Emotions are a vital part of what makes us human. Emotions are powerful and can be scary at times. They need to be dealt with. Sometimes, emotions become overwhelming, and we push them away. The problem is that they become more prominent and harder to control. This is called emotional avoidance.
Emotions, both good and bad, are a part of life
Feeling vulnerable or emotional at times is normal and healthy, although it may not feel like it at the time. We naturally want to avoid pain, suffering, and other unpleasant emotions and feelings. Ignoring the problem can feel more manageable and better than confronting it head-on and facing difficult emotions and the fallout they can cause: cue emotional suppression or avoidance.
Why we avoid our emotions
As we continue to avoid emotions, it can become difficult to stop. Some of the reasons why we avoid or repress our feelings include the following:
- Being told as children that having and acknowledging negative emotions is a bad thing
- Avoidant personality disorder
- A traumatic event
- Being exposed to stop being negative
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
A 2020 study, “Investigating the role of negative and positive emotional avoidance in the relation between generalized anxiety disorder and depression symptom severity,” found that one of the factors linking GAD and depression may be avoidance of both positive and negative emotions. “Greater GAD severity was associated with greater positive emotional avoidance which, in turn, was associated with greater depression symptom severity.”
A coping mechanism from childhood
While many children use emotional avoidance as a coping mechanism when they have no other coping skills, continuing to ignore emotions can lead to them continuing to use it as their primary coping mechanism as adults. Psychology Today links emotional avoidance to childhood emotional neglect, which happens when parents do not respond to the emotional needs of their children.
Emotional avoidance vs emotional suppression
Emotional suppression avoids negative emotions, whereas emotional repression or avoidance is a defence mechanism. Avoiding select emotions is unhealthy. No matter how hard we try, whatever we avoid will return. Ignoring the uncomfortable aspects of your life can also mean you ignore essential parts of your life.
For example, you avoid breaking up with someone because you do not want to go through the breakup. Or avoiding dealing with your taxes as they are giving you anxiety. The unpleasant feelings will stay and can fester and grow until you face them head-on.
What emotional avoidance looks like
Emotional avoidance can create negative consequences. For example, you avoid breaking up with someone because you do not want to go through the breakup. Or avoiding dealing with your taxes as they are giving you anxiety. The unpleasant feelings will stay, and can fester and grow until you face them head-on.
Consequences of emotional avoidance can include:
- Procrastinating essential life goals to avoid feeling anxious or inadequate
- Overusing substances to avoid feelings of loss or grief
- Not setting boundaries with family or friends to avoid feelings of guilt
- Not engaging in meaningful conversations to avoid feelings of intimacy
“Bad” emotions are meant to protect us
Emotions that we associate as “bad,” such as anxiety, fear, and sadness, are there to protect us and help us process our feelings. While it is customary not to want to process these emotions to live a healthy, balanced life, all the emotions and feelings we experience need to be felt.
Talk to a counsellor in a judgment-free environment
If you have been avoiding your feelings and emotions, you may feel like they don’t matter and that your peers and family will judge you for these emotions. Processing your feelings after avoiding them can be difficult and emotionally draining, but ultimately, you will feel lighter. A registered clinical counsellor provides a judgment-free zone where you can safely process your emotions with the help of a trained professional. If you are feeling overwhelmed, drained, or anxious, knowing that this will pass, processing your emotions is part of the process towards feeling better.