Accepting Unwanted Emotions

Emotions: according to the dictionary, the definition of an emotion is, “a conscious mental reaction (such as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body”.

But emotions serve us in a variety of ways.  For example, they give us valuable messages (e.g., fear in an unsafe situation), reveal how important something is to us (e.g., you have stronger emotions in your romantic relationship than you do when you’re shopping for cereal or having a casual conversation with a stranger), and prompt us to act (e.g., you stroke a partner’s face with love or turn away from spoiled food in disgust).

But the story of emotions is a bit more delicate and complex, as it isn’t simply about what we feel in response to what happens around us.  We tirelessly size up our inner world and place value judgments on it.  Depending on the circumstances we’re in and the messages we’ve received along the way about what we’re allowed to feel, emotions (or at least certain ones) may get tagged as acceptable, healthy, or reasonable, or they might get labeled as wrong, crazy, or threatening.  For instance, researchers at the University of Oxford highlighted the following categories of disapproving beliefs when it comes to painful emotions:

  • Emotions are too powerful and can’t be managed.

  • Emotions are bad and/or ridiculous.

  • Emotions are defective and make no sense.

  • Emotions are unproductive.

  • My emotions could sabotage me or other people.

  • My emotions might spread to other people and I can’t let that happen. 

What’s thorny about this is that if we have a negative outlook on our emotions, we’ve got a whole new load to carry—we’re more likely to have another negative emotion layered on top of the one we’re already experiencing.  The emotions we have about how we feel are known as meta-emotions.  For example, let’s say we see sadness as a sign of personal weakness and inadequacy.  Because of this viewpoint, we might feel shame or fear in response to our sadness.  And it’s not just uncomfortable emotions that get a bad rap.  People can feel nervous about pleasant emotions too.

Our ideas about our emotional life don’t just impact how we feel about our emotions, but the steps we take to respond to them as well.  To illustrate, let’s stay with our example of sadness.  We regard it as a signal that we’re weak and defective in some way, and this idea stirs up intense shame. The big question now: What do we do with all of this?  Considering that we’re treating sadness as intolerable and we feel ashamed of it, we’re relatively unlikely to talk about it with someone else, to be kind to ourselves in the face of it, or to allow ourselves to feel sad and see what happens.  No, instead we’re probably going to be more inclined to react to sadness in other ways, such as:

  • Mentally beating ourselves up for feeling it

  • Racking our brains over why we feel this way and why we can’t get over it and feel happy like everyone seems to feel

  • Trying to cover it up when we’re around other people

  • Self-medicating with alcohol or other substances

How we choose to respond to our emotions also has an impact on how we feel and on our quality of life.  If we criticize ourselves all the time, that harsh voice gets stronger and we’ll continue unintentionally manufacturing more shame.  We could mull over why we feel the way we do and question why we can’t make it go away, but this approach is more likely to leave us feeling even worse.  If we try to hide our sadness and mask what feels so unspeakable, we’re liable to bear the cost of this strategy, experiencing more distress, less comfort, and more detached relationships.  And although we can try to escape through alcohol and other substances, this opens the door to use disorders and other problems.

There are a variety of other ways in which rejecting what we feel sets the stage for giving us more of the very thing we don’t want.  For instance, when people are scared of emotions, this forecasts difficulty managing anger, feeling more upset, drawing from pleasant memories to feel better, and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Moreover, people who view uncomfortable emotions as bad are also less likely to be empathic toward themselves.  And the idea that painful emotions are hazardous is related to lower odds of naming such emotions for one’s children, a valuable step in emotional skill-building. 

So if it doesn’t serve us to treat our emotions as off-limits, what’s the alternative?  When we accept distressing emotions as being a universal, natural part of life, it’s ironically linked to experiencing them less and, in the long run, having better emotional health.

But why might this be?  Why would accepting the emotions we don’t want generally be connected with them dwindling rather than growing?  Researchers have proposed several possible explanations:

  • Rumination can make people feel worse, and individuals who accept upsetting emotions don’t tend to ruminate over them as much.

  • Efforts to avoid what a person feels can go awry and have a boomerang effect, furnishing them with more of what they tried to push away.

  • Individuals who accept their emotions may be spared an extra layer of emotional pain by not having to feel upset about feeling upset.  

  • Disquieting emotions that we meet with acceptance are less likely to have as much staying power.

Acceptance is a mindset, an approach of giving ourselves permission to experience our emotions and taking the perspective that they’re human rather than silly, weak, crazy, wrong, dangerous, or beyond our power to ever be able to manage.  It’s about challenging that self-critical inner voice that says we can’t feel what we do, or that an emotion will harm us or be a badge of our inherent fault or shame.  Acceptance is about giving ourselves the space to listen to ourselves in a nonjudgmental way.  


Read the full article on Psychology Today.


If you live in the Los Angeles or Westlake Village area and are interested in therapy, I invite you to contact me via email at: tanyasamuelianmft@yahoo.com . I provide a complimentary consultation. Check out my services to see which one might fit your needs. Contact me now to see if we might be a good fit to work together! Or book your appointment here!

Attachment Styles & The Effects on our Relationships

Many psychotherapists (including myself) believe that our adult personalities are unconsciously planted in our childhood experiences. And the way we relate to others, too, seems to be established in our very first relationships—typically with our parents. From the way our caregivers meet our emotional needs in early life, we develop social coping habits that collect into something called an “attachment style”—a pattern in the way we relate to others. A healthy attachment style might serve us well, fostering solid self-esteem and positive relationships, but an unstable one might hold us back from forming functional relationships.

Attachment theory isn’t talked about as often today. However, we all have something to learn from knowing our attachment style: The first step is knowing if you have an insecure attachment style, and, if so, what kind. The second—and this is the tough part—is changing it. Stepping into the unconscious mind isn’t intuitive or easy, but it’s not impossible—and it can reform the way you approach relationships going forward.

Here are a few examples:

You may have been single for some time and wonder why. Or you may be a serial dater who enters relationships falling hard in the first few months—only to cool down and lose interest. You may yearn for love but find yourself staying home binge-watching Game of Thrones. You may have found the perfect partner but get so in your head that it’s impossible to enjoy dinner with them. Perhaps you have been in a long-term relationship but feel unfulfilled, and no matter what they do, you can’t seem to trust your partner. If any of these scenarios apply to you, you may be mimicking feelings that were established when you were in diapers.

Do any of those sound familiar? Many of the fears, beliefs, and behavioral patterns you present as an adult are derived from how you felt in the first few years of life. Our thoughts and actions are shaped by the way you were attached to your primary caregivers.

Attachment theory is useful and relevant especially in identifying insecurities and detachments that affect our general well-being. There are three main types: anxious, avoidant, and secure. Of course, there’s a lot of individual variability, but most people tend to identify with one of these types.

Anxious

Anxiously attached people require a lot of attention. They never seem to be satisfied with the amount they are receiving and consistently want more, a need driven by the devastating fear that they are not good enough. They often compare themselves with others and strive for perfection.

It is almost impossible for an anxiously attached person to fully trust anyone, and so they make a mess of romance and friendships. They are often suspicious, scared of being betrayed, and predisposed to meddling in the affairs of others. If you don’t text them back within an hour or two, they tend to take it personally; they believe that something is wrong, feel annoyed, or worry they have offended you in some way.

People that are anxiously attached are waiting for the other shoe to drop. They may constantly be on the verge of breaking up with their partner or friends, but they don’t go through with it because they don’t want to be left alone. Does it remind you of anyone?

Avoidant

These people often seem indifferent and unaffected by even the most turbulent of relationships. They keep their emotions closed off and don’t engage too deeply in love.

It feels unsafe for avoidants to show who they are; they’re often dealing with self-doubt and uncertainty. They busy themselves with a wide array of useless tasks in order to place distance between themselves and others. They are often workaholics who have little time to socialize with friends, and they even have a tendency to neglect their spouses and children. Avoidants are masters of self-soothing, which often leads to reliance on unhealthy obsessive patterns around substances, exercise, and food.

People who are avoidant may yearn for a loving connection but find themselves running from scenarios where they are asked to commit—in the face of real intimacy, they become uncomfortable and tend to slip away when things get serious.

Avoidants are encased by an unconscious fear that they will be abandoned and rejected and therefore they do not allow themselves to get too close. Unfortunately, this can lead to loneliness, a sense of disconnection, and pessimism.

Secure

Those who are securely attached find the joy in friendships and intimate partners and are not afraid to let it all hang out. They have a balanced and healthy ego—for the most part—and believe in themselves and the vitality of companionship. They seek partners who are also healthy and have a low, well-balanced center of gravity, which allows them to take risks without the fear of failure.

When a securely attached person is paired with an anxious or avoidantly attached person, he/she can tell right away that something is amiss. This does not mean that relationships do not exist between these groups, but if they do, they are often short-lived and unfulfilled. Securely attached people sometimes have a blind spot that prevents them from understanding what people with insecure attachments are coping with. They are the fortunate ones who had parents who showed the correct amount of love for them. This is the primary difference: Avoidants and anxious types did not receive what they needed to feel fully safe.

What next?

We can’t go back and change the details of the first years of life, but there are a few things that can be done to heal these wounds. I encourage you to seek out the help of a therapist. Therapy can be immensely helpful in healing old wounds, shifting your perception of yourself and the people around you, and allowing you to feel safe.

If you live in the Los Angeles/Westlake Village area and are interested in therapy, I invite you to contact me via email at: tanyasamuelianmft@yahoo.com . I provide a complimentary consultation. Contact me now to see if we might be a good fit to work together! Or book your appointment now!