- Our emotions inform us of our true needs, desires, and values.
- Emotional avoidance negatively impacts our relationships and decision-making.
- Shame is the driving force of emotional avoidance.
Imagine that, in the midst of a conversation, your best friend, says, “I’m sad”; “I’m anxious”; “I’m depressed”; “I’m filled with guilt”; “I feel so much shame”; or “I just feel so inadequate.” And then, envision that each time your friend makes these heartfelt statements, you say nothing, turn away, or tell him he shouldn’t feel what he is feeling.
Now, imagine how that friend might feel in response to your reaction. Perhaps he’ll feel ignored, diminished, discounted, or abandoned. Most importantly, he’ll feel disconnected from you. And, if you consistently reacted this way, your friend might just avoid you or, ultimately, end the friendship.
While you may not do this with others, I encourage you to reflect on how often you actually respond this way toward your own feelings. This is what we do when we deny, minimize, or suppress our feelings. By doing so, we become disconnected with ourselves—detached from recognizing our needs, wants, and desires. At such moments, we are engaging in emotional avoidance—the conscious or unconscious attempt to suppress or avoid certain emotions, most often those that cause us distress. In the process, such emotional avoidance undermines our capacity to recognize our core values. And, as stated by Dr. Gabor Maté, “The source of all dysfunction is disconnection from ourselves” (Mate, 2017).
However, such feelings do not just go away. Like oppressed citizens of a country, they desire to be heard. They act in the underground of our awareness to impact our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, often contributing to destructive anger.
It is then no surprise that we may be more vulnerable to tension and conflict within ourselves and have related irritability with others and ourselves. It is this irritability that can foster a propensity for anger arousal, anger that serves as a reaction to and distraction from such tension. It directs our attention outward, attributes responsibility to others, or may lead us to displace our anger toward others. In each instance, it moves us further away from true connection with and understanding of ourselves.
Influence of Emotional Avoidance on Our Relationships
Being emotionally avoidant often leads to conflicts in our relationships, whether with friends or intimate partners. Not knowing our true needs or values leaves us confused when others similarly do not know what we need. Being uncomfortable with our emotions may lead us to unwittingly gravitate toward others who are emotionally avoidant. Whether in friendships or intimate relationships, this pattern leads to a lack of closeness, a lack of genuine connection. It may lead to tension and a lack of compassion when that person actually expresses their negative emotions. It might also lead to anger when that person does not share their feelings. And, in such situations, we may subsequently direct our anger inward, as we conclude it is our fault.
I’ve often worked with individuals who were in relationships in which they had unrealistic expectations of a partner because they failed to be more fully aware of their own values. Over time they often realize they chose a partner whose values were significantly different than their own. While such relationships can work, such differences often lead to tension, conflict, and anger. Such relationships often foster an intense sense of loneliness.
Being compliant is another resolution to being emotionally avoidant. An effort to please is a noble attitude. However, when it becomes a rigid stance, it is a betrayal of ourselves that moves us further from recognizing our authentic selves. This may be a reaction to strong dependency needs, a longstanding longing to be taken care of. It entails what I’ve described as “parentizing” the other, with or without awareness of looking like a parent.
Emotional Avoidance and Decision-Making
Being unaware of our needs, values, and desires may lead us to be vulnerable to difficulty in decision-making, whether with regard to choosing a paint color for the living room, how to dress, what career to pursue, or with whom we wish to have a relationship.
When experiencing such internal conflict, we may seek a suggestion from others. However, if we have no sense of what we want, we may soon reject every suggestion—in an effort to feel independent. Additionally, we may react with anger, especially when we experience their doing so as an attempt to control us—even when this is not their true intent. If we don’t know what we want, we may protectively put up a wall and have difficulty with someone even when they are just trying to help us.
This same difficulty with decision-making can be especially paralyzing for some in making both small decisions and larger ones. And, again, this may culminate in anger toward others or with oneself.
The Role of Shame in Emotional Avoidance
Shame often plays a pivotal role in emotional avoidance. It often arises from early traumas and fears of vulnerability. As children facing a lack of connection, we may feel abandoned, angry, anxious, fearful, isolated, and other feelings. We may reactively blame ourselves, for certainly there is no way to call out our caretakers who are the ones causing this disconnection. Blaming ourselves is a core aspect of shame. And it is this pattern, originating in our early lives, that may then fuel emotional avoidance and become the default resolution to our pain as an adult. Consequently, such shame may then deprive us of what it means to be human—as it moves us away from our emotions and, consequently, our authentic selves.
Because shame itself is so hard to admit to ourselves, emotional avoidance may become the default resolution to dealing with this powerfully distressing emotion. Consequently, we may project our shame onto others—view them as weak, inadequate, and even worthy of ridicule and devaluation.
Whether induced by shame or other factors, emotional avoidance is a natural protective reaction to the intense threat of experiencing our feelings. Such tendencies may be reinforced by our family, culture, and societal norms. However, in the long term, it has the effect of erasing our true self. And this impacts and contributes to frustration, internal conflict, and anger.
A Healthy Response to Emotional Avoidance
Overcoming the negative impact of emotional avoidance calls for developing greater emotional awareness and regulation. Such awareness can be achieved through mindfulness practices, meditation, and journaling. However, exercises in mindful self-compassion powerfully support our capacity to sit with, recognize, and acknowledge our emotions without judgment or suppression. Together with physical activity, breathing exercises, and calming the vagus nerve, we can build a greater tolerance and compassion for those negative emotions. We can honor them in a way that reduces their potential for destructive anger. Through such practices, we may become equally comfortable in the presence of a friend’s suffering as well as our own. And, certainly, professional support may be indicated to provide guidance in the application of these strategies to help achieve such awareness and regulation.
Maté, G., (2017). Compassionate Inquiry, www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQPsC8d5cb0