The Invisible Emotional Avoidance Epidemic - Part 1

Emotions are energy-in-motion and the essence of who we ARE, while also being a natural part of our human existence.

Yet, avoiding emotions is a common way of living for most people.

As a culture we have devised sophisticated and shaming ways to avoid, suppress, and unconsciously shun our own emotions and the emotions of others (as discussed in part 2). Ultimately, this disconnects us from our true self and prevents the development of authentic relationships needed to thrive. Yet there are TOOLS TO HELP US thrive emotionally!

Why do we avoid our emotions?

     Not taught to label our emotions: we really don’t know what they are.  Often times, we feel many blends of emotions at the same time, making them even more difficult to identify as they overwhelm the nervous system.

      Lack of emotional awareness: Some people may not be aware of their emotions or how to express them. If they grew up in an environment where emotions were not expressed or tolerated, they quickly learned to dissociate or ‘not feel’ for the sake of their survival. In adulthood, they don’t realize there is a lack of emotion because it is what they have known since childhood.

      Fear of vulnerability: People often avoid their emotions because they are afraid of being vulnerable. They believe that showing their emotions is a sign of weakness or instability, and that others will judge, avoid or ostracize them.

      Past trauma: People who have experienced past trauma may avoid their emotions as a way to protect themselves from further pain or overwhelm. They believe that if they don’t feel their emotions, they won’t be hurt again. Unfortunately, this has detrimental repercussions. (1)

      Stressful life events: People may avoid their emotions when they are going through stressful life events such as divorce, job loss, or the death of a loved one. They may feel overwhelmed by their emotions and believe that avoiding them is the best way to cope.

How do we avoid our emotions?

Avoiding emotions is a common coping mechanism that people use to deal with difficult situations, especially trauma, grief and sadness. Yet this avoidance can have serious consequences on mental and physical health. Here are some of the ways we avoid our emotions:

      Overthinking: We tend to focus on our thoughts instead of our feelings, which can lead to anxiety and stress, and those who rely on their intellects will try to think their emotions away.  

      Substance abuse: People often turn to drugs or alcohol to numb their feelings, which can lead to addiction and other health problems.

      Denial: To avoid our feelings, we may refuse to acknowledge that they even exist and instead, talk our way out of the reality of the situation.

      Distraction: People often turn to social media, television, or other activities to distract themselves from their feelings. While this can provide temporary relief, it doesn’t solve the problem and can create additional stress in the future.

      Avoidance: In order to avoid our emotions, we try and avoid the situations or people that trigger the emotions, which can lead to social isolation and other problems.

      Spiritual bypassing: Using a spiritual perspective in an attempt to transcend our feelings. For example, “It’s all for the higher good”, or “God’s got a plan”, or “I must have attracted that to learn a life lesson”, or “Things are happing FOR me, not TO me."  While spirituality can be a valuable tool, using it to bypass somatic emotions (especially in children) can create long-term pain in the body. (2)

What can we do to become more emotionally healthy?

The simple truth is that to become emotionally healthy, we have to do the work. It doesn’t need to happen all at once. It took years for you to learn how to NOT feel, so have some patience with yourself.

Here are just a few steps you can take to become more emotionally healthy:

      Learn to acknowledge and label your emotions: Becoming more self-aware is key to any personal development and in the case of emotions, there are a myriad of ways to build your awareness. To help get you started, we’re sharing a fantastic tool called The Feelings Wheel.

Download Feelings Wheel & Worksheet

With this tool, you can learn the core 12 emotions and the variants of each. Use it while watching characters on TV — are they expressing disgust, amazement, curiosity? Which emotion on the Feelings Wheel matches what you’re feeling? How about what you think a friend might be feeling? With practice, you’ll be quick to recognize the emotions you’re experiencing and those all around you, which is a powerful skill to have in any relationship.

      Self-expression: If you’ve been suppressing your emotions for a long time, expressing them may feel uncomfortable or even downright scary. But you can ease into the practice by simply expressing them to yourself.

Say out loud what you’re feeling (use the Feelings Wheel to help you choose the core or subtle emotion). “I feel _________”. That’s it. You’ve taken the first step. Notice how you feel expressing your feelings.

When you’re comfortable stating your feelings out loud, the next step would be to say them to yourself in the mirror. “I feel __________”.   Notice if you feel any different facing yourself in the mirror.

Download the Feelings Wheel & Worksheet

      Express your emotions to others: To ease into this, you might start by sharing the positive emotions you’re feeling. Tell a friend you’re excited about going on vacation, tell a co-worker you’re confident about reaching your goal, tell a neighbor you’re delighted with their new landscaping.

To help strengthen your emotional endurance, invite others to share with you how they are feeling. Ask directly, “How are you feeling about _____” and then simply listen. Notice how they express their emotions.      

     Engaging in physical activity and nurturing creative outlets are powerful tools for processing and managing emotions. When we exercise, whether it's through running, yoga, or dancing, our bodies release endorphins, the 'feel-good' hormones that can alleviate stress and boost our mood. These activities also offer a healthy channel for releasing pent-up tension and frustration, allowing us to gain clarity on our emotional state!

Additionally, creative pursuits like painting, writing, or playing a musical instrument provide a safe space for self-expression. They enable us to channel complex emotions into art, music, or words, helping us make sense of our feelings and gain insight into our inner world. By incorporating physical activity and/or creative outlets into our daily lives, we can foster emotional resilience and find balance in navigating the ups and downs of our mental health journey.

     Seek help for the big stuff: Find someone (a coach or therapist) who can witness and validate our emotional experiences. This is significant because the mirror neuron exchange allows for emotional integration, emotional regulation, and healing to occur.

Working with a professional will also give you a chance to practice conveying the more difficult emotions that ultimately you need to be shared with someone else.

But look out for the “Avoidapist”

Avoidapists are mental health professionals who do not allow their clients to fully express their emotions for fear that their own trauma might be triggered. We’ll dive into this topic in our next article.

Conclusion

As we are raising in consciousness on Earth, doing our individual inner work of recognizing, processing, and integrating our emotions is essential.  Keeping in mind that that this is a major cultural paradigm shift and it won’t happen overnight.  We are laying the foundation for the generations to come to be able to experience and express life in their full humanity.

To learn more about the research on emotions, check out Dr. David Hawkins’ book “Power vs Force” which demonstrates how emotions carry specific frequency vibrations and are charted on a Map of  Consciousness.

Resources:

(1) Trauma

(2) Spiritual Bypassing

Download the Feelings Wheel & Worksheet

Check out our integrative mental health courses!

Learn to overcome emotional avoidance in our upcoming mini-course. Email us to be added to the waiting list.
Blog Post written by:

Dr. Nickerson's professional experience as a psychologist and personal passion for developing the mind-body-spirit connection have fueled her success and devotion to training individuals and organizations to foster whole wellness.

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