Have you ever had the experience of feeling something under your skin or in your emotional background that is rumbling or seems a bit uneasy, but you don’t want to look at it, and instead you find yourself eating more chocolate than usual, or binge-watching shows on Netflix, or constantly checking your social media?
We all spend a certain amount of energy in avoidance behaviors - specifically trying to avoid feeling some of our emotions. Avoidance is an amazing human ability and is necessary for us to function in the world. If you feel angry about something at home, it is not helpful if you are raging while at work. If you are experiencing sorrow, sometimes you have to push through the desire to lie down and weep because you have to take care of things in your daily life. Avoidance of emotions can be adaptive and is necessary.
However, many of us spend a great amount of energy unnecessarily avoiding emotions, primarily because we are afraid to feel what we feel. Often, our fear of our emotions is greater than the reality of feeling them. Sorrow, as an example, can be scary to think about. We may avoid sorrow fearing that we will fall into a dreary abyss and never reemerge. Sorrow is heavy and can color the way we view the world. But usually if we allow ourselves our sorrow, it will move through us in a matter of time - sometimes hours or days. True, we won’t be bright and cheery, but it is possible to feel sorrow and still show up for your life.
Emotions are ever changing, always moving. If an emotion is stuck, there may be something going wrong, a way in which it is being held onto. Sometimes the act of avoiding an emotion causes it to hang on much longer than it would otherwise, gnawing at us until we finally give it space. We often act out more when we are denying ourselves an emotion - we will suddenly say something mean to someone close to us, or engage in behaviors including eating or drinking that make us feel worse. While avoidance behaviors can be necessary, it is important to allow yourself some time - even if it’s just a few minutes - to feel what you are feeling. It’s also important to allow space for expression - maybe crying, punching pillows, writing in a journal, or addressing a situation that needs resolution. Pretending the feeling isn’t there doesn’t make it go away.
There are times when emotions are truly too overwhelming to handle on your own. This could be the case with trauma, in which the anxiety, fear and despair seem to be too much. Grief is another emotion that takes a much longer time to work through, with time being one of the greatest healing factors. Our culture does not allow much time for grieving so often people feel pressured to get over it, rather than move through it - a process which is slow and contains so much emotion. Therapy is a great place to explore overwhelming emotions. With a good therapist, you can go into a rough emotion in the presence of someone who will help you touch the depths and help you to leave the room resourced - something that can be tricky to do on your own.
Whatever it is, if you find yourself in avoidance behaviors, check in with yourself. What are you feeling? What are you avoiding? Try to make space for yourself to just feel what you feel.