As humans we don’t like pain. In fact we are programmed to avoid pain, and that includes painful thoughts and painful feelings.
Sounds great right?
The problem is, avoidance of feelings is only good as a short-term strategy.
For example, if you find yourself in a situation in which allowing yourself to experience your emotions of hurt or anger is not appropriate (e.g., in the middle of a meeting at work), using strategies to avoid emotions is adaptive and helpful. The problem arises, when you don’t take the time to experience those emotions in a more appropriate setting (e.g., at home). Emotions can be thought of as energy, and if you avoid your emotions, and don’t allow yourself to experience them, that energy stays stuck in your body. Avoiding our emotions as a long-term strategy means that the energy needs to be redirected.
Here are 5 of the common things which we as people do that, when used as a long-term strategy, can be damaging, and will get in the way of leading a healthy, fulfilling life.
1. Look to the outside to make us feel better (Externalizing)
How many of us have eaten when we were bored? Upset? Angry? How many of us have gone for a smoke when we were stressed out? Or maybe for some drinks? Pot?
Most of us have used some form of external tools to try to make us feel better or distract us from our feelings (to regulate our emotions). The most common ones are using food, sex, drugs, work, other people’s approval or validation (fishing for compliments, asking for reassurance), smoking, shopping, etc.
People who quit smoking are giving up a form of external emotion regulation. Ex-smokers so often gain weight because they’ve found an alternative external regulation tool – EATING! It is the same for people who quit drinking and start gambling or replace it with another addiction.
2. Being unkind to ourselves (Self sabotage)
When we do things that we know are not good for us (hang out with people who treat us poorly, stay at a dead end job, in an unhealthy relationship, having affairs, spending money we don’t have or eating that second piece of cake etc) or FAIL to do things we know would be good for us (exercise, eat well, call our friends), we get to spend time distracting ourselves from our feelings by beating ourselves up (that negative internal dialogue where we focus on what we should and shouldn’t have done).
It is a pretty effective strategy to distract ourselves too, because we can screw up once and we can use that same thing as material to beat ourselves up and punish ourselves for years to come!
This also takes away our permission to be upset with anyone else because we are too busy focusing on what a looser we are, that it is “no wonder they are being a jerk to me”.
3. Taking a one-down position (Compliance)
This is when we distract ourselves by focusing our attention on meeting other people’s needs and expectations, trying not to rock the boat. We spend our time worrying about what other people think or feel about us and how we can keep them happy or at least not angry or disappointed with us, even if it means saying or doing things that are not healthy for us.
4. “What if” world (Projection)
Another way we distract ourselves from our feelings is through focusing on “What if’s”. What if Joe-Shmo thinks this, what if that other thing never would have happened, what if this happens in the future.
We can spend A LOT of time in our own heads thinking about the past and bringing it into the present, thinking about the future and reacting as if it is real (because we automatically fuse and invest in our thoughts and feelings, that is why our heart races when watching a scary movie, we know its a movie, but we automatically fuse with what we are seeing and thinking in spite of ourselves), in other people’s heads thinking about what they are thinking and feeling about us.
This one is self explanatory. How many of us retreat to watching mind-numbing TV, playing video games or surfing the net or Kijiji as a way to avoid our own lives and feelings?
We can also avoid by isolating ourselves from others, sleeping, drugs, working, exercising excessively, meditating all the time (may seem like a good thing, but if it is being done to not be present and engaged in our lives it becomes a problem).
Notice which of these you do and as always, please send us your questions or comments by email or on twitter @DrAdrianaWilson.