Most people are uncomfortable with emotions. And that makes sense to me. So many of us have been raised in an emotion-phobic culture. We are not given formal education on the biology of emotions and the brain. We are told we should have control over our emotions when the fact is that emotions are not under conscious control.
Why don't our schools teach us the difference between categories of emotions? For example, core emotions, like anger, sadness, fear, disgust, joy, excitement, and sexual excitement, are biological survival programs containing information we should NOT ignore.
Another category of emotions are called inhibitory emotions. Inhibitory emotions, which we know as anxiety, guilt, and shame, block core emotions to keep us in the good graces of our families, peers, and other social groups. But when we have too much inhibition, we cannot thrive. This is useful information that I teach all of my patients.
What we are taught in our culture, very well I might add, is how to avoid emotions. Our society even praises people for not showing emotions, calling them strong, stoic, or independent. It’s no wonder most people are uncomfortable with emotions.
Here are 11 signs that you’re not comfortable with emotions:
You sit at work yearning for a drink.
You avoid conflicts with your partner.
You laugh or smile when you or someone else talks about sad things.
You change the subject when uncomfortable during a conversation.
You find it hard to slow down and relax.
You cannot be alone.
You blame and judge others a lot.
You can’t stop worrying.
You prefer work to intimacy.
You can’t accept a compliment.
You roll your eyes or say, "Whatever!"
Can you recognize an additional sign that you are not comfortable with emotions? ____________________________________
All of the strategies above are defenses against emotions. Defenses are the things we do to avoid being uncomfortable. I don’t know about you, but when I feel stress, I look forward to blanking out with a game of solitaire or a glass of wine—it takes me away from what I am feeling. Avoiding emotions every now and then is fine, even adaptive, like when we swallow our tears to not cry at work or walk away from an enraging situation. However, habitually avoiding emotional discomfort using the 11 signs above and many others (that I list in my book) is not a recipe for wellness in the long run. It might be news to you that buried emotions are at the root of our most prevalent psychiatric disorders: anxiety, depression, and addictions.
If you recognize yourself in any of the signs listed above, try not to be hard on yourself. Remind yourself that we live in a culture that provides us no education and no tools to manage emotions. To make matters worse, we are taught myths like: Emotions are for weak people. You can just get over it! And, we internalize these values. Then when we have emotions and cannot stop them with sheer will, we tell ourselves we are bad or weak. It’s a recipe for psychological distress.
Simply learning a bit more about emotions can make you much more comfortable with them and immediately make you feel better about having emotions in the first place. I never knew that emotions are not under conscious control and are normal responses to the environment. I never knew that core emotions are there to help us survive and thrive in life. I never knew core emotions are actually a bunch of physical sensations that we come to recognize as an emotion. Just think about how your body feels when you are sad—kind of heavy in your heart area. I never knew that emotions put stress on the body when we bury them. I never knew I could learn skills and techniques to help me more easily get through my emotions without blocking them. When I learned about core emotions and how to work with them, it was a revolution for me that changed my personal and professional life.
I became an emotion-centered psychotherapist to help people feel better and develop skills and resilience to meet the challenges of life. I am passionate in the belief that all of us need a basic education in emotions. I hope I have prompted you to consider learning more about emotions. Just like you learned in high school biology that you had eyes, ears, a heart, and a stomach, and you learned a little bit about how those organs work, you can learn about your emotions and have tools to work with them. To thrive in life, tending to both thoughts and emotions is required. It’s about coming into balance. We can all grow more comfortable with emotions, and it will serve us greatly.
For a comprehensive guide to understanding and navigating emotions, read or listen to: It's Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect With Your Authentic Self (Random House & Penguin UK). Translations are available in Polish, Mandarin, and Korean.