Weekly Reflection: Emotion and Avoidance

I have the opportunity everyday to learn so much about the human experience. Not many people get to sit and talk about important topics with others for a living. I’ve decided that it might be helpful for me to reflect on some of the themes that come up again and again throughout my week. I hope that it’s also useful to anyone reading this to get a sense that they are not alone. While we all are individuals, the core struggles we have are very similar.

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about emotions. I guess that should be obvious. What I realize is that feelings get a bad reputation. People talk smack about emotions saying, “feelings are a sign of weakness,” “feelings make me out of control,” “emotions lead to nothing good” or “it’s not fair that I have to feel this way.” Emotions are the scapegoats of humanity. We tend to blame it all on the feelings.

For the record, blaming our feelings is not only unfair, it’s also very unwise and problematic. Why? Because it’s what we do to avoid our feelings that is actually causing us the most trouble. When we start to feel some feeling we don’t particularly like- maybe it’s shame, fear, hurt or sadness- there is a pervasive tendency to avoid. Perhaps something will distract or numb this feeling, we think to ourselves (usually on an unconscious level). Next thing we know we might be doing something that is not particularly in line with what we want for ourselves. It could be fairly benign like watching endless episodes of some show on Netflix or some mindless eating. It could be more risky like casual sex or using drugs. Or maybe it’s interpersonally damaging like creating an argument or projecting our feelings on to others. There are so many ways to avoid the feeling.

It seems to me that it’s the long-term impact of using these avoidance strategies that brings lots of people to therapy (which I think is a wise decision, of course!). We all have some flavor of this. Who hasn’t chosen to “check out” in some way after a stressful situation? It’s when we do this again and again in ways that damage our bodies, relationships, and self-regard that it really becomes a problem.

From my point of view, behavior change ideally comes from learning how to tolerate our feelings. We need to respect and work with them, not run from them. That’s sometimes a challenge, but it’s workable.  I’m working on ways to tune in, instead of tune out with myself and with most of my clients.

Those are my thoughts for the week. I hope you have a great weekend!


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