To live a full human life is to experience the full range of human emotions.
Somewhere along the way though we got the idea that only “good” and “positive” emotions are acceptable to feel. When difficult and painful emotions surface, we often suppress them – bottling them up or putting them under the rug so that we can feel “better”. This can be because as children we might have received direct messages of disapproval or shame by being told “Big kids don’t cry”, or we might have taken on indirect messages as we observed our parents habitually holding in their emotions. Messages such as these can lead to life beliefs that emotions must always be contained, controlled or hidden to avoid disapproval or rejection from others. Some people hold a fear that if they don’t control their emotions at all times, then they will be out of control and that thought is anathema to them.
To better understand painful emotions, let’s take a closer look at how the body processes pain. Our bodies are designed to use pain to keep us safe. Pain communicates to the body that we need to protect an area or rest it to allow it to heal. When we sprain our ankle, for example it hurts every time we move it. This is because the body is telling us that rest is required so that the healing process can take place. We learn very quickly that a stove element when turned on is hot and will burn if we touch it. Some of us learn this by being told by our parents. Others learn the lesson the hard way! So in a physiological sense, pain is our friend.
Our feelings are like the weather, continually changing: at times very pleasant, at other times extremely uncomfortable. What would happen if we went through life believing “we should have good weather every day – this rain is seriously disturbing”.
Along the way somewhere, we humans decided that all pain and not just physical pain needed to be avoided. So if any emotions are painful, then these should be avoided too. Unfortunately, this isn’t the way we were meant to function. Expecting only so called “good emotions” would be like expecting only sunny weather every day.
To try to avoid painful or unpleasant emotions, we have developed all sorts of clever little tricks. These are called coping mechanisms and we use them when we don’t want to feel unpleasant emotions. Coping mechanisms are any behaviour that a person uses to avoid, ignore or deny feeling painful emotions. They help to distract us. Common coping mechanism are: eating, music, T.V., reading, computer games, exercise, work, study, hobbies, sex, pornography, gardening, cooking, gambling, drugs, alcohol, smoking, sport, blaming others, criticising others, positive affirmations, constructive problem solving, vigorously defending your position, pretending it’s not important, and minimising the problem or telling yourself “it could be worse”. In the short term, some of these coping mechanisms may seem very helpful and they can be when used in a healthy way, but when used as long term avoidance measures, they can become your own worst enemy and can lead to depression, anxiety, compulsive behaviours and in some instances addiction. All because we didn’t want to feel an emotion that we deemed to be “just too hard”. Avoidance doesn’t work.
To live a full human life is to experience the full range of human emotions – joyous and painful alike. So next time your emotions are doing a dull, rainy day, acknowledge them and ask yourself what you can do to help yourself through the rain.