Insight Therapy

Psychologically informed reflections on how we interact.

Emotional Acceptance: Why Feeling Bad is Good

Avoiding negative emotions seems like a good idea. It isn't.

According to recent psychological research (by David Barlow, Steven Hayes and others) one of the main causes of many psychological problems is the habit of emotional avoidance. This may seem surprising, because the attempt to avoid negative emotions appears to be a reasonable thing. After all, negative emotions don't feel good, and they are often linked in our minds to negative events that we want to avoid or forget. Moreover, we are all familiar with the momentary relief that avoidance can provide. If the thought of speaking up upsets me, then I can make myself feel better by deciding not to speak. Indeed, avoidance is an effective solution in the short term. Long term, however, it becomes a bigger problem than whatever was being avoided in the first place. And life, if you're at all lucky, is a long term proposition.

Avoiding a negative emotion buys you short term gain at the price of long term pain. When you avoid the short term discomfort of a negative emotion, you resemble the person who under stress decides to drink. It ‘works,' and the next day, when bad feelings come, he drinks again. So far so good, short term. In the long run, however, that person will develop a bigger problem (addiction), in addition to the unresolved issues he had avoided by drinking.

There are several reasons why emotional avoidance is harmful.

First, important goals and pursuits in your life may inherently involve going through some challenging times and situations, and an unwillingness to ‘pay the toll' for the trip may narrow your life horizons needlessly. Over time, avoidance becomes a prison, because after a while you begin to feel the need to avoid many situations, people, experiences and places that may bring the negative emotion to mind, stir it, or remind you of it. And the more you avoid, the weaker you feel, the more your coping skills diminish, and the less of life you can experience.

Second, attempts at avoiding negative emotions are usually futile. Telling yourself that a certain emotion is intolerable or dangerous traps you in constant vigilance regarding the very thing you're trying to avoid. You become hyper-vigilant about any possibility of this feeling arising. The fear of the impending negative experience becomes a negative experience in itself.

Third, emotional avoidance often involves denying the truth--not a good foundation for a healthy life. It's like someone who looks out the window, sees snow falling, and then tells himself: "it can't be snowing." Clearly it can, and it is. Granted, you may not like snow. But denying the fact that it's snowing is unlikely to solve the problems posed by snow.

Fourth, avoidance lengthens the period of anticipation, and anticipatory anxiety is usually a much more noxious condition than the actual situation being anticipated. This is mainly because when you anticipate, your imagination is unbounded by actual situational demands. You can go anywhere in your head regarding something that hasn't happened yet, and so you'll often go wild with negative, catastrophic scenarios. In contrast, once actually in the feared situation, your mind becomes bounded by the parameters of what is happening around you. And what is actually happening is usually less than spectacular or catastophic. Real catastrophes are, after all, really rare. Reality generates many fewer extreme situations than the unbounded imagination.

Now, before we discuss a more healthy way to handle negative emotion, we need to understand the function of emotions in general. You can think of your emotions as a source of information. Your emotions tell you something about what's going on with you and around you. Emotions, however, are not the only source of information available to you. You also have your rational thoughts, your stored knowledge and experience, your values and goals. Information provided by emotions needs to be appraised and evaluated in light of these other sources in order for you to decide how to behave in the situation.

Regardless of your emotion, you always have choices of action. Your decision will depend on synthesizing knowledge from many sources. For example, if you and your child are approached by a wild dog while on a nature hike, you may feel fear, and with it a desire to flee, but decide to stay and fight the dog to protect your child. In this case, your values ("I have a duty to protect my child") dictated that you ‘disobey' your fear. Emotions, when viewed as part of a spectrum of available sources of information, are a bit like the weather report. They are important to know, consider, and understand, but they are not necessarily the overriding factor in your life plans. When the weather is bad (not to your liking), it doesn't mean you have to deny it, focus all your attention on it, or cancel your plans because of it. What you need to do is accept the weather and adjust your plans accordingly. If my goal today is to pick my daughter up at school at 4:00, and it's suddenly snowing, and I don't like snow, I will not waste my energy raging at the sky, nor will I leave my daughter stranded. I will put on a parka, leave home 15 minutes earlier and drive carefully to get her.

As a human being, you are going to have all kinds of emotions, just like there are all kinds of weather. These emotions are, more than anything else, just a part of being a living human being. By accepting your emotional life, you are affirming your full humanity. Emotional acceptance is thus a far better strategy than avoidance.

Emotional acceptance refers to the willingness and ability to accept and experience the negative emotion, to acknowledge and absorb it. Acceptance offers several advantages. First, by accepting your emotions, you are accepting the truth of your situation (it is snowing). This acceptance means that you don't have to spend your energy pushing the emotion away. Instead, once the emotion is acknowledged, you can then turn to pursue the behaviors that are aligned with your goals and values.

Second, when you accept the emotion, you are giving yourself a chance to learn about it, become familiar with it, become skilled in its management, and integrate it into your life. Avoidance doesn't teach you that, because you can't learn to do something by not doing it.

Third, acceptance is implicitly akin to saying, "This is not that bad." Which is the truth--negative emotions may not be fun, but they won't kill you; experiencing them as they are--annoying but not dangerous--is eventually much less of a drag than the ongoing (failing) attempt to avoid them.

Finally, when you accept a negative emotion, it tends to lose its destructive power. This is surprising and counter intuitive to many people, but if you think about it for a while, you will see the logic of this approach. Swimmers who are caught in an undertow and feel themselves being dragged out to sea often panic and begin to swim against the current with all their might. Often, they fatigue, cramp and drown. To survive, such a swimmer should do the opposite--let go. Let the current take him out to sea. Within a few hundred yards the current will weaken and the swimmer can swim around and back to shore. The same with a powerful emotion: pushing against it is futile and possibly dangerous; but if you accept the emotion, it will run its course while allowing you to run yours.

Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Otterbein College and a practicing clinical psychologist in Columbus, Ohio.

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