As you can imagine, as a therapist, I have asked this question countless times. And, interestingly enough, this question is sometimes met with, “I don’t know what I feel”. It’s not unusual for us to be out of touch with what we feel about something and often it’s because we have repressed, suppressed or are avoiding our feelings.
They are banished from our conscious minds and sent into the unknown depths of the unconscious. In this way, pushing away our emotions is a self-protective measure taken to avoid experiencing difficult emotions and can be either conscious or an unconscious process.
Let’s face it. Why would we want to face unpleasant emotions? This pushing away, though, can easily become automatic and habitual, and avoidance becomes the default route for many emotions, difficult or not. Think of how we avoid ‘perceived-difficult’ feelings by focusing on other activities like binge-watching Netflix, drinking alcohol, drug use, over-working, over-exercising, persistent socialising, online activities, sex, gambling, smoking, eating, amongst others.
Some of the activities, in themselves, are not necessarily negative. They are behaviours we sometimes engage in or use to avoid feeling. The more we seek to disengage with difficult emotion, the more we inadvertently avoid all emotion, having numbed ourselves with the anaesthetizing effects of avoidance tactics. So, we don’t get happy positive emotions emerging when we push down negative emotion, we just get numb.
Evidence shows many of us are emotionally avoidant. Biologists say we are hardwired to want to avoid pain, and this includes emotional pain. What this means is that emotions such as anger, sadness, negativity, frustration, jealousy and bitter disappointment are often avoided or suppressed. However, our avoidance tactics not only make it difficult to access any positive emotion, but research also shows that the more we avoid feeling our emotions the more anxious and depressed we become!
Avoiding emotion is like holding a large beach ball underwater. Imagine you and I are walking along a beach, and I propose a challenge to you – “See if you can hold this large beachball underwater for 20 minutes whilst treading water and enjoy the moment”. You think the sun is shining, the water is warm, you’ve got nothing to lose. You accept the challenge.
There are two possible scenarios in this story …
First possible outcome: You are treading water happily and pushing the ball under the water. You notice it does take quite a bit of effort to keep this ball of energy down. The warm water feels like a lovely bath, and you notice the sensational heat of the sun on your face. Your attention is caught by a majestic bird of prey gliding and drifting. You then notice from the corner of your eye a dolphin leaping and lolloping in the distance. Your attention is caught by the happy squeals of a toddler kicking and splashing water at the shore with utter glee. You are totally enjoying the moment. Next thing you know, you realise the ball is no longer in your hands and its slapped you in your face!
Second possible outcome: You notice it takes effort to push the beachball down. You are determined to keep it down there; you use all your strength and focus to keep the ball down. You are making a big effort and, whilst you are doing this, you don’t notice the bird of prey, the dolphin or the happy kid splashing water. You don’t even notice how warm the water is or the lovely sensation of the sun’s rays on your skin. You get bored as you are disconnected from all around you and you feel tired of this purposeless challenge.
Holding the beachball down is like holding emotions down, or like avoiding emotions. Emotions like the beachball are constantly trying to reach the surface. When we suppress, repress or avoid our emotions, they will, like the beachball, pop up unexpectedly and go in a direction you may not anticipate.
Sometimes we can engage like in the first scenario with life around us and everything can seem ok. Life seems to be ticking along nicely and suddenly you may, out of the blue, develop an inexplicable illness, anxiety, insomnia, headaches, depression, a phobia or you might behave in a way you hadn’t expected, like have an affair or buy a sports car!
This is because emotions demand to be recognised, so if they are pushed down, they will make themselves known in an unexpected, possibly dangerous, hitting-you-in-your-face way.
In the second scenario, when we exert a lot of effort to control, avoid, or suppress emotions, life is without colour, joy or flavour. When we put a lot of effort in to avoid certain negative feelings, we end up not feeling anything at all, not even positive ones, as we exert so much energy to push down, to repress … the result could lead to a depression.
If we let the beachball or our emotions surface and float, the ball or the emotions are just there, not taking extra effort, energy or attention. We notice them and allow them to float away, to float near, and we don’t seek to control them or run away from them and, most of all, we see them as something separate from ourselves. They come and go and do not determine the course of our lives.
Alternatively, or additionally, we can simply release the beachball’s valve and gently let the air out, thus keeping the ball intact. Releasing the valve is like talking things out with an intimate, writing a diary, painting a picture, or simply acknowledging your feelings to yourself. We feel relieved when we express our emotions in a calm and safe way. We can suddenly see more clearly and enjoy the colours and flavours of life.
In summary, notice what and how you feel, and remember that your judgement or fear of those feelings will make you want to avoid them. Accept your feelings as part of being human, without shame or guilt, and allow them to just be or express them in a safe, calm way, before they make themselves known in an unhealthy behaviour or mindset.