emotional avoidance

Why We Avoid Feelings & How it Hurts Us

Emotions are running high these days.  It can feel like a rollercoaster with quick shifts and sudden drops that turn your stomach.  Other times it can feel like relentless challenges continually crashing into you, like waves in a rough sea.  We’ve all experienced losses in the past year, big and small.  And these losses may spur feelings of sadness, anger, resentment, longing, loneliness, or fear.  These are painful feelings we often try to avoid or ignore.  Understanding why we avoid these very natural feelings may help us better process them and reduce our suffering.   

Why do we avoid our feelings? 

  1. We dismiss our own feelings as trivial.  We believe that we don’t have a right to certain feelings.  We may compare ourselves to others, assuming that other people certainly have bigger problems so we shouldn’t be so upset.  We may feel like we haven’t suffered enough to justify our own feelings.  Our lives might appear fairly charmed on the surface, and we fear appearing whiny or complaining if we acknowledge our own struggles. This unhelpful belief is based on the idea that emotions are relative rather than personal. Your emotional journey is real and matters.    
  2. We expect to feel better quickly.  Even when we feel like we may have a “legitimate reason” to have a feeling, we often rush ourselves to get over it.  We tell ourselves that we should be healed by now, as if there’s a specific time limit for emotional suffering and processing.  This unhelpful belief does not take into account the natural ebb and flow of emotional healing which takes time, intention, and patience. You heal more fully when you allow yourself all the space and time it takes.
  3. We fear becoming overwhelmed by our feelings.  Sometimes we’re aware that our feelings are real and genuine.  But there is great fear that if we allow ourselves to sit with our feelings, we may drown in them and never resurface.  We imagine the feeling getting so intense that we become unable to function.  This unhelpful belief rises when we do not trust our ability to cope with big emotions.  Perhaps we were never taught how to feel deeply and express ourselves safely in a way that led to a sense of peace and healing.  Developing healthy ways of processing and expressing emotions is a learnable skill.
  4. We fear losing control of ourselves.  The other fear we have when it comes to stepping into deep emotions is the fear that we’ll lose control of our behavior.  We fear that we’ll act out in ways that are harmful or dangerous.  This unhelpful belief stems from childhood messaging that certain feelings are “bad” or “wrong.”  Many people grow up observing adults who have unhealthy ways of expressing these tough emotions through yelling, hitting, or abandoning. You can break these old messages and patterns by learning to recognize, tolerate, and express your feelings safely.

What happens when we avoid our feelings? 

When we shut down our feelings it creates stress in our bodies and minds that builds up over time.  Eventually, this stress finds a way of presenting itself in the form of physical symptoms, emotional distress, or relationship conflicts.  These symptoms can further stress and complicate our lives when not directly addressed.  See if any of these common symptoms of built-up emotional distress is familiar to you. 

Symptoms of Avoiding Feelings 

Headaches Insomnia 
Back pain Stomach upset 
Angry outbursts Irritability 
Jaw clenching/grinding Constipation 
Diarrhea Nightmares 
Tearfulness Fatigue 
JitterinessTrouble focusing

How do we learn healthy ways of processing painful feelings? 

In order to understand how to approach feelings in a healthy way, it’s useful to look at the many ways we actively avoid feelings.  We may try to numb or distract ourselves with mindless phone scrolling, tv binging, or excessive alcohol use.  We may harden our hearts and convince ourselves that we are stoic and unemotional.  We may busy ourselves with endless tasks and projects that keep our minds occupied. We may work really hard to look happy and put together on the outside so no one will see the suffering inside.  We try to convince ourselves we’re fine, when we’re anything but fine.  I’m sure some of these strategies sound familiar to all of us. 

All of these efforts to avoid feelings are normal and can even be healthy distractions when used on a short-term basis. Afterall, there are times in life when it’s not appropriate to work through our feelings in the moment and we have to make it through the day til we are someplace safe to let that guard down. The trouble arises when we engage in these avoidance behaviors all the time and leave no space for emotional processing.  We lose our balance and fear the quietness of our own minds. 

There are many ways to begin processing your own emotions that are safe and gentle.  Below are links to articles that walk you through exercises to feel grounded, develop emotional tolerance, and stop the cycle of busyness. There’s no single strategy that will work for each person all the time. It’s about developing an awareness of your inner emotions and a variety of safe ways to express them.

Emotional expressions are healthy when they match the feeling you’re having and do not endanger yourself or anyone else. So allow yourself to explore what feels like an emotional release to you. You may cry, holler, write in a journal, make art, talk to a loved one, curl up under blankets, go for a run. Explore!

If you feel you could use more guidance or support as you process your difficult emotions, it’s wise to schedule an appointment with a skilled mental health professional. A trained therapist can help you safely uncover and work through your feelings as well as offer strategies to cope and move forward.

Written by Suzanne Smith, Ph.D. for the Lakefront Psychology Blog. If you are interested in additional articles about mental health, postpartum issues, wellness, relationships, and parenting, please subscribe to the blog using the button below. If you are interested in scheduling a consultation with Dr. Smith, please reach out via the contact page or call 216-870-9816.

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