Lately I’ve been thinking about the various ways that people try to avoid their emotions. And it’s understandable. Emotions can feel pretty scary, especially when they get intense. Intense anxiety can elicit a sense of impending doom, the physical symptoms that accompany panic can generate a sense that one is having a heart attack, and individuals overcome with anger can feel like they are going to explode. So it makes sense that we would want to avoid negative emotions. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to cite getting rid of an emotion like anxiety as their initial goal for therapy.
Problems with wanting to eliminate negative emotions
Although it’s understandable to want to avoid negative emotions, either by numbing ourselves when they arise, or wishing we could eliminate them altogether, there are several reasons why this isn’t actually a good idea.
1. Our emotions are useful signals. A helpful analogy here is to think of physical pain – although many people wish they could avoid or prevent physical pain, pain signals give us useful information that we need to protect ourselves (indeed, people who do not get these pain signals often develop serious injuries; see link). In a similar way, our emotions are there to tell us something. For example, when we feel threatened in some way, anxiety alerts us to the possibility that we may need to protect or prepare ourselves. Without any anxiety, we might take risks that put us in physical danger, or we might shirk our responsibilities altogether.
2. It’s often not possible. When we suppress an emotion, it doesn’t typically go away.
a. The emotion might actually intensify over time (have you ever tried to push away feelings of frustration about something only to blow up about it later on?). In this way, our emotions are not all that different from children asking their parent for something – what do they do if they don’t feel heard? They raise the volume (sometimes very, very loudly!).
a. Or the emotion might come out in a different form, which can be hard for those around you to understand (e.g. if you become passive aggressive) or in ways that might confuse even you (e.g. you might be unsure of why you feel tense, irritable or drained).
3. The ways that some people try to avoid negative emotions, including drugs or self-harm, can lead to more suffering. Sometimes people avoid thinking about negative emotions by throwing themselves into projects or focusing on the world outside of their inner experiences (e.g. with to-do lists, focusing on other people’s problems); this can be a hard one to detect because we might trick ourselves into thinking that we are being productive when we might also be avoiding (the motivation behind our action is the important distinction here).
So, you want me to just…what? Sit with my emotion?
Although this might seem crazy at first, allowing ourselves to sit with a negative emotion provides us the opportunity to see that our emotional wave (although very uncomfortable) will decline in intensity over time and will not destroy us. Also, by not trying to “do something” to get rid of the emotion at the peak of its intensity, we might avoid doing something impulsively which we might later regret (McKay, Wood, & Brantley, 2007).
Rather than telling ourselves that our emotions do not make sense, that we should not be feeling that way, that our emotions are dangerous, or that we should try to get rid of them, we can try to identify what emotions we are experiencing in that moment (e.g. I feel angry), validate for ourselves that our feelings are understandable in light of the situation or context (e.g. it’s understandable that I’m angry because this situation is unfair), provide ourselves with words of compassion (e.g. I know this is really hard right now, and I know I will get through this), and ask ourselves what it is that we might need - not what we need to get rid of the emotion, but what we need to take care of ourselves (e.g. restorative activities like a nap, working toward boundary setting)…and if we’re really up for challenging ourselves, we can even thank our emotion for drawing our attention to this need and for giving us the opportunity to take care of ourselves in a more compassionate and present way (Neff & Germer, 2018).
Simcha Samuel is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.
2. McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
3. Neff, K. & Germer, C. (2018). The mindful self-compassion workbook: A proven way to accept yourself, build inner strength, and thrive. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.