One of the themes that keep coming up in my clinical work is the fear of feelings. Fear of letting one’s guard down, being vulnerable, facing what’s inside. Many people have talked about how certain feelings were not considered acceptable in their family of origin, culture, or community. How they have had to keep sadness, anger, or fear to themselves, as if those feelings are somehow wrong and unacceptable. And adults who have gone through life pushing away emotional pain may have an additional fear – the fear that allowing the full range of feelings will not only be socially unacceptable, but overwhelming and even dangerous.
It is true that feelings can be painful and hard to tolerate. And depending on what has been avoided, it can certainly be challenging to process and experience emotional pain without enough support and effective coping skills.
But the feelings themselves are not dangerous. Feeling like one is about to drown in sadness, and actually drowning in sadness, are two very different things. In fact, the things we do to keep away from difficult feelings can be even more harmful than sitting with and acknowledging emotional pain. Working too much, avoiding difficult topics in intimate relationships, eating when not hungry, not eating when hungry, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, and staying distracted at all times are just some of the things we may do in attempts to escape. The downside includes health problems, relationship strain, addictions, isolation, and high stress levels, while the unattended emotions remain unchanged and no less threatening at the end of the day.
The fear can keep us from exploring and facing unresolved issues in our lives that impact our wellbeing and reactions to new experiences. And on the upside, when this fear is finally confronted, inspiring change can happen. This is one of the things I really enjoy about counseling. Getting the chance to sit with a person as they learn to accept and observe their previously avoided feelings, and witnessing the sense of peace and mastery that can be gained as a result. It is possible. And no one has drowned in my office yet.