In today’s divided age where it seems everything is a battle and the soldiers are willing to stop at nothing for their cause, nothing appears more commonly agreed upon in our culture than the ever-present adage, “avoid unpleasant emotions at all costs”.
From the time we are young, many of us pick up on the messages often directly sent from our parents, “don’t cry” (It’s not okay to feel that way) or “there’s nothing to be sad about” (your feelings are not valid).
To conform with their parents’ expectations of them, children learn survival strategies of avoiding, dismissing, or distracting themselves from their feelings, and model themselves after parents who have often adopted more extreme methods for coping with their emotions through alcohol, drugs, compulsive eating or sexual behaviors, or even perhaps remaining in the seemingly harmless state of extreme busyness.
Some of today’s newest contenders include sleeping the day away, or turning to sugar, shopping or endless hours of television shows on repeat. Whatever the vice, it has most likely persisted due to some success in achieving the desired effect, if only for a little while. It can be a difficult response to counteract, especially when it has been practiced for years, and has become one’s only problem-solving strategy.
We are a culture that screams out its desire to be distracted, and like tantrum-ing toddlers without limits, we have earned our reward.
I am all for making informed decisions, and so next time you are facing your family, or are reminded of an aspect of your past you’d rather forget, and feel the familiar pull of your favorite addictive pastime sucking you in, I ask that you consider the following:
When you numb your negative emotions, as a byproduct, you will numb yourself to feelings of happiness and joy as well. Using negative behaviors to avoid your feelings may help you experience less sadness and anger in the moment, but chances are, your problems will still be there as soon as the effects of your last high wear off. Pretty soon, it becomes a part of your identity, and if left unchecked, it will consume what is left of it.
Not only can this be understood as an emotional construct, but we also know that on a biological level, that for addicts who begin to rely on a substance or another “thing” to get their fix—that rush of dopamine— their bodies will begin to adapt. For those who receive that rush on a regular basis, the body will learn over time to no longer produce its own dopamine or to at least severely diminish the levels due to the external supply being so great. Without the influence of the substance or addictive behavior, normal once-pleasurable activities do not stand a chance to create a similar sort of impact.
This is how we understand addicts who might admit that “they only feel alive” when they have the substances in their system or how we understand the concept of “anhedonia” that exists in most mood disorders.
“You cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, here’s the bad stuff. Here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment. I don’t want to feel these. I’m going to have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin…You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects…So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.” -Brené Brown
Every time you have a negative emotion, and choose to handle that emotion by turning to a substance or addictive behavior, you are actively pairing that behavior as the learned response in your mind. Every time you are presented with a similar situation, you are more likely to engage in your chosen problem-solving method, and any attempts to change that behavior will likely result in great resistance from a body that has come to rely on a certain way of functioning.
Not only is a choice to numb your emotions through addictive behavior affecting you in the here-and-now, it is doing a disservice to your future self by reinforcing maladaptive patterns and creating habits difficult to break.
Anyone in the throes of an addictive cycle can tell you that constantly trying to run from your emotions is exhausting. Trying to fight your feelings through distraction or “bottling it up” often leads to more suffering in the long term. Using negative behaviors to try to negate your feelings can be thought of as putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. Although it might make you feel better temporarily to have “protected” yourself from further infection, these behaviors do not address the root of the issue, and do nothing to encourage healing or growth. In fact, without addressing the problem directly, these “wounds” are bound to become infected, fester, and take up permanent residence in our lives.
On another note, it is important to pay attention to our emotions, because often they carry with them important messages that may signal that our rights are being violated (anger), or that we need to change something in our environment (sadness, fear) or about ourselves (guilt). Rather than trying to suppress feelings when they arise, work to become a mindful observer of them. It can be a powerful exercise to notice the emotions that come up for you, and where you feel them in your body. Then, try to cultivate a curious and nonjudgmental stance.
Part of the amazing thing about being human is that we are able to experience a full range of emotions. Living through sadness and hurt is part of what makes it so incredible to feel joy and happiness. It is true that no feeling lasts forever (even though it might feel like it), and often it is feelings like guilt and being uncomfortable that inspires change. When your focus is on avoiding feeling anything at all cost, you are preventing yourself from living a full and meaningful life. Life is meant for the ups and the downs: for beaming with joy, and living through the pits of heartbreak. Healing is not found in protecting yourself and loved ones from that pain, but leaning into it. Allow for self-compassion in your life, to sit through and observe your emotions and respond to yourself in kindness.
To allow yourself to experience your emotions fully is truly a mark of courage, as is becoming vulnerable and sharing your story with someone that you trust. Ultimately, this is the only way to work through your pain, though it may take on many different forms. You might come to terms with your emotions by writing in a journal, creating artwork to honor the pain, talking with a trusted friend, or seeking help from a therapist.
Let us help you explore ways to take charge of your emotional well-being, and no longer fall victim to the prey of numbing behaviors. It is your choice, but we intend to be there for you every step along the way.