Emotions can be painful. Some can be so painful that we naturally try not to feel them. For instance when we lose someone very close to us, the first stage of grief is denial. Under normal conditions, this is helpful and temporary. However, sometimes people may develop extreme strategies to attempt to keep painful emotions such as grief, shame or anger at bay and out of our awareness.
One may unknowingly develop problem behaviors which
distract from the emotions - but at a cost.
It takes something fairly strong to keep from feeling an emotion. Numbing is unnatural. An emotion’s job, so to speak, is to get out. That is, to be expressed and motivate action. As my mom once told me, there's more room outside than inside. Maybe this is what is meant by the title of the movie Inside Out (which I recommend for people of all ages). Emotions need to move from inside to out. This natural emotional urge does not subside easily. It takes strong counter motions such as behaviors that are dangerous, compulsive, or self-injurious or strong internal states such as hunger or fullness to numb an emotion. Sure, these actions work but then they can become compulsive or addictive and take on a life of their own.
These behaviors just bring their own set of negative emotions digging
oneself deeper and deeper into the seduction (lie) of numbing.
One negative consequence of avoiding emotions is that even the avoidance can become habitual. Then, as Brene Brown says, all emotions, even the positive ones, are at risk of being numbed.
Then why do we attempt to numb our emotions? Of course the obvious reason is to avoid pain. Another reason that people numb their emotions is because they don't believe they can handle them. They fear that they will lose control. When I hear someone express this fear, I talk about a pressure cooker. Like with the old pressure cookers, when the lid was tightly attached, the pressure inside increased rapidly. It seemed as if it would explode if the lid was taken off. There was a valve which allowed the steam to be released and what actually happened, is that the pressure dissipated when the lid came off. The phrase "letting off steam" actually originated in relation to steam engines and it's basically the same concept.
It applies to emotions as well. If the emotions' purpose is to get out, pressure will build up until it does. It's best to allow it out by intention. Otherwise, they will come out in a burst or sideways in the development of other problems.
If you fear that you can't handle your emotions and that you need to avoid them, it may be because you are looking at the events though a lens of shame.
Shame is an unbearable emotion which makes us feel like we are bad or unworthy. We are most susceptible to developing shame when we are small and our brains aren't fully developed. All young children are naturally egocentric since their brains haven't yet developed the ability to put themselves into other people's shoes and think abstractly. So if something bad happens, children tend to think it's their own fault. Then even if our situations improve and our brains develop we may already be wired to feel shame It is wired in so to speak and feels natural even when we know better. I've written previously that there is no place for shame so it is best to learn to turn your mind from shame. I've also written that shame should not be confused with guilt which can be useful.
What would happen if you looked back at painful memories through the eyes of grace, compassion and kindness?
What if you looked at yourself as someone who is human - recognizing that all people make mistakes?
What if you recognized that bad things happen to good people and owned it?
What if you looked at the memory with the same attitude that you would listen to someone sharing a similar memory with you?
You would still see the same memories but from such a different lens. And I believe that you would grow in the confidence that you can handle your emotions, even the unpleasant ones.
In my next post, I'll talk about some of my favorite strategies for increasing your skill to deal with negative emotions.
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