There is a force on this Earth that is absolutely terrifying to most human beings. From the largest and toughest of men to the smallest among us, are in absolute terror of this one thing. I’ve seen people cower before it, and go to the greatest lengths possible to avoid this one thing. People have even taken their lives because of it, and because of their desperate need not to experience it. The thing that I’m talking about is human emotion and feelings.
Why are we, as a society, as a world, so terrified of feelings and emotions? Why have we gotten to a point where we are numbing ourselves in obscene ways to ensure we don’t have to go through the experience of feeling our feelings? In this article we are going to dive into just that; why are emotions so scary, how do we start becoming more in control of our emotions, and how do we develop a positive relationship with them, one that allows us to live the most fulfilling lives possible.
Why We Are Terrified of Feelings and Emotions
Over the last 5 years of working 1:1 with hundreds of people, and speaking to people all over the world, I’ve come to see a pattern when it comes to feelings and emotions. Throughout our lives, the majority of us have been taught that our emotions and feelings are bad, nuisances to be mitigated or even punished. As children, when we experienced emotions or feelings our parents did not know how to handle, they (not knowing the detriment of their actions, and not knowing how to handle their own feelings and emotions), did what they could to silence us into behaving the way they believed was proper. We would be sent to our rooms, sent to bed without dinner, maybe even physically spanked or punished, yelled at, or any other number of behaviors. We were taught that we needed to be “good,” which invariably meant silent and portraying only happiness and gratitude.
Our parents weren’t trying to be malicious, they were doing what they knew based on what happened to them as children, and the parenting models of the time. But we now know better, and so we have the opportunity to do better for ourselves and our children. After those baseline experiences, we were also taught in school, through friendships, at our jobs, and even through romantic relationships and popular media that the only acceptable emotions and feelings are the “good” ones, the pleasant ones that are tolerable to others. We were deemed needy, annoying, overly emotional, and whatever other slander and slur if we demonstrated feelings other than those that other people “wanted to be around.” We were taught, over and over again, that our feelings were invalid, unjustified, and a bother to others, and even more detrimentally we weren’t taught how to actually handle those feelings, let alone actually sit with them and try to learn from them. We were taught that they were bad, and we were bad for having them.
What This Leads To
When you can’t process your emotions properly, and when you have no real model of how to process them, you tend to lean on what you know, what’s familiar, and what’s simple. Unfortunately, those usually lead to incredibly negative long-term outcomes. We try to numb the feelings through drugs, food, alcohol, social media, relationships, porn, or other vices that will temporarily take away the pain. We may even engage in self-harming behaviors because it’s a way to experience tangible, controlled pain that we can see, rather than the emotional pain that feels so unsafe and uncertain.
The inability to feel our feelings leads to negative relationships with others, and a significant inability to self-regulate; the feelings are just shut down and avoided, or managed poorly, so we don’t learn how to tolerate them and work through them. We try to find any way to get rid of these feelings, no matter the cost, because all we know is that these feelings are bad, wrong, and we have no way of handling them when they come up. We develop significant fear of our feelings, and over time we start to feel nothing at all, not the good nor the “bad” emotions. Feeling, in general, becomes far too painful.
This is the point where I see most of my clients. They are struggling to cope, to go through life in a meaningful way because it feels like their emotions are completely taking over and they have no control over them. They are afraid of these emotions and just want them to stop, not realizing that it’s that fear of them that’s making their problems the way they are, not the emotions themselves.
Emotions Are Not Dangerous
Emotions are not these dangerous, uncontrollable things that just come out of nowhere. Our emotions and feelings stem from the experiences we go through, the meanings we assign, and the patterns we end up developing. The emotions we feel aren’t the problem, rather, it’s the way we handle and deal with those emotions that make our lives what they are. Most people blame their emotions when in reality, it’s their reactions to those emotions. When you can learn to identify, process, and cope with your emotions, your life will feel much more balanced, regulated, and in control.
How to Start
As simplistic as this sounds, you need to let yourself feel your feelings. This is daunting to many people because their entire lives have been spent trying to run away from these feelings, so the idea of actually embracing them and feeling them is terrifying. That fear is what has led you to be where you are now, and the only way to conquer a fear and gain control over it is through exposure. I usually suggest to clients to do this in small doses; over the span of a month or so, a few times a week let yourself sit with yourself, without distractions or anything to numb or suppress. Sit with your feelings, and journal whatever comes up. This will be incredibly difficult at first, and your gut instinct will be to run away. But after the first few times, you will realize that it isn’t as bad as you initially thought.
Once you are able to make time to feel these feelings, you can start trying to do it in the moment, when these emotions arise from the experiences you go through. This will take time, and a lot of practice, and that’s okay. This is a new skill, and it will take patience and grace to master it. Your emotions and feelings are messages, they are trying to communicate that something needs to happen, whether it’s changing your perspective or changing your behavior. When you suppress these emotions, you are running away from the messages they are trying to teach you. When you allow yourself to feel them, without shame or avoidance, you can start to make meaningful changes in your life that bring you closer to what you want.
This is a challenging, but very doable skill. I highly recommend utilizing a coach or therapist to help you on this journey. Feelings can be hard to deal with, but with the right guidance and support, you can learn to be the master of your emotions, rather than be conquered by them.
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