What is the difference between avoiding our feelings and dwelling in despair? Will we get lost if we let ourselves feel too bad for too long? What is challenging about staying with ‘positive’ emotions like joy and pride? I explored my personal experience, professional training, work with clients, as well as a survey of people in my community to find out about their experiences with strong emotions.
Common events such as breakups, accomplishments, moving or job stress can bring up a lot of strong feelings such as loss, shock, joy, relief and excitement. If we don’t make space to address these feelings in the moment, they can become somaticized or held in the body. This can create more complicated challenges like illness or a feeling of tightness or stuck-ness, even if the feelings are positive! Other times we might feel like we have no choice but to deal with deep emotions that are filling our consciousness. Sometimes we might be running away and not even realize it.
Signs you may be avoiding important feelings:
- Obsessive thoughts
- Patterns of negative thinking
- Suddenly speeding up activity, work or movement
- Blaming others or situations without looking at your part in the dynamic
- Frequent triggers (people, places and senses like images or smells that send the nervous system into a panic)
- Somatic symptoms such as loss of breath, tension in the occiput (upper neck), aching in the heart, sore lower back or other areas of the body
Trauma and Emotions
Trauma is an experience that overwhelms us because we feel powerless. It is an experience that feels very dangerous or even near death. Sometimes we experience feelings from traumatic or overwhelming events that we or those around us don’t have the resources with which to respond. The impact of trauma varies greatly depending on whether someone helps or comes to our aid during and after. People who have survived trauma are left wondering, how could something like this happen? And, worse, how could no one have helped me? These feelings are a normal response to a variety of events from loss of people, places or animals you love, family wounds from childhood, community violence such as transphobia and racism, and experiencing physical, emotional or sexual abuse.
Sometimes, overwhelming feelings from the past will surface at seemingly random times. This is because we are often left to address the impacts of these traumatic events later in life when we have more resources and support. It feels like everything is going great then all of a sudden there are feelings of being overwhelmed with anger, fear or deep sadness. Many of my clients describe fear of past grief, anger, shame, helplessness and confusion taking over their lives and consuming them like a tidal wave. Or if they step toward their feelings, they’ll end up drowning in an abyss. Grief that comes up “all of a sudden” or when good things happen signifies feelings we didn’t have the space, safety or support to feel when they originally presented themselves.
Because of evolutionary wisdom, the aftermath of any painful or traumatic event can leave us protecting ourselves from being hurt again repetitively. If you smelled gasoline during a car accident, the smell signals danger every time you fill up your car with gas. If a person who harmed you wore cologne, the smell of cologne signals a threat. This goes back to animals learning how to survive in their unpredictable environments. There is great genius to this instinctual form of self-preservation; however, there can also be a great cost when later on the smell of gasoline or cologne sends our nervous system into a panic when you are actually safe.
When we are experiencing residual pain from such horrific experiences, it is easy to forget that, in most cases, the worst is over and that we have survived mostly intact. Systematic oppression, like ablism and fat-phobia, are ongoing traumas and so grief is a perpetual response, yet we can increase our resilience through coping skills and support.
There are many negative ideas in mainstream culture about connecting with our inner selves and feeling our feelings. Taking time with ourselves is often labeled as ‘self-indulgent’ or ‘wallowing,’ and yet the cost of avoiding our feelings can actually be dangerously high. Certain feelings may have been punished or ignored in our families of origin due to adults inability to be with themselves in their full range of feelings. If we avoid important feelings in the long term, entire relationships may be built on the imbalance of avoiding certain feelings.
Some examples are resentment about the impact of someone struggling with addiction in a relationship, feelings of betrayal after an affair, grief about the impact of an illness or change in ability of someone within a family, or anger toward a non-offending parent for not protecting them from abuse by another person. After enough time has passed, facing those feelings means fear of losing the relationship altogether. The alternative is losing connection to oneself through denying the feelings that have not gone away. Instead feelings may be played out through constant bickering, depression, withdrawal or sabotage.
Consequently, there is almost always a significant loss of intimacy and honesty with oneself and with others because what we really think and feel is kept hidden. If this happens for a long enough, avoiding feelings can turn into a widespread denial within ourselves that we have feelings at all. On a habitual level, this pattern can turn into a deadening or flattening of the depth and variance that makes us human! This is no small price to pay. We also lose some of our capacity to feel all the wonderfully positive feelings that come from being in love, receiving support from friends and family or witnessing the beauty in the world around us.
When grief and other painful feelings remain unresolved, we risk repeating unhealthy patterns for entire lifetimes or even multiple generations. Some people describe pain, anger, dis-empowerment and sadness that is so strong that it feels as if it goes back to their parents or grandparents or even perhaps all the way back to their ancestors. It’s true that it can be very difficult to face the range of our feelings and experiences and, like anything else, takes practice to do it well. There is also a big difference between replaying a story or thought in our minds that produces a negative feeling versus staying with a naturally arising sensation or emotion in the body. You will find some tips at the end of this article about how to connect and stay with yourself even when it’s challenging.
Philipe L. Harrington, MFT works with queer, trans & poly individuals and couples who are longing to embody the transformation we need to create social justice.
Through somatic and expressive arts therapies, Philipe’s clients heal once useful, yet ultimately limiting, patterns of protection from trauma and social inequality. Philipe supports people to access more choices, creativity, and skills for personal wellness and collective liberation.
Thanks to Mar Ruggeri, Sabeen Shaiq, LCSW, Andrea del Moral, Sarah Jones, ourania n. tserotas, Debra St. John and Tuesday Feral for your contributions to this article.