It will probably not surprise you when I say that avoidance is often at the very center of psychological suffering. It will also probably not surprise you when I say that this avoidance is often an avoidance of experiencing what are generally thought of as “negative” emotions, such as fear or shame.
For example, it is well understood that social withdrawal is one of the most common pathways into a depressive episode. As our mood starts to go down, and we start to feel less positive about ourselves, it is very common to have the impulse to begin socially avoiding. What are we really avoiding here? In my mind, we are ultimately avoiding the feelings of social discomfort and awkwardness that come from being around others when we're not feeling very confident, interesting, or attractive. But this very avoidance of spending social time with other people, especially people who care about us, further lessens our sense of self worth,which further deepens our depression, which further increases our impulse to avoid socially. And so on and so on. In this way the original impulse to avoid socially when our mood first starts to drop can be clearly seen as playing a key role in how depression deepens over time.
On the other hand, it might be surprise you to learn that psychological researchers have recently begun learning that the avoidance of positive emotions may also be an important pathway into psychological suffering.
Why would this be? Why would anyone avoid “positive” feelings such as joy or excitement in the same way that they might avoid “negative” feelings of fear or pain?
Research into this area is fairly new so the answers are still emerging. But I'd like to talk about what I believe to be among the most important reasons for this kind of avoidance, a reason that I see again and again in my practice.
This reason is based on having had a history of your mood dropping into a pit. If we are at a neutral middle-of-the-road emotional place when we fall, once again, into one of these pits then we have less far to fall, compared to if we were letting ourselves feel really good when the rug gets pulled out from under us. Not only have we now had a further, more painful drop, but we are now also left with the terrible experience of feeling stupid; stupid that we got our hopes up when we were happy, allowing ourselves to believe that this time it would be different, that this time the rug would not get pulled out from under us.
In other words, it often seems that we avoid allowing ourselves to feel really good as a kind of “insurance policy”, a bracing against the inevitable drop in mood that we always quietly fear is coming. Not only can this help to lessen the “inevitable” drop, it also gives us a feeling of at least some control over our experience.
Seen from this perspective, avoiding the full experience of strong positive emotions doesn't seem quite so crazy. It is actually a coping strategy that, like all coping strategies, makes a kind of sense in its own way.
However, the costs strategy are profound. By not allowing ourselves to tolerate the full experience of positive emotions, like joy and excitement, we are robbing ourselves of the full richness of living.
An equally important cost occurs at the neural level. When positive experiences are fully felt and embraced, this allows them to be much more deeply encoded as episodic memories at a neural level. Therefore, when we avoid fully sensing into our positive emotions we greatly lessen our ability establish rich neural networks that are based on memories of ourselves as being happy, competent, and lovable. And, ultimately, these are the very neural networks that we need to in order to remain resilient in the face of hardship and stress, and thereby to avoid falling into the pit of depression when life inevitably does get hard.
One of the reasons why I wanted to write this blog post is to send a message to those readers who relate to this idea of avoiding positive emotions: this strategy is not crazy or even unusual. And in doing this, my hope is that these readers will begin offering themselves patient compassion as they set out to build their tolerance for fully feeling positive emotions.
So the next time someone tells you that they love you, or that you notice how good it feels to see a beautiful sunset, instead of shutting those positive experiences down internally, and then feeling crazy for having done so, I invite you to try doing something different altogether. Instead, I invite you to allow yourself to actually experience the physical sensations of joy or happiness for just a second longer than you normally would. And then the next week, to increase your window of tolerance just a second more. And so on and so on, until eventually you are able to fully relish in these experiences for their entire wave of naturally arising and falling away, without any longer needing to interfere with this process.
And if we we do end up working together then this skill, this ability to tolerate the actual embodied experience of positive emotions, is something that we may well end up working on together.