Over the last several we’ve discussed all the ways that we experientially avoid, including escape strategies and reassurance seeking, situational avoidance, somatic avoidance, cognitive avoidance, and emotion-driven behaviors. The last form of avoidance is emotional avoidance.
Emotions are evolutionarily adaptive states that motivate behavior. Every emotion has or has had some utility in the evolutionary past. The sensations and thoughts associated with an emotion will peak and pass within 90 seconds if we don’t add anything to them. After the initial surge of emotion, you can choose whether you want to keep the thoughts associated with that feeling going. Your thoughts will retrigger the sensations to keep that emotion going.
You only have the opportunity to choose whether you want to keep the emotion going if you are able to identify what’s happening. Many people do not have awareness of what’s happening to them when they are experiencing an emotion. The emotion feels like reality and the act to urge feels like the only option. It’s worth it to observe your emotional states and your urges to act in the presence of emotions so that you have the chance at more flexible behaviors.
The opposite of emotional avoidance is staying with emotions. Don’t just do something, sit there! When you choose to bring attention to and stay with emotion, you know you on the right track if you can feel the emotion pass within a minute or two.
Here’s an application of this process to the feeling of fear:
You feel fear as evidenced by a rapid heartbeat, sweating, feeling hot, sudden tension, or a sudden flip of your stomach. Your self-talk is: “This is fear. Fear is an emotion that peaks and passes. I don’t have to listen to the message of uncertainty associated with these sensations. I don’t have to add anxiety.”
With practice, if you don’t add to or analyze the anxious content, the sensations will pass quickly.
Emotional acceptance v. emotional dwelling
The difference between emotional acceptance and emotional dwelling is hard to identify by behavior but feels very different in terms of its emotional texture. When you engage in emotional acceptance, you expect the emotion compassionately, you refrain from judgment about the emotion, you observe it curiously in your body, and you let it pass without dwelling on the thoughts you have about it. When you engage in emotional dwelling, you hope that you will not have the emotion, you judge yourself for experiencing the emotion, and you dwell in the thoughts that the emotion creates as well as what the feeling means about you. Self-monitoring either on a daily basis or when you feel an intense emotion can help you identify what emotions are most common for you and what you are doing to keep it going.
Observing with an attitude of compassion and curiosity
Thus, when you go about observing your emotional states, your attitude and intention matter. Some part of you may feel very motivated and excited by the idea of observing your thoughts and feelings. If you have suffered a lot and felt stuck in your internal experience, making a plan can fill you with hope and efficacy. There might be another part of you who doesn’t want to observe what’s happening and would prefer to hide from yourself and others. Expect that. It is a normal part of the process.
Notice that you will retrigger yourself if you add fear, shame, or self-criticism to your observation process. The moment you are triggered is an opportunity.
You have the chance to use it for greater self-understanding and eventually, calmness, compassion, and connection.
This moment is also an opportunity for you to feel more fear, more shame, helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness.
The attitude with which you approach the task predicts whether you grow from this moment or experience more suffering.
Therefore, when you feel fear, shame, self-criticism or any other reaction that makes it hard to stay with the emotions as emotions, use your higher intelligence and redirect yourself back to the attitude and intention you chose. After all, your fear, shame, and self-criticism are also secondary processes. If you can redirect yourself back to the initial experience during those states, you are practicing well.
As an example, let’s discuss crying. Sometimes the behavior of crying facilitates emotional acceptance. Sometimes the behavior of crying causes people to dwell.
Crying as a behavior could be the result of many processes including:
- Sadness + no secondary process (lasts around 90 seconds)
- Sadness + Anger
- Anger + Helplessness
- Anxiety + Helplessness
Under what other conditions do you notice that you cry and what tends to keep crying going for you?
If you can’t cry, is sadness an area of emotional avoidance for you?
Questions for reflection:
- What emotional states are easy for you to identify and accept?
- In what emotions do you typically dwell?
- What challenges do you notice when you try to observe yourself with compassion and curiosity?