Many of the clients who I see in my practice seek support as a result of unknowingly avoiding some or all of their emotional experience. Avoiding a painful or confusing emotion works really well in the short-term. So well that it often comes as a shock to people when it is suggested that they try something different. In real life, avoiding emotion often looks like avoiding certain situations or people, not a particular emotion itself. It is only when people grow frustrated with the results of living their life within these very particular confines that they begin to question what is truly driving the avoidance. Throughout the process of psychotherapy, they can begin to explore what it feels like to approach an experience rather than avoid it. In doing so, great richness can be found in relationships, opportunities for growth and a compassionate, empowered sense of self.
Take the example of a client I am seeing. As a child, she was the victim of prolonged sexual abuse by one of her primary caregivers. In order to survive this horrific experience, it became adaptive for her to eliminate feeling. The emotions one naturally feels were disabled so that she could navigate the world around her. She describes how, as she matured, it was difficult for her to turn her emotions back on in relationships after they lay dormant for so many years. As a result, she felt unable to express her opinions, frustrations and desires to her partner. She found herself avoiding conflict and intimacy. Resentment and hopelessness grew.
In our sessions together, we work toward enhancing her ability to identify her emotions earlier in the “cascade”. For her, this has meant tuning in to body sensations and the “bristly” feeling she experiences as a cue that something is going on for her emotionally. She can now label the emotions that she feels and is working to be able to express them in a way that empowers her. Although this work was initially very frightening for her, bit-by-bit she was able to challenge the belief that “emotions are dangerous” and instead see them as an important part of her psychological landscape.
It can be very confusing to recognize that not only do we avoid painful emotional experiences, but sometimes avoiding pleasurable experiences becomes a habit as well. As can be the case with depression, positive emotions can seem very threatening and the fear of disappointment can drive people to avoid acknowledgment of their own strengths, building healthy relationships or taking care of themselves. Although for the short-term this can result in a sense of self-sufficiency and insulation against pain, in the long-term it can lead to isolation and suffering.
Psychotherapy combines helping clients to see how avoidance worked for some time and how it was adaptive in order to cope with a stressor or painful situation. We talk about how reasonable it is to develop some way of keeping it together. At the same time, we discuss how this habitual way of responding usually does not work over the long term. We talk about how emotions, although powerful, do not have to overpower. My hope is that by cultivating their ability to approach rather than avoid, clients learn how to integrate their emotional experience with their values and long-term goals.