Updated: Jun 5
I'm working with a client whose son recently died. She is in grief. She is mourning the loss of a part of her. She feels him with her, against her, his warmth, his familiar sounds. Her moments were filled with him. His needs. His growth. His learning. And she was filled by him. By her love for him, by his need for her, by the identity she constructed around being his mother, his caretaker. When she breathes, she smells him. She sees him all around her. She hears his tiny little voice. She feels the wisps of his fine, blond hair brushing against her skin. Even without him here.
In the pain, we are extracting its essence and foundation-- love. With the pain, she is learning to connect with the emptiness that is indicative of the space that her son occupied within her, that he will always occupy within her. With the pain, she is contacting and inviting it to teach her what it means to love-- to give of one's self and to risk being hurt. The depth of our pain is directly correlated with the depth of our love. If we squelch and suffocate the pain, we squelch and suffocate the love.
This blog is a tribute to what my client is touching as she explores the grief and pain of her loss. She doesn't want to feel what she's feeling. Of course. But she also doesn't want to choke the love that is underneath it or on the meaning that can be weaved with it. She sees its value, and is practicing allowing it without turning it into suffering by denying it; demanding it go away, end now, reach an end point before it's ready; judge it; or put it on a timeline. She is letting it be there, sharing what's there for her, seeking the support of others who can witness it, and gently stepping back into her life and activities that nourish and enliven her.
12 Reasons Why it is Important to Learn How to Avoid Avoiding Difficult Emotions
Emotional avoidance or pushing away of emotion is associated with a host of health problems.
When we avoid emotions we reinforce the belief or idea that emotions are bad or that discomfort is dangerous.
By pushing away emotion we often exacerbate the emotion that is present. What we resist persists. Think of a balloon that we keep filling and filling and filling without periodically allowing for some air to be released. Eventually the balloon will pop.
When we avoid emotion we stifle our ability to learn how tolerate pain and distress and witness our own vulnerability.
Chronic emotional avoidance can lead to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.
We limit our ability to be in the present moment. When we can understand and invite (rather than push away) what’s inside of us, we can more skillfully respond in the moment.
Emotional avoidance leads to procrastination. People who procrastinate do so to avoid feeling the discomfort that may arise during the completion of a specific task.
Emotional avoidance restricts us from experiencing intimacy with others and ourselves.
In relationship, if we lack the skills to tune in to our own experience with greater openness, it can feel like we’re constantly getting caught up in our own reactions, which disables our capacity to empathize or stay engaged. We may find that we often defend, stonewall, or shut down rather than stay “in” the conversation, discussion, or disagreement.
When we are skillful emotional navigators we can more easily transition from an unpleasant mood or attitude without avoiding what is there, but when the context calls for it to shift. I have moments of intense anxiety whenever I’m about to speak in front of others. If I try to fight it and believe that I shouldn’t be feeling that way, the intensity rises. But when I remind myself that it’s important to me, and normalize it, I feel different. When I remind myself that I can be human, same thing. The emotion isn’t bad or wrong; it just is, and it shows me that I want to contribute meaningfully. Importantly, shifting is not the same as avoiding. I'm acknowledging and recognizing it's there, that it's valid, and that it belongs. I will come back to it later perhaps, to explore its meaning.
By learning how to create a more welcoming or friendly relationship with our emotions, we can make peace with different parts of ourselves. Some of the emotions we experience can be indicative of a younger part of us that needs what they didn't receive at that age (i.e., comfort, love, validation, empathy). I have a client who in session recently was brought back to a childhood memory in which she was 6 years old and thought there was a little girl demon sitting in the corner of her bedroom. This happened at the time her parents were divorcing, and shared that there was a lot of fighting and conflict. When she shared how scared she was, she was met with, "Oh, get over it. You're too old to believe these things!" She experiences times now, when her body feels the same way it did then, and she's practicing approaching her inner child with the love and tenderness that she needed years ago.
Research shows that individuals who experience the full range of emotion (from unpleasant to neutral to pleasant) say they are generally happier. They experience more joy, a greater sense of contentment, and gratitude. Ironically, perhaps, when we are skillful emotional navigators we also experience more positive emotions. If we’re not constantly trying to push away and avoid the negative (which means our attention is on them), we have more space available to acknowledge when pleasant or expansive ones are present.
Before we conclude, I have to address the imperative here. These 12 reasons, which barely skirt the surface of the topic, may help you understand the why. They don't address how we may have come to understand that it was appropriate or necessary to avoid emotion, however. They also don't address how we can learn to validate and welcome emotion. Emotional avoidance is not the problem; the problem is what we learned through our experiences, starting in childhood, that this is what we need to do to be okay in our lives and the world.
If you are someone who recognizes that you often feel overwhelmed or incapacitated by emotion, or you see that you've developed very specific ways of protecting yourself from feeling that are undermining your quality of life and capacity for belonging, wholeness, agency, and fullness, please know you are not alone. And if you need someone to talk to, you know where to find me. Please reach out: email@example.com