We live in a society that doesn’t fully understand emotions and that most often encourages us to push them aside in favor of “getting things done.” Ironically, what keeps us from getting things done or from even knowing what is most important to do and how to do it are the very emotions that we shove aside.
Emotions tell us what is really happening in our interactions with others. Handled skillfully they enable us to set boundaries, relate to others effectively, and connect to what is truly essential in our lives. In fact, according to author Karla McLaren, each particular emotion serves a very specific and indispensable function.
Yet, from our youngest years we’re taught to be wary of being too emotional. We’re taught that there are good emotions and bad ones. In most situations we’re taught that it’s best to “put on a happy face.” Only in special circumstances is it O.K. and justified to experience anger. We can be sad in certain instances, but not for too long. We should never focus on feelings of guilt or shame, we need to let go of fear and jealousy, and never ever feel hate. This is understandable given the suffering that the unconscious and unskilled expression of those feelings has caused throughout human history.
We associate anger and hate with discrimination, abuse, and violence. We associate sadness with depression. We associate jealousy with interpersonal conflict. We associate fear with repression. We associate apathy with not
caring. We associate our negative feelings with unskilled expressions of those feelings and therefore as a society we want to avoid them at all costs.
Curiously, not only is negative emotion to be avoided, but even positive over-exuberance is often just too much of a good thing. Except in certain situations where enthusiasm is encouraged, like at parties or sporting events, we are most often encouraged to be calm, cool, and collected, no matter how we’re really feeling inside.
Because of our uneasiness regarding emotions in general and negative emotions in particular, we train ourselves to be experts at three activities that keep our emotions at bay—distraction, avoidance, and addiction.
1. Distraction. We’re taught to distract ourselves from the time we are babies. Who hasn’t held up a cute stuffed animal and made silly sounds to distract a baby from crying? As adults, we continue to dissociate through distraction when we direct our attention toward entertainment, or work, or the many things on our “To Do List,” or anything other than what we are feeling at the moment.
2. Avoidance is a more deliberate refusal to acknowledge your feelings. You deny what you are feeling and repress it. Who hasn’t been asked about what an emotional reaction meant and said, “No, no, I’m fine. It’s nothing. I’m good.” The problem is that this eventually leads to emotional numbness and an inability to feel deeply except in extreme circumstances.
3. Addiction. Through addiction we habitually dissociate from one feeling by repeating a behavior that makes us feel another way. For example, we drink caffeine to dissociate from our fatigue, introversion, or sadness; we drink alcohol to numb our feelings of shyness, stress, anger, or pain; we exercise excessively to replace our feelings of inadequacy with strength and an endorphin high; or we eat compulsively to stuff down our feelings of loneliness. It’s not that any of these things are “bad” in themselves. It’s how we use them that make them helpful or harmful.
We all have our favorite dissociative activities and they are sometimes necessary. Sometimes we need a break from intense feelings or just aren’t able to process something at a given time. However, when dissociation becomes a chronic habit and we fail to take time to acknowledge and learn from our feelings that is a problem.
When you consistently fail to heed the messages of your emotions, you shut off the main communication system between what is truly happening in your life and your conscious awareness. You lose contact with your inner guidance and you fail to learn what you need to know to move through life challenges. You fail to connect with the inner wisdom that can tell you how to be healthier, happier, more integrated, purposeful, and alive. You cut yourself off from specific information about what is most important to do right now.
In our upcoming posts we’ll talk about some key principles to help us navigate our emotions and insights on what specific emotions are trying to tell us.
Until next time,
Stay tuned to your feelings,