By Brenna Gonzales, MS, LPC, Therapist at Rio Retreat Center at The Meadows
In our culture, we’re taught that certain feelings are off-limits. There’s a general sense that if you’re not happy most of the time, you’re doing life wrong. We experience emotions for a distinct reason. They are a part of a system that helps protect us from what we should stay away from and decide what to approach.
Emotions also help us maintain lasting relationships with others. Our emotions are here to help us, not hurt us. When we practice emotional acceptance and listen to those feelings, we learn valuable information.
It can be challenging to deal with emotions that are painful, extreme, and scary. However, accepting our emotions can improve emotional regulation and balance, leading to better overall emotional health.
What Is Emotional Avoidance?
I went into my therapy and career becoming a therapist to rid myself and others of all those inconvenient and unpleasant feelings of fear and pain. Before I began my therapy, I didn’t even have words to describe what my therapist referred to as “feelings.” I didn’t understand why I’d want to acknowledge any of these feelings with terms that might allow other humans to understand what I was going through and see the real me.
After doing my best to avoid feelings in my therapist’s office for as long as he’d allow, I consented to his consistent redirection, “That’s not a feeling, that’s a thought.” When I started labeling my emotions, I discovered something quite shocking—it takes a lot less energy and creates less suffering just to feel them, and if you’re brave enough, to share them with someone else.
Upon deeper investigation, I began to understand that I’d neatly tucked away my feelings. I’d traded them in for a nicely organized chart of life experiences with many explanations and justifications to avoid ever experiencing those emotions. Later, I discovered this was called intellectualization, a distorted thinking pattern set up by parenting missteps from my significant caregivers.
Understanding Emotional Acceptance
I’ve also learned that each of the eight basic emotions offers us different gifts and emotional avoidance negates a unique part of the human experience. It turns out that while I was avoiding that pain and fear, I was avoiding joy, love, and passion, too.
Through my work at The Meadows, I’ve seen how much damage can be done while trying to avoid feelings. People practice emotional avoidance through various types of addictions and other unhealthy behaviors. Often, shame is a contributing factor.
As we try to medicate our feelings of shame and worthlessness, we create more shame—leaving us in a never-ending bind. By looking at our past, we can identify the messages we received about which feelings are “okay” and not and eventually learn to cope with them.
By learning to tolerate and accept feelings the way they are and not the way we want them to be, we allow ourselves to become more authentic. Therefore, we can practice emotional acceptance. The result is that we’re less prone to use those old methods of emotional avoidance and self-protection that landed us in a heap of trouble.
What Are the Primary Emotions?
Psychologist Robert Plutchik created the emotion wheel, defining the eight basic emotions as joy, trust, fear, sadness, anticipation, anger, and disgust. Each emotion is organized based on its psychological purpose. This framework helps clarify our emotions, which can oftentimes be mysterious or overwhelming.
Each primary emotion corresponds to a polar opposite on the wheel. For example, joy vs. sadness; fear vs. anger; anticipation vs. surprise; disgust vs. trust. Emotions can be extremely complex. It’s helpful to understand when an emotion is a combination of two or distinct feelings. The wheel also consists of tertiary feelings that are a combination of three or more emotions.
Each one of our basic emotions offers a distinctive gift. Even fear, pain, and shame—emotions we’re most likely avoiding—serve an essential purpose. Healthy fear lets us know that we’re in danger and should move to safety, keeping us alive. Pain may be one of the reasons you’re on this particular website, and it’s the primary catalyst for change.
Most people don’t enter a treatment program or make a significant life change without experiencing the pain first. Pain can be a real motivator, and sometimes, a good cry feels healing.
Healthy feelings of shame offer us containment. As Pia Mellody says, we only need enough healthy shame to keep us from running naked down the street. Experiencing our shame allows us to accept our mistakes and humanity. With those experiences, we can accept others’ mistakes without self-righteous victim anger or resentment bubbling up.
Most people don’t end up in treatment because of having too much joy, passion, or love. However, maybe you grew up in a family where these feelings were not acknowledged or expressed. Joy, passion, and love are the building blocks of relationships, and getting in touch with and expressing these three feelings can be a powerful experience and improve your mood almost instantly.
How to Improve Emotional Health
I’ve made friends with most of those eight basic emotions, and I’ve earned that the most uncomfortable feelings offer me the most significant lessons.
It can be challenging to accept our emotions when they don’t feel good or our instincts tell us to avoid them. However, persistent practice can help us become more accepting of those emotions. Mindfulness meditation and psychotherapy are also useful methods if you have trouble accepting emotions.
If you’re struggling to cope with your emotions, join us for one of our Survivors I and Survivors II Workshops. These workshops are designed to provide you insight into how your past impacts your present and reduces the reactivity and intensity of your feelings in your current relationships.