to let your mind wander to all the other things you could be doing instead. This can come in the form of procrastination, distraction, or even oppositional reactions, like deleting an email you know has a deadline attached to it.

The aforementioned study notes that while the science of forgetting is new, there’s currently a body of “neuroimaging evidence that suppressing awareness of an unwelcome memory, at encoding or retrieval, is achieved by inhibitory control processes mediated by the lateral prefrontal cortex.” One might be familiar with the prefrontal cortex as the portion of our brains that controls personality, higher-level cognitive functioning, decision-making and adherence to social codes.

Unfortunately, while repression is an intensely fortified defense, suppression can be pretty easily undone with minimal prompting. There tends to be a “behavioral rebound” when the attempt to suppress emotions or memories becomes overwhelming, and one can, without realizing it, begin to act in ways that indicate a fixation on avoidance rather than an attempt at working through a negative memory.

How do I fight forgetting?

If you would attribute your motivated forgetting to cognitive impairments or general slowness, try to engage your brain in challenging activities, like playing a trivia game, or learning and practicing a new language. General brain fog on top of stress could make even small emails seem like a huge chore, so taking the initiative to regain some lost functioning could be a step in the right direction.

You should also take a look at what exactly it is that you’ve forgotten to do and think about how it might tie into an event in your past or a memory of something painful.

Are you putting off organizing a meeting because the last time you sent out a Zoom link, you got the date wrong? Or maybe you’re hesitating in responding to a coworker because long ago, they said something that hurt your feelings, and you’ve been trying to forget it for years, but the pain just won’t resolve on its own.

Even if the circumstances seem piddly or inconsequential, they might still be having a psychological impact on you – and consequently, on your ability to answer emails.