Playing Dodge Ball with Feelings
Feelings. What comes up for you when you hear that word?
If you are like most people who struggle with trauma and addiction, you probably thought “I don’t like feelings. I don’t want to think about them or talk about them and I probably don’t even want to read the rest of this blog post. I don’t want to have feelings. If I could just avoid them altogether, life would be amazing!” But, that thought pattern is flawed. Somewhere along the way, you developed the belief that feelings are not safe. And, in response, you’ve probably gotten very good at dodging emotions… So, how do you do it?
There are many ways that people avoid their feelings – some are more obvious than others. Do you turn to drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes when you are feeling emotionally overwhelmed? Are you the type that eats an entire package of Oreos when you’re feeling stressed? How about binge-watching Netflix? Staying in bed all day? Telling yourself to just get over it? Take note of whatever it is you do to avoid your feelings. It may help to write it down.
The problem with these emotion-dodging methods is that, as humans, we cannot selectively numb. We cannot choose to feel joy and gratitude but not fear and anger. When we avoid feeling one emotion, we diminish the feeling of all others. Some people welcome this experience with open arms. The thing is, it doesn’t last forever. So, what happens when you can’t avoid feeling? Do you explode? Self-sabotage? Hurt yourself? Hurt others? In my experience, nothing good comes from emotion-dodging.
I read somewhere that we should respond to uncomfortable emotions like a dog bite. If I was bitten by a dog, my initial instinct would be to pull away. However, if I pulled my arm away while the dog had my arm in his mouth, I would lose a chunk of skin and hurt myself more in the long run. However, if I lean into the dog, instead of pulling away, the dog will be forced to open its mouth, so I can pull my arm away with less damage.
If we approach emotions the same way we would with a dog bite, I bet we would have more success. Stop judging your emotions. Feelings are not good or bad, just necessary. I realize it can feel very scary and overwhelming to welcome feelings. To say, “I feel sad. Instead of eating a box of donuts and playing video games for the next 8 hours, I am going to allow myself to feel this emotion. Maybe I will cry. Maybe I will write about it. Maybe I’ll talk about it.” With time, you’ll learn that you CAN manage the emotions as they come up and, as a result, your fear of feeling will decrease.
Like any learned behavior, allowing yourself to feel takes practice. For many trauma survivors, even identifying and naming an emotion can be a giant hurdle. But, the more you can identify the emotion-dodging behaviors, the easier it will be to explore triggers, identify underlying emotions, and learn your individual patterns of responding to different feelings. Learning how to identify, process, and move through uncomfortable emotions is a very personal process. As such, I would recommend seeking the support of a trained professional if you engage in any emotion-dodging strategies, to assist in identifying and developing healthier ways to cope with feelings.
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