Why Avoidance Doesn’t Work with Emotions

As humans, we tend to avoid what is uncomfortable and painful. And as a general rule, this makes sense. Why would I purposely stub my toe if I could simply avoid doing so?

There is a problem with this logic when we apply it to emotions and beliefs that are already alive inside of us. If we suppress an emotion or thought for fear that it would be too painful or overwhelming, we may wonder – aren’t we doing something that is natural and good, which is to avoid pain?

Yes and no. Yes, because at the root of trying to avoid pain, there is a desire to be free from suffering, which is a wish of compassion. So, by avoiding an emotion or memory that causes discomfort, our act of avoidance could be seen as an act of compassion.

However, while avoiding emotional pain in the moment may seem “good” and helpful, in the long run it doesn’t help us to cope or build resilience. It isn’t the most compassionate thing we can do for ourselves. In essence we are teaching ourselves, time after time, that avoidance is the best way to deal with discomfort.

While I would not wish for anyone to inflict unnecessary pain on themselves, once the emotion is cued by the internal environment, it’s no longer truly avoidable. It’s alive within us. It’s like stubbing our toe and then saying, “I am just going to avoid the discomfort.” If it were only that easy! However, generally we know that the pain won’t last, and we may actually choose to focus our attention on our toe for a moment, noticing as the discomfort abates, and then moving on with our day.

Emotions are similar in that once they are cued, and once fully felt, they don’t tend to last. Yet if we resist them, we are expending energy and resources within us to restrain a part of us from being experienced. Or, if a difficult emotion is cued, sometimes because it feels so overwhelming, we can come to react against emotions by avoiding them. When this happens, we don’t actually learn how to be with emotions and how to regulate them; all we learn is how to run away or distract.

The other problem with avoiding emotions, is that this becomes a generalized rule that we carry with us throughout the world. For example, if we tend to avoid feeling fearful, we may limit ourselves from taking actions to reach our goals because they could induce some fear or anxiety within us. Instead of facing the fear of failure, we may avoid failing at all costs and thus avoid applying to a new job, dating, or standing up for ourselves. If we avoid sadness, we may be constantly battling against the natural process of grieving when we lose a loved one. If we avoid embarrassment, we may shy away from being in groups or interact with other people.

If you notice that you tend to avoid certain thoughts and emotions, or if you tend to become emotionally overwhelmed often, it might be helpful to work with a trained therapist as you open more to your inner world. Much like hiring a nature guide to take you on a hike in an unknown place, a therapist can accompany you as you come to face difficult emotions, thoughts, memories, and beliefs.

Nina Tomkiewicz, LCSW

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