People are complex beings, shaped by our environment, our thoughts, emotions, personalities, and life experiences. Our emotional life is complicated and how we deal with those emotions can have a profound impact on our relationships and how we experience life.
Our rich and textured emotions – anger, love, joy, guilt, or fear – in all their various shades, aren’t always easy to manage. Sometimes, instead of embracing our emotions and how they help us navigate our world, it feels more comfortable to either minimize or avoid them altogether.
In some circumstances, being able to get things done requires blocking out one’s emotions when they become too much of a distraction. There is a big difference between this practical pause in addressing your emotions, and avoiding certain emotions as a rule because they feel uncomfortable and hiding or pushing away negative emotions as a coping mechanism.
When we push away or hide from our own emotions, it can have far-reaching negative consequences on our emotional, mental, and even physical well-being.
What is emotional avoidance?
Emotional avoidance is when a person experiences a negative emotion such as fear, sadness, shame, guilt, or anger, but they choose to either ignore or put off dealing with those emotions. A person may even avoid acknowledging that they feel those feelings or that anything is wrong because they are uncomfortable or even painful to deal with.
For instance, emotional avoidance may occur if you’re told that a beloved family member passed away, or if you find out that your spouse is cheating on you with your best friend. The unpleasant reality represented by these emotions is something that can be hard to deal with.
Emotional avoidance is a maladaptive coping mechanism, meaning that it’s an unhealthy way of dealing with difficult emotions. Some of the ways that people avoid dealing with negative and difficult emotions include unhealthy behaviors such as excessive consumption of alcohol, binge eating, exercising too much, or substance abuse.
In the short term, dealing with emotions in this way seems effective because the negative emotions subside for a while, but the emotions linger beneath the surface and affect you in surprising and often harmful ways.
Instead of avoiding these emotions, it takes courage and intentionality to face them in yourself and take appropriate action. Doing so not only produces resilience but is the path toward personal growth. These negative emotions have a role in our lives, and they can work for our good.
Signs and causes of emotional avoidance
Emotional avoidance can happen for several reasons, including the following:
Environment and upbringing. The family and home environment you grew up in shape you in many ways. Your culture or family may teach a perspective that certain emotions are to be avoided or left unexpressed. This sets the patterns for how you deal with emotions in life, including avoiding those emotions you don’t know how to cope with because dealing with them well was never modeled for you.
Traumatic experiences. If a person’s needs were invalidated, ignored, or neglected when they were a child, or if they were punished, ridiculed, or criticized for displaying and expressing their feelings, they may be more likely to avoid expressing or addressing their emotions as an adult.
Some of the signs of emotional avoidance include:
- Ignoring or pushing away negative thoughts and emotions.
- Being hyper-focused on your physical well-being and avoiding addressing your emotional or mental well-being.
- Trying to shift focus to the positive whenever negative emotions are expressed.
- Struggling to admit that things in your life aren’t going well or are harming you.
- While you have a good relationship with people, you may struggle with emotional intimacy and close friendships with others.
- Being irritable and “blowing up” because of pent-up emotions.
- Believing that negative emotions are bad, a sign of weakness, or embarrassing, and that they should not be expressed or displayed.
- Being convinced that you don’t struggle with negative emotions.
- Distracting from your negative thoughts and emotions through escapist behaviors such as playing computer games, drinking and substance abuse, binge eating, bingeing tv shows, or overworking.
- Not being comfortable being asked about how you feel.
- Putting on a front for others and not expressing any negative emotions.
- Struggling to tolerate and being uncomfortable with people who express negative emotions.
Emotional avoidance can affect relationships by making it hard to be real with each other about difficult things. Avoiding difficult emotions can result in conflict, which can fuel further avoidance resulting in the breakdown of the relationship.
Key steps to overcome emotional avoidance
One step to take to overcome emotional avoidance is to become more self-aware and mindful. It’s okay to give yourself a break from dealing with everything immediately. Sometimes you simply don’t have the capacity for dealing with everything that’s thrown in your direction. This is not a problem as long as you’re aware of and intentional about not dealing with things now but addressing them later.
Taking on a habit like journaling can give you an outlet to begin addressing these difficult emotions without external pressure, and they help you remain aware of what you’re feeling. Not only that, but journaling commits your thoughts to paper, and that can function as an accountability mechanism that can nudge you to address what you’ve written instead of ignoring it or pretending like it never happened.
You can also work toward finding the good in difficult or negative emotions. For instance, anger may be sinful, but righteous anger can be used to empower meaningful action to bring about change or even the sharpening of your boundaries. Practicing gratitude in all circumstances can help lighten even the foulest of moods and circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
It is also helpful to acknowledge and appreciate the role that all emotions play in your life. Our emotions help us navigate our world, and they let us know what’s going on around us and inside us. Fear can alert us to danger, and anger can alert us when our boundaries are being violated. Guilt may alert us to the fact that we’ve sinned against someone and need to repent.
All these emotions and more have their place in our lives, and appreciating that role goes a long way to overcoming emotional avoidance. Educating yourself about your emotions, how they affect your mind and body, and the role they play in your life is important.
Additionally, therapy can help deal with emotional avoidance. Several therapies are effective for addressing emotional avoidance. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective forms of therapy for addressing emotional avoidance, as it directly highlights the pattern of thought and behavior that are behind your emotions, addressing behaviors while disrupting unhealthy patterns of thought that produce poor results.
Another effective therapy is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT centers specifically on breaking down avoidance while helping you accept responsibility for your emotions. It emphasizes accepting yourself as you are, whether that’s perceived positively or negatively, and embracing these various aspects of yourself without fighting them or feeling guilty.
We are, as Psalm 139:14 (NIV) says, “fearfully and wonderfully made” and that includes our emotions. Sometimes, our experiences, circumstances, and the emotions and thoughts that accompany these aren’t pleasant or comfortable.
Instead of ignoring these, pretending they don’t exist, or minimizing them, the best option is to acknowledge them and address them. God has created us this way for a reason, and our overall health is best served by attending to what our emotions are telling us.
If you struggle to express or acknowledge your emotions, you can work to gain a healthy appreciation for them by seeking the help of a counselor. Contact me or one of the other counselors in our online counselor directory to schedule an appointment. Through various therapies the development of healthy coping mechanisms, you can cultivate a healthy relationship with your emotions, and flourish in your relationships with others.
“Palm Fronds”, Courtesy of Simmel, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Poppy”, Courtesy of Lukas Hellebrand, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Man in Profile”, Courtesy of Xavier Cee, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Shy”, Courtesy of Jonathan Mendoza, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
DISCLAIMER: THIS ARTICLE DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE
The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained on this article are for informational purposes only. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please contact one of our counselors for further information.