In Part 1 of the Emotional Avoidance article, we talked about the ways in which we avoid or deny our emotions. In this article we will explain the ways that we have been taught to avoid or shun the emotions of others, ultimately preventing authentic connection in our relationships.
Included in this article you'll also find:
- A self-quiz for emotional awareness and avoidance.
- A mobile-friendly download offering an exercise for how to process your emotions and support others in their emotional processing.
How do we shun the emotions of others?
In our culture, we have developed very automatic and skillful ways to avoid, diminish or shun the feelings of others, while still saving face and holding the relationship intact.
Some will avoid friends and family members altogether if they know they are going through a difficult time, only to connect with them later when ‘things have settled down’ and the emotion has passed. Still others will gloss over feelings by:
intellectualizing, deflecting, hijacking, minimizing, fixing or spiritualizing them away.
These methods have been normalized in our society (we call them the 8 hats that block emotional connection) and are rarely challenged.
Here’s an example I’ve experienced and witnessed: a dear friend or family member passes, yet the emotional support given comes by way of a generic “Hugs” or “Sorry for your loss” in a text or social media post. “Sending you love and light” may feel okay to someone about to have a root canal, but it does not help someone in the depth of grief and despair.
What that person needs is a phone call or a visit (or your mere presence) so they can begin to integrate their sorrow. Anderson Cooper candidly talks about the decades that he carried his grief in silence (see link below).
Recently, I learned of a woman whose husband of 40 years had passed. She told me that she opted to not have a funeral ‘for fear of the emotions that would come up’, and she didn’t want to put her children in a position where they may be forced to acknowledge their sense of grief and loss. Yet doing so, enhances mental health and wellbeing. Alain de Bottom brilliantly explains that mental illnesses are really stored emotions that haven’t been acknowledged or found a way out. By recognizing and accepting these feelings, we promote self-compassion and a deeper connection with ourselves, leading to a more balanced and fulfilling life (see link below).
And another example (see if you can identify whether the messages I received were intellectualizing, deflecting, minimizing, fixing, hijacking or spiritualizing.)
When I had to suddenly put my sweet 17-year-old cat Pia down I was in shock. I could not express the extent of my heartache over her no longer being with me. My heart physically hurt. She had been my sidekick as we travelled by car to the 4 corners of North America over the decades. Her gentle healing energy will live in my heart forever.
These are some of the well-meaning messages that I received within 24 hours.
- Pia is in a much better place now. She is no longer in pain. You will see her again. (Intellectualize)
- Pia was a special gift in your life. Your souls were meant to provide support for one another for those 17 years. (Spiritualize)
- Pia will likely reincarnate in another cat form and come back into your life in the future. She sees your distress. (Spiritualize)
- I’m sorry for your loss. Hugs emoji. (Minimize/generic)
- I understand your pain. BTW, I saw a beautiful cat down at the shelter today that you would just fall in love with. (Deflecting, fixing)
- I understand. When I lost my Roxy last year, the hardest part was going to the clinic to pick up her ashes. Stay strong. (Hijacking)
- I am so sorry for your loss. Did you know that you can get her pawprint saved in clay, and keep it in her memory? This might help. (Deflecting, fixing)
- Even though words cannot describe the depth of your heartache, grief, and loss, I want you to know that I can see, feel, and honor your deep sorrow. The profound sadness that you feel is a tremendous pain in your heart and your soul. This pain you are feeling is real, just as was Pia's healing energy. (Emotional recognition and validation: the healing is now able to begin).
It felt like the first 7 messages downplayed or ‘slid over’ the extent of grief in my heart and mind. They may have been helpful later on AFTER the raw sorrow had been integrated.
I believe it is time that we as a human race can do much better than that to support others in difficult emotional situations. It is time to step up to the plate and stop running from our own emotions and shunning or bypassing the emotional wounds of others.
Why do we avoid the emotions of others??
Much like the reasons given in Part 1 of Emotional Avoidance, most of what compels us to avoid emotions is survival, comfort and ignorance.
Past trauma: People who have experienced past trauma may avoid the emotions of others because it triggers their own heavy emotions. They instinctively want to protect themselves from further pain or overwhelm. This avoidance not only impacts their own well-being, but most likely also depletes the quality of their relationships.
Social Anxiety: You don’t have to be diagnosed with a social anxiety disorder to feel awkward and afraid of behaving inappropriately with others. Sometimes the fear of saying the wrong thing causes us to say nothing at all. We avoid deep levels of social intimacy for fear of rejection or even humiliation. But this can backfire!
My friend told me about her neighbor who had just lost his young daughter to a freak head injury. She didn’t know the family well and was out of town when the funeral services were held. When she saw the neighbor several days later, she felt anxious, not wanting to express the overused, banal condolence, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” yet she couldn’t think of any other words. When she came face to face with him, she instead shrugged and said, “There simply are no words…”
To her surprise, the neighbor replied, “Sure there are! Words are powerful. You can think of something comforting to say.”
Later, my friend told me that she couldn’t imagine what he was feeling, that her own heart ached for his loss, and she prayed that the love he felt for his daughter would help carry him through his grief. (Wow! How comforted the neighbor would have felt had she shared what was in her heart!)
Emotional intelligence/availability: If you weren’t taught how to identify, express and respond to feelings in childhood, you may struggle to have emotionally healthy adult relationships.
Yet there are also those who have the tools, but simply choose not to use them. These people are usually not emotionally available to others.
In September, my dear friend and business partner of 24 years died of cancer. We had been through thick and thin together. During the 2-month process of watching her deterioration, I was having lunch with another close friend who knew that she was given only hours or days to live. My friend casually asked, “Briefly, how is Patricia doing?”
I paused in shock for a moment. Even if she had scraped the surface by saying, “I know it must be hard watching Patricia suffer.” “I am so sorry you are going through this. I know you have been friends for decades”, OR “I know you must feel so sad watching her suffer. Wendy, I am so sorry for your loss.” I would have felt a bit more supported. (see link below)
The consequences of avoiding our emotions
Avoiding emotions can have serious consequences on our mental and physical health. When we avoid or suppress our emotions, we are not allowing them to integrate into our being, ultimately creating a chronic state of dysregulation in our nervous systems. If we keep on suppressing our negative emotions, they get buried in our subconscious, which can lead to more severe mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, dysfunctional relationships, addiction, self-harm, and suicidal ideation. (Watch this mental health coach explaining their experience with emotions and panic).
Suppressing our emotions can also cause us to project or dump them elsewhere on innocent people if we’re not careful, or more notably our friends and family. Avoidance can be frustrating to others, and habitually using avoidance strategies can create conflict in relationships and minimize connectivity and social support. You may notice that in families that lack closeness and harmony, the only emotions that are acknowledged or expressed are frustration and anger.]
If you’re struggling with your emotions, it’s essential to seek help from a mental health coach or therapist who can help you navigate the complexities of your life. However, be sure to recognize the Avoidapist.
Yes, even some mental health professionals try to steer clear of having their clients express emotions, as they too don’t want to be triggered into their own painful unacknowledged emotional baggage. Avoidapist is a term coined by Jeff Brown, a Canadian author, and psychotherapist that refers to a therapist who avoids delving into the deep-rooted issues of their clients and instead focuses on surface-level problems. They may be afraid of confronting their own issues, which can hinder their ability to help others. Avoidapists are more comfortable in the shallows than the depths, and they can prevent you from the emotional integration that you need to heal your nervous system.
An example of this is when the therapist ends a session with a very visibly emotionally dysregulated traumatized abuse survivor with, Great session today. Have a nice weekend! What is the inherent message that is given to the client?
If you’re looking for a therapist, it’s essential to find someone who has walked the deep road and can accompany you on your journey. A good therapist should be able to take you as far as they have gone and help you navigate the complexities of your life. They should be able to provide you with the emotional support and integration to bring yourself back to a sense of wholeness.
WE EACH NEED TO DO OUR PART IN CREATING A MORE COMPASSIONATE WORLD AS WE WALK ONE ANOTHER HOME.