Our emotions are important signals for us. They give us information about ourselves, other people and the world. When we shut ourselves off from these feelings it’s as though we’ve eliminated one of our senses; even worse, in fact.
We avoid our feelings for only one reason: because they have painful or upsetting implications. Children who grow up with abuse, neglect, trauma or other difficulties learn to associate feelings with suffering.
Feelings become frightening and overwhelming, so these children grow up avoiding their feelings, in order not to revisit their painful past.
The problem is that feelings are related to every part of our lives, and if we avoid feeling because we’re afraid to be overwhelmed by the pain of our past, we’ll miss out on feeling what we need to feel in our present.
We need to have our feelings today, as without them, we’re at a tremendous disadvantage. When we avoid our feelings, we become alienated from ourselves and no longer know who we are, what we want, or how to achieve our personal or professional goals.
As well, the things we do to help us stay out of touch with our emotions are creating problems of their own. These “side-effects” of our avoidance cause suffering, in their own right.
So what are the ways that we avoid our emotions? There are six things that we do to not know our feelings.
These are: Addiction, Distraction, Humour, Minimizing, Spacing Out and Stuffing Down.
1: Addiction. Many people say that addiction is a disease. I see it as a dysfunctional coping strategy around childhood hurts and losses. One of the functions of an addiction is to keep us from feeling the pain, hurts and losses of our past and present life.
Of course, everyone knows that addictions cause a lot of pain and hardship, relationship and work difficulties. We don’t benefit at all from avoiding our emotions in this way.
2: Distraction. If we’re trying to avoid our feelings, one thing we can do is distract ourselves with keeping busy, over-working, helping others, watching TV, reading books, over-intellectualizing or anything that takes up so much of our time, energy and attention that we can’t focus on our actual feelings.
When we’re so distracted, we’ll miss out on important things, like signs that our health is deteriorating, or signs that one of our children is in trouble.
We can miss out on marital issues or problems at our workplace. Being so distracted, we can float through our life until eventually a crisis comes along and smacks us in the face.
3: Humour. We can avoid our emotions by laughing off anything that might be too “heavy” or that might cause us to have a real feeling. We can make a joke of things, rather than face the discomfort of our feelings.
The problem with using humour to avoid our feelings is that we can make everyone else laugh at our problems as well, and be forever deprived of sympathy, understanding and support.
When we’re too prone to laughing off our own feelings, we can fall into laughing off the feelings of the people around us, who will be hurt and angry and see us as insensitive and uncaring.
4: Minimizing. If we want to avoid our feelings, we can minimize them to ourselves and to others. We can tell ourselves and them that these feelings are “no big deal,” or that they’re “in the past,” and therefore no longer able to affect us. Neither of these things are true, though.
When we minimize our feelings, the same thing can happen as when we laugh them away. We tell other people to not take our feelings seriously, and we risk being insensitive by minimizing the feelings of those around us.
5: Spacing Out. We can avoid our feelings by being “lost in space.” We can dissociate, never being fully present, in order to stay away from potentially uncomfortable emotions. We can get drunk or high, to do the same thing. Unfortunately, that means that we’re also never present for any of the positive parts of our lives.
When we space out, we can get into accidents, tripping over things or bumping into things as we walk, or worse, car accidents when we’re at the wheel.
We can miss important deadlines for handing in work or school assignments and we can forget to do important things, like take our medicine, lock the front door or blow out the candles before leaving the house.
6: Stuffing Down. This is a specific behaviour that over-eaters do. They eat in order to push their feelings back down to where they were coming from. It’s really part of the “addiction” category, but this way of avoiding emotions is so prevalent that it warrants its own category.
People who stuff down their feelings with food are deprived of their authentic emotional experience, and they become overweight, with all the social and health problems associated with this.
I think that it’s obvious by the above that we need to feel our feelings, even if they’re unpleasant or uncomfortable, because without them we experience a lot of even more unpleasant consequences, and as well, we’re deprived of essential information that will empower us to be our best selves and live our best lives.
Not having our feelings can result in emotional problems, such as anxiety and depression, when all this repressed pain has no-where to go as well as physical problems that come when pour bodies react to all the pent-up emotions (and these can include stomach aches, ulcers, rashes, even heart attacks and strokes).
We can have interpersonal problems, becoming passive-aggressive when all our held-in anger leaks out, or we can come across as cold, uncaring or insensitive, as I mentioned above.
We can trust that the more we feel, the less uncomfortable it will be, as we’ll adjust to knowing our emotions. Also, we can have faith that knowing our feelings won’t kill us or make us go crazy. In fact, it will enable us to make the best possible choices in our personal and professional lives.
We can all identify the ways that we avoid our feelings and the effects that this avoidance has on our life. We can get used to feeling and releasing our emotions, whether positive or “negative,” and we can live with open hearts, able to know ourselves and equally important, give and receive love.
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