We are wired to move away from pain as a means of protecting ourselves and increasing our chances of survival. For example, if we burn our hand on a hot stove, the pain we feel informs us to keep our hands away from hot stoves in the future. In this way, pain is a helpful way of learning what we should avoid. However, problems can develop when we try to avoid emotional pain in the same way. Our emotions are like an internal compass that helps orient us to where we are, where we want to go, and how to get there. When we avoid this emotional compass because it is painful, we can start to feel lost and unable to navigate life with ease.
Let’s consider the example of Diana who was ‘burned’ in her relationship. After several years with her partner, she found out that he was leaving her for the other woman. Diana tried to avoid the deeply painful emotions this caused by keeping busy, focusing on positive aspects of her life, and telling herself she was better off without him. Diana decided that she would not be as vulnerable in her future relationships to reduce the risk of getting hurt again. Over time, Diana started to feel lonely, hopeless, and irritable. She had difficulty sleeping and finding pleasure in activities she used to enjoy. She didn’t recognize these signs of depression and thought she just needed to get out and socialize more. However, when she tried to meet people, she noticed feeling restless, uncomfortable, tense, and her mind would race. These signs of anxiety made it difficult to be with others even though that is what she longed for. As time went on, Diana forgot why she started keeping others at a distance in the first place. She felt lost and confused, having disconnected from her emotional guidance system. In order for Diana to resolve her symptoms of depression and anxiety, she needs to reconnect to the painful emotions that were caused by her past relationship. Through reconnecting to these old emotions, she can work through them and integrate new learnings to take with her into her relationships that make her feel safe while not having to keep others at a distance.
You might wonder how we avoid our emotions – aren’t they something that just happens inside of us? Or you might believe that you are in touch with your emotions of anxiety and depression and that doesn’t seem to help. We can often mistake the ways we avoid our feelings with our emotions. For example, symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and addiction, are ways we unconsciously cover over our feelings. We can also use a variety of defense mechanisms that automatically ward off our feelings and prevent us from seeing reality clearly. In Diana’s case, she used distraction (keeping busy) and ways of thinking (focusing on the positive and telling herself she is better off). Because defenses disconnect us from the whole of reality, we are unable to respond in adaptive ways (Frederickson, 2013). As a result, we are unsuccessful at reaching our goals and experience an increase in negative feelings. When we no long see reality clearly, we cannot develop flexible coping strategies to solve the problems we are experiencing.
We are often unable to notice the ways we are avoiding our emotions because these avoidance strategies become habits that fall out of our awareness. This is where therapy, and especially ISTDP, can help. In Diana’s case, we might ask her how she felt towards her husband for leaving her. When Diana uses her strategies of thinking, this will be gently pointed out as a way she covers over her feeling. In this way, Diana can start to become aware of the way she distances herself from her emotions. She can then choose whether to continue using her avoidance strategies, or to face the truth of how she feels.
If you would like help in understanding how you feel underneath symptoms of distress, or how you avoid your emotions, feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute consultation. ] Reference:
Frederickson, J. (2013) Co-Creating Change: Effective Dynamic Therapy Techniques. Seven Leaves Press.