Emotions are an integral part of the human experience, yet many of us struggle to effectively process and deal with them. We often find ourselves avoiding emotions for a variety of reasons, such as fear of overwhelm, discomfort, or simply not understanding their purpose.
Ineffective ways of dealing with our emotions are often learned in childhood when we are faced with experiences that we don’t have the resources or know-how to face. As children these coping responses are the best ones available to us. In adulthood however, the same coping mechanisms fail and can lead to explosive outbursts, panic attacks, or overwhelming feelings that seem to come out of nowhere.
Why do we avoid emotions?
By understanding the consequences of avoiding emotions and learning healthy ways to deal with them, we can experience emotions in a way that prompts healthy, natural responses to experiences.
Fear of overwhelm
One of the primary reasons we avoid emotions is the fear of becoming overwhelmed. Emotions can be intense and powerful, and we may worry that if we allow ourselves to fully experience them, we will be unable to handle the flood of feelings that accompanies them. This fear can be paralyzing, leading us to avoid or suppress our emotions altogether.
It's natural to seek comfort and avoid discomfort, and this instinct often extends to our emotional experiences. We may prefer to numb ourselves or distract ourselves from negative emotions rather than confront them head-on. This avoidance strategy may provide temporary relief, but it ultimately hinders our emotional growth and well-being.
Not understanding the purpose of emotions
Another reason we avoid emotions is simply not understanding their purpose. Emotions are not random or meaningless; they serve as signals that something in our inner or outer world requires our attention. By ignoring and not comprehending these signals, we miss out on valuable insights into our experience.
Ways in which we avoid emotions
It’s important to understand how some of our behavior is designed to avoid feeling emotions. Avoiding emotions manifests in various ways.
Excessive thinking and ruminating
The primary way of avoiding feeling is excessive thinking. Moving attention to stories and thoughts about a situation takes attention away from feeling what we feel. Rumination, or thinking repetitive thought patterns is a strategy to avoid feeling. While thinking can be helpful in some situations, thinking as a distraction or even thinking about how we feel is not a substitute for genuinely feeling and experiencing our emotions directly.
Distractions and addictions
Distractions are another tactic we employ to avoid confronting our emotions. We may turn to external stimuli such as substances, social media, television, shopping, work and many other pursuits in order to divert our attention and avoid facing our feelings. While distractions can provide temporary relief, they prevent us from addressing and understanding our emotions.
Distractions can become addictions as we get temporary relief from emotional pain through a substance or behavior. Unfortunately distractions don’t work for long and they bring a host of new problems with them.
What happens when we avoid emotions?
Avoiding emotions doesn’t make them disappear. In fact, the opposite is the case. Suppressed or ignored emotions get stuck. It’s helpful to think of an emotion as a physical “wave” of energy. In an emotionally healthy person, an emotion moves like a wave and passes quite quickly.
When we consistently bottle up our emotions, they tend to build up over time. Temporary relief from distractions or addictions seem helpful in the moment, but are less and less effective over time and eventually the emotion comes back even more intensely after a period of suppression. Accumulated emotions can lead to large emotional responses to experiences that are not proportional to the situation.
The purpose of emotions
Understanding the purpose of emotions is crucial to learning how to deal with them effectively. Emotions are like messengers, providing us with valuable information about ourselves and our environment. They alert us to our needs, boundaries, or unresolved issues that require attention. By tuning in and listening to our emotions, we can gain valuable insights, respond effectively and make necessary changes in our lives.
How to deal with our emotions in a healthy and constructive way
Feel the emotion on a physical level
The first step is to allow ourselves to feel. Feeling means feeling on a physical level - sadness might feel like constriction in the throat and heaviness in the chest, for example. Go into the physical sensations and acknowledge what is happening. It might feel uncomfortable to feel what you are feeling, but ultimately it is not dangerous. With your attention going into the physical sensations in the body, attention is no longer going toward thinking and thoughts fade into the background. Even if you only move your attention into the body for 30 seconds this movement away from thought and into the direct feeling allows the emotion to move and dissipate. The wave energy of the emotion is able to complete its movement rather than get stuck.
Take a curious approach
Your mindset in this process is not one of trying to get rid of the emotion. That fighting mindset would feed it rather than make it go away. Instead, you experience your emotions fully, without judgment. It helps to take a curious stance with it. You might say silently to yourself in the process of curiously feeling anxiety, for example: “Wow, my heart is really beating hard, I wonder what that’s all about?”
Name the emotion
Emotions have a very distinct form and once you are familiar with how each emotions shows up in your body, it’s helpful to name it. The name doesn’t have to be the literal name of the emotion. You might call fear “the bear” or “the darkness” or whatever makes sense to you. Naming the emotion each time it happens immediately changes your relationship to it. Instead of being consumed or overtaken by the emotion, the naming creates a space between you and the emotion. When you relate to the emotion with this space between you and it, there is a very noticeable lessening of its power over you.
Reflect and take action if possible
Once we have acknowledged and felt our emotions, the next step is to reflect on the signal they are sending. What is this emotion trying to tell us? Is it pointing to an unmet need, a boundary violation, or an unresolved issue? By taking the time to reflect on the underlying message, we can gain clarity and understanding.
Let’s use anger as an example. Anger is a defense. What is it defending? Under the anger there is always a more vulnerable emotion such as sadness, fear, hurt or rejection. Once you identify the emotion underlying the anger, you can deal with the root cause of the anger.
After reflecting, it may be necessary to take appropriate action. This could involve setting boundaries, addressing conflicts, seeking support from loved ones, or making changes in our lives that align with our emotional well-being.
It's important to remember that processing emotions is a journey, and it may not always be easy or straightforward. For those dealing with trauma, processing emotions may need the support of a therapist or other trained professional.
Healthy processing of emotions requires patience, self-awareness, and a willingness to lean into discomfort. However, the rewards are profound. By allowing ourselves to fully experience and understand our emotions, we connect with our authentic self and our awareness and resilience improves substantially.
John Woychuk is a Canadian Certified Counsellor (CCC) with the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association and a Certified Clinical Anxiety Treatment Professional. Feel free to contact us to book an appointment.