“You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout I’m telling you why,” “Don’t worry, be happy,” “Keep calm and carry on”- a common thread among these song lyrics is emotion avoidance. Emotion avoidance is the tendency to avoid or control the experiencing or expression of emotions. Our association between emotional expression and weakness or misbehaviour is so pervasive that it’s interwoven with our cultural fabric, and even manifests in children’s holiday songs. We readily sing along warning children to not be sad or grumpy or else Santa Claus will place you on the Naughty List.
In tandem with broader culture, most of us are prone to emotion avoidance on a personal level. We all want to avoid uncomfortable things and that extends to uncomfortable emotions as well! Emotion avoidance – the lack of acknowledging and processing emotions – can come up in our relationships with others (interpersonal) or within ourselves (intrapersonal).
Interpersonally we can observe emotion avoidance in our discomfort in witnessing or responding to other’s emotions. Socially, we often disdain public displays of emotion. Crying at the office, yelling in public, or even singing cheerfully and prancing around the street tend to draw attention and/or judgement from others. As an observer, you may feel uncomfortable or even embarrassed on their behalf. At the societal level, we tend to be uncomfortable with big emotions. Further, we often avoid the emotions of our loved ones. Imagine the following situations; our friend confides in us her worries about not being attractive enough to find a partner, our son tells us that everyone at school hates him, or our partner discloses that they feel incompetent and uninformed relative to the new hire at work. What is our first instinct? Reassurance. We tell our friend that of course she’s an amazing catch. We tell our son that his friend Johnny loves him and that he has so many friends. We reassure our partner that they are intelligent and able to quickly learn new skills.
The common thread throughout these responses is an avoidance of the emotions expressed. Of course it’s natural to respond this way for a myriad of reasons; we don’t want loved ones to feel pain, their pain makes us feel pain, and we want them to see themselves as we see them. This emotion avoidance doesn’t actually help their pain, instead, it may leave them feeling misunderstood, invalidated, or that their emotions don’t make sense.
We can also avoid our own emotions: perfectionism, or putting in too many hours at work can be emotion avoidance. Also, when feeling stressed or overwhelmed it can look like cozying in for a Netflix marathon. Doing anything but sitting with, and being curious about the painful experience and emotion is considered emotion avoidance. Humans are exceptional at finding ways to distract themselves from pain. As illustrated in the above examples, emotion avoidance happens at both inter- and intra-personal levels. In emotion-focused therapeutic modalities we believe that acknowledging and listening to our emotions is powerful for healing. We also offer a solution for this predicament–leaning in to our emotions when we feel pulled to run.
Why is our instinct to retract? To avoid? Being curious about this experience leads one to consider adaptive human instincts; If we accidentally touch the hot stove-top, our instinct is to retract our hand. It is evolutionarily adaptive to recoil at painful stimuli. It protects us. However, painful emotions like shame, fear, and guilt are different from other aversive stimuli. Unlike the removal of our hand from the stove-top, avoiding emotional experiences does not result in the pain stopping. The pain and unprocessed, unresolved feelings tend to return and overwhelm us with feelings like fear, sadness, and dread.
The answer is not so easy. Lean in. Feel the emotion. As the saying goes “You have to arrive at a place before you can leave it”. If you want to leave a city, you have to go to that city first, right? The same thing occurs with emotions. We must first notice the feeling, entering into that experience before we can move forward. This is not say that experiencing our emotions means that we must stop all of our coping strategies. Instead, the idea is to slowly build up emotion awareness and practice this new skill of acknowledgement, and sitting with. First step? Becoming emotionally literate. This includes:
- Labeling the emotion you feel as you feel it. Say to yourself, “I’m feeling (fill in the emotion) right now”.
- Be curious about what this emotion feels like. Ask yourself, what thoughts are running through my head? What sensations do I notice in my body (e.g., tightened muscles)?
- Remind yourself that what you are experiencing is important, worth listening to, and deserves your attention.
At the beginning, just noticing and wondering about your emotional experiences is a great start to improving emotional literacy. Once we tune into our emotional experiences instead of running away, we can begin to work through our challenges, as opposed to avoiding them. Buddhist nun Pema Chodron beautifully illustrates this idea in her book, The Places That Scare You, “A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us.”
Here is an example…How do you know when you are hungry? Perhaps you might notice a growling tummy, fantasies about food, or a feeling of tiredness or emptiness. So if you notice that, what would you do? Hopefully you would be able to find some food. You satisfy the need and the discomfort goes away. When you can’t eat for whatever reason you might even find that you become grumpy or irritable. So what would happen if we didn’t know what hunger felt like – if we didn’t know that hunger meant that we need food? If we ignored the physical sensations they wouldn’t go away—they grow stronger and more persistent, to try and get our attention. However, when we turn towards the hunger and learn more about our internal experiences, we can listen to our body and respond appropriately.
Just like we notice hunger and consume food in response, our goal is to notice our emotions, and determine what needs arise from each experience. Listen. Be curious. Lean in. Feel the emotion, and accept that this experience is important and makes sense.