Audio: Avoiding Our Feelings Backfires
Transcript: Avoiding Our Feelings Backfires
Finally, before we get to work on actually reducing distress, on making happiness, a brief introduction to a very big, very important challenge we face. I’ve explained that our attempts to avoid intrusive feelings backfires and leaves us feeling worse. Unfortunately, we actually organize our lives around avoiding these intrusive feelings. We have a wide range of strategies that we use, and in each case the result is the same. We get some relief, some feeling good through avoiding the feeling, but in the long run it leaves us feeling worse. Beyond that, our avoidance strategies contribute to those around us feeling worse as well, particularly our partners and our children.
So to become happier it is extremely valuable for us to discover, and refrain from, our own particular patterns of avoidance. I’ll describe some of the more popular ones.
First, we can avoid situations that are likely to trigger the intrusive feeling in the first place. With experience we learn when we are likely to feel distress, so we can just avoid those situations. If I’m afraid of flying I can avoid flying. If I’m afraid of speaking to groups, I’ll try to get out of it. If I want to avoid the emotional pain of rejection I won’t take the risk of becoming emotionally involved. If I want to avoid feeling embarrassed I won’t risk putting myself out there. Of course the cost of these is that we make our worlds smaller, and don’t get to enjoy and experience the positive aspects of doing these things.
Another basic avoidance strategy is to try to suppress actually feeling the feeling in our bodies. We can ignore it, push it down, and clench our muscles against it. As research has shown, however, the feeling then comes back even stronger. The other problem is that other feelings, the good ones, get caught up in this suppression strategy as well, so we end up blunting our joy and excitement.
We can also create illusions of security. If I feel afraid I can buy a gun. If I’m afraid of poverty I can make lots of money. If I’m afraid of being abandoned I can rush to get married and insist on lots of reassurance from my partner. If I want to avoid feeling inadequate I can accumulate lots of status symbols. The problem, of course, is that these are illusions of security that don’t actually shield us from the intrusive feelings for very long.
Substance use is another very popular choice for avoiding feelings. Marijuana may soften your fear. Heroin will ease your pain. And cocaine will blow away your shame. But drinking is your best all-purpose bet, because fear, shame and pain all dissolve in alcohol. You’ll feel great! Until the hangover or withdrawal.
Along with these general strategies, we have specific strategies we use to avoid each of the intrusive feelings.
Fear, for example, often leads to us worrying, trying to anticipate and prevent bad things from happening. We may also become compulsive in checking that we are safe, triple checking that the door is locked. As we have already learned though, these actually fuel our fear, and waste our precious life energy.
For pain, remember that it includes feeling hurt, loss, sadness, longing, heartbroken, or grief. The most common source of pain we try to avoid is the emotional pain of loss or rejection in relationships. And the way we generally do that is by not getting too close, not being too vulnerable. If I don’t put my heart on the line, you can’t crush it. We are generally terrified of real closeness, of emotional intimacy, so we settle for relationships in which we get some of our desire for closeness met, but without risking too much. Either we maintain a certain emotional distance, or we become dependent and clingy, manipulating our partner into helping us feel secure. These avoidance strategies end up costing us the very thing that contributes most to happiness – close, caring relationships in which we can be ourselves.
And finally for shame, the sense that we are somehow bad or inadequate, we avoid this through all the things we do to bolster our egos, to reassure ourselves that “I am a good person”. This list is truly endless, and includes anything that we turn to for status, from the clothes we wear to the car we drive. It can include our achievements, and our children’s achievements. It can include how much money we have, and even how much money we have given to charity. Feeling that we are good also includes believing that the groups we belong to are good, whether my family, my team, my company, or my tribe. My religion or spiritual path must be good, and ideally I’ll believe it is the best. My state or country must also be good, and preferably the best. As every spiritual tradition has emphasized, however, trying to feel good by bolstering our egos is a trap. We can never accumulate enough points or status to stop intrusive shame. We can also never be truly comfortable being ourselves if we have to be maintaining an image. And we can’t be genuinely close to others if what we show them is an image rather than our imperfect humanness.