It is a natural human tendency to want to avoid, minimize, or eliminate painful feelings, thoughts, and experiences. We want to feel “good” and we don’t want to feel “bad.” For example, when people experience disappointment, loss, or tragedy, there is a strong temptation to move through it as quickly as possible and get back to “normal”. This might look like sweeping the feelings under the rug and refusing to talk about what happened.
Unfortunately, this can lead to many problems, because pain is an unavoidable part of the human experience. Additionally, avoidance delays the necessary process of engaging with the pain in order to move forward.
To put it another way, avoiding the feelings won’t make them go away. You might be able to temporarily set them aside or compartmentalize, but feelings that are not dealt with tend to grow and eventually come out in surprising and sometimes destructive ways.
The Social Construct of “I’m fine!”
There are lots of reasons why people want to avoid feeling “bad.” One of those reasons is that as a society we’ve bought into the myth that we should never feel bad, that painful experiences and emotions are unnatural. As a result of this belief, when the pain inevitably comes, people start to think there is something wrong with them and that no one else is struggling. This leads to another reason that people use avoidance: the misconception that everyone else has it all together. People don’t often or readily talk about the struggles they are experiencing so it’s easy to believe that most people have it easy and can’t relate to your painful experiences. Another reason people use avoidance strategies is that pain makes us feel vulnerable and weak. Vulnerability and weakness are viewed negatively in our culture so anything associated with them must be avoided. What are some reasons you use avoidance strategies?
Strategies Used to Avoid Tough Feelings
There are many avoidance strategies that people use. Keep in mind that not all avoidance strategies are negative. It’s when they are used to avoid dealing with difficulty that they can create problems. Additionally, some of these might work in the short-term but the long-term effects can be harmful to the individual and their relationships. Examples of avoidance strategies include keeping busy with work or hobbies. Another type of avoidance uses distraction, such as excessive use of smartphones, social media, or entertainment. People can avoid dealing with difficulty by making minimizing statements such as, “It wasn’t a big deal” or “Other people have it way worse; my problems are nothing compared to theirs.” Other avoidance strategies people use include substances like alcohol and drugs. Relationships can be another way to avoid dealing with difficulty. Again, relationships and social support can be helpful through difficulty but when they are used to escape difficulty they can become unhealthy. What are some avoidance strategies that you rely on to avoid dealing with pain?
When Changes Do Come
Painful experiences are a normal and unavoidable part of life. These experiences can be sudden and unexpected, such as an accident or a devastating diagnosis. They can also be expected, such as a move or other transition. They can last for days, weeks, and even years. The question is not if you will experience them, it’s when. How will you respond? Accepting that painful experiences and feelings will come is an important step in this process and will free you up to cope in healthy and helpful ways.
Healthy Approaches to Addressing a Wide Range of Emotion
I regularly remind myself, friends, family, and clients that “You have to feel it to heal it.” Allow yourself to feel the full range of emotions that an experience can bring, without judging those feelings. Take time every day to do check-ins with yourself. Google “feelings wheel pdf” and use that to identify what emotions you are experiencing and what’s causing them. This will increase your emotional awareness and help you identify what you need in terms of support and self-care. Talk to trusted friends and family. Write in a journal. Engage with a spiritual community if you think that might be helpful. Take care of your body with exercise, a healthy diet, and sleep. Take breaks when you need them, such as a day off work or having someone watch the kids while you take time to yourself.
Take Time to Process
Finally, don’t put a timeframe on how quickly you should return to “normal.” This puts unnecessary stress and pressure on you. Also, understand that you may end up with a new normal. This experience has the potential to grow and shape you, and that can be a really good thing. Talking with a counselor can be helpful in decreasing avoidance strategies, accepting difficulty, and learning healthy coping skills. I’d love to help you with that. Call me today!
Written by therapist Ndunge Marquardt
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