Tag Archives: avoidance of emotions

Avoiding a Painful Past: To Leave a Place You Must First Arrive

The title of my blog post this week contains one of the essential insights of my work as a psychologist.

Too many people spend their lives leaving places they have never actually arrived at.

A person who had a traumatic childhood might say they would rather just forget about the past and move on, which is their way of leaving without first arriving.

Another person might spend their entire life in a search for meaning on the mountain tops of Nepal or in the pursuits of promotions or recognition at work, which is their way of not addressing the source of an emptiness, but simply displacing it into an ever elusive ambition of becoming someone better or of transcending themselves. They spend their entire life leaving a place without really fully understanding the place they are trying to leave.

Neurosis and Human GrowthAs the now deceased psychoanalyst Karen Horney has written about in her excellent book “Neurosis and Human Growth”, many people lose themselves in the empty pursuit of a never-ending self-improvement, and end up living an entire life trying to become someone other than themselves. They lose their life on what she calls the altar of glory, that is, in the pursuit of a better version of themselves that is really just another way to abandon a confrontation with the hurts of their own past.

The outcome of such a driven pursuit to simply move on without fully understanding that from which one is trying to move on, is a loss of a kind of happiness that comes from feeling rooted in one’s history and grounded within oneself.

The Price We Pay for Trying to Escape from Our Past:

So many people nowadays come to therapy complaining that they don’t really know what they are passionate about, or saying that their lives feel meaningless. Maybe they report feeling like a machine, and not really having access to the flow of emotions that would make them feel alive. Or maybe they report feeling lost and confused, empty inside, and in search of a purpose.

These are the symptoms of leaving without first arriving.

They announce to us that we are not in touch with ourselves, that we have taken leave of ourselves before first accepting the struggles, traumas, memories, or feelings that would allow us to work through our issues without abandoning ourselves. They are signs that we have attempted to leave ourselves by numbing ourselves, tuning out, avoiding, or prematurely conforming. They are signs that we have paid the price of trying to get somewhere safer and better by leaving our “luggage” behind or by leaving painful pieces of ourselves behind in our unprocessed and unresolved past.

But we can’t leave a place simply by avoiding it. We must first “say our goodbyes”.

Leaving Pain Behind Is an Active Process:

Truly leaving a place that feels unpleasant, overwhelming, shaming, or traumatic is an active process of facing and confronting that which haunts us.

To face and confront a belief about oneself, an emotional reality, or a painful memory we must first accept it.

Only when we accept that which we have tried to leave behind can we begin the active process of mourning our losses, shedding our tears, developing compassion for ourselves, or expressing anger at others for what we needed from them but never got. This kind of emotional repair work is only possible when we truly arrive at those places which we wish to leave behind.

Leaving can now become an active emotional process, rather than an avoidance that simply shuts out by shutting ourselves out.

Experiencing Transformation Through Our Emotions:

In the realm of emotions, getting away from something is paradoxically only possible by going into it.

Only by going into that which is unpleasant or overwhelming or distasteful, do we realize that we can come out on the other side with new realizations about ourselves. If we truly enter into our emotions, like one would ride a wave, we will see that emotions have a way to carry us to new shores. They don’t have to become stuck places in our lives, but can be starting points for truly working through sadness, anger, loneliness, and despair.

Rainer Marie Rilke: Austrian Existentialist Poet
Rainer Marie Rilke: Austrian Existentialist Poet

As the poet Rainer Marie Rilke writes:

“Where something becomes extremely difficult and unbearable, there we also stand already quite near its transformation”

And transformation through going through the motion of our emotion is exactly what is needed in order to leave a place.

Discovering the Joy of Our Aliveness:

By working our emotions through to completion rather than short-circuiting them in an effort to leave them behind, we can let our suffering transform us and in turn transform our suffering.

The Transforming Power of AffectDiana Fosha, for example, has found that clients who truly work through their emotions in therapy, experience a variety of transformational affects, like a sense of mastery, curiosity, confidence, joy, pride, and compassion. People report feeling moved and touched, or experiencing amazement and wonder. They no longer feel weighed down by the pain, or blemished by their past, but instead feel “lighter”, shed tears of joy, and get filled with tenderness toward themselves and others.

These kinds of shifts are signs that we are rediscovering who we really are instead of spending our life running from ourselves. They are signs that we are getting in touch with an aliveness and resilience within, and that growth brings about a joy that avoidance can never obtain.

They are signs that we are finally leaving a place that we have truly arrived at, and that we no longer have to abandon ourselves in order to find peace and comfort with who we are.

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., Psychologist in Houston Texas. I help people arrive at their past so they can truly leave it behind instead of spending their life running from themselves.

 

Why Should I Feel My Unpleasant Emotions?

One of the most frequent objections I hear as a therapist, is the objection by clients who don’t see what the point is of re-experiencing unpleasant memories and emotions from the past.

How is feeling sad going to help me?” they ask.

Or: “How is getting angry at people in my life who mistreated me really going to serve me?”

Here is my answer to their concerns…

The Desire to Be Rid of Negative Emotions:

Anger, sadness, loneliness, emptiness, despair, grief; these are all emotions that many people don’t know what to do with, and would most of all like to dump in a dumpster or bury deep underground.

And so they typically do…

They try to quarantine pockets of unpleasant experiences from the rest of their life, and spend much of their time trying to actively repress, ignore, rationalize, or minimize how they really feel.

Why Emotions Should Not Be Pushed Away

Of course emotions don’t go anywhere just because we don’t want to feel them. The more we fight them, the more havoc they generally wreck on our lives:

  • You don’t want to be overcome by grief at the passing of your beloved mother, so you push your grief away. Now the grief instead becomes a depression and the loss, which can never be mourned, a perpetual companion rather than a passageway to a better place.
  • You don’t want to feel angry at your parents for the mistreatment you felt as a child, so you tell yourself it really wasn’t that bad. Now instead your unexpressed anger interferes with your ability to have a REAL relationship with your parents, or gets pushed down so far that when it finally erupts, it erupts as rage.
  • You don’t want to get in touch with the loneliness and emptiness that haunts your marriage, so you try to distract yourself by going on expensive trips, redecorating your house,  or having another child. Now instead the emptiness becomes a perpetual hollowness, and the lack of satisfaction in your marriage the cause  of a manic frenzy of activity that never quite fills the underlying void.

The Price We Pay for Ignoring Our Emotions:

As a general rule the more we fight our emotions, the bigger and “badder” they become. If we don’t allow ourselves to feel them and to hear what they have to tell us, they will keep haunting us until we finally get their message. Fighting them is a losing battle and we always pay a price for denying their reality.

As long as we are not at peace with ourselves, but must deny aspects of our emotional reality in order to feel good, a sense of genuine happiness, calmness, and self-acceptance can never take root.

By getting rid of the “bad”, we also ironically get rid of the “good”.

Why? Because we divert our energy from a path of genuinely accepting ourselves, and replace it with a perpetual fight to deny the realness of our own experiences, which means denying the reality of who we are. Happiness constructed on such as a deceitful basis is not real happiness, but a flight from ourselves that can only lead to perpetual unrest.

The Benefits of Our Negative Emotions:

Contrary to what many people think, all emotions are adaptive and purposeful when experienced accurately and expressed appropriately.

Anger, which to many people can feel scary and unsafe to express, is a signal to us that our boundaries have been violated or that we feel mistreated in some way. If we allow ourselves to experience our anger, examine what boundaries might have been crossed, assess the accuracy of our evaluation of the situation, and express our concerns in a calm and constructive manner, our anger will have served its purpose. Our needs can now become known to others, disagreements can be resolved, relationships can be repaired, and we can command respect even when relationships need to be severed.

Sadness also serves a purpose. It tells us what matters to us, or alerts us to what we are missing. If we can allow ourselves to feel it, we will become wiser about our needs and longings, or the things we missed when growing up. Sadness can lead to self-examination, and can lead to greater acceptance of that which we cannot change. It can also lead to greater clarity about what we really value in life and how we should move ahead. When expressed to others in an appropriate way it can bring others closer to us, invite comfort and caring, and make us feel that we are less alone.

Emotions are Really Movements not States:

The myth about unpleasant emotions is that they are rather static experiences that simply take us over, dominate us, and keep us stuck. However, emotion is really more accurately described as a process or a movement. It is derived from the Latin verb “movere” which means “to move”.

Emotions help move us or motivate us, they give us direction, help us to clarify our thoughts and priorities, and serve as vehicles for making changes to our life. Only when we do not allow ourselves to move with them, do they become static road blocks: obstacles rather than passageways.

So to those clients who wonder, “why should I feel my unpleasant emotions?”, my answer is, “to let them move you to a different place”.

By moving into them, you move through them, and by moving through them, they move you to a different place.

By not fighting your negative emotions, you will be transported to the other side, where they no longer bother you, because they have now served their purpose and set you free.

Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D. a psychologist in Houston, TX who believes good therapy involves a transformation through your emotions. To read more about the process of therapy, visit my website.