The Trap of Emotional Nonacceptance

Fighting uncomfortable emotions is understandable, but it usually doesn't help.

Posted Oct 19, 2020

Have you ever experienced an emotion that didn’t feel good, and then criticized yourself for it?

Microgen/Shutterstock
Source: Microgen/Shutterstock

Perhaps amid a wave of anxiety, you told yourself: “Other people wouldn’t feel anxious about this. What’s my problem?” Maybe you were feeling sad and then chided yourself for it: “You don’t have a right to feel down. Other people have it so much worse than you do.” Or you might have felt frustrated with a dear friend, only to notice your inner critic giving you a hard time: “How can you feel frustrated with him? He’s been so kind to you?

If you can see any of these examples, or some variant of them, in your own life, you’re far from alone. Recently, a research team examined the relationship between unpleasant emotions and emotional “nonacceptance.” (To get at nonacceptance, they asked, “Do you think your current emotions are bad or inappropriate?”) They monitored people’s emotions and their emotional acceptance over the course of five days and found that roughly 96 percent of the people in the study struggled with accepting displeasing emotions at some point.

Given how common it is to turn away from emotions, at least sometimes, it’s worth considering whether it works. If we tell ourselves we’re not supposed to feel an emotion, do we feel better? This brings us back to the study we were just talking about.

First, the researchers considered whether the people in the study were more likely to dismiss their emotional experience when they felt more unpleasant emotions. For example, if someone starts to feel more anger, sadness, shame, or anxiety, are they also more likely to disavow how they feel?  Next, they looked at whether people who don’t accept their emotions wind up experiencing more unpleasant ones.

They found that the relationship between unpleasant emotions and difficulty accepting emotions goes both ways.  This means that when emotions that don’t feel so great rise within us, we struggle to accept our emotional experience. Likewise, we also feel more distressing emotions later on, after we try to push emotions we don’t want away. The researchers pointed out that this could lead to a self-perpetuating loop in which we feel undesirable emotions, then try to fend them off, then feel worse, then try again to make them go away, and so on. 

As they put it, “In interventions, it could be important to provide psychoeducation about the long-lasting effects of nonacceptance of emotion: that even if it seems like rejecting one’s emotions should allow one to minimize or avoid them, it often backfires and has the opposite effect.”     

Granted, this study has its limitations, as it included only women. Also, strictly speaking, it wasn’t an experiment and only showed that there’s a relationship between people denying emotions and feeling more emotions they don't want. However, as the researchers pointed out, other studies have found comparable findings in men, and there’s a wealth of research pointing to the link between rejecting emotions and mental distress.

If you’re interested in seeing what it could feel like to stop fighting with yourself and responding to your emotions with openness and acceptance, here are a few ideas to get started:

1.  Remember that criticizing yourself for the way you feel is unlikely to help in the long run.   

2.  Think about emotions the same way you would a physical sensation. If you fell and scraped your knee, would you tell yourself that you’re not supposed to feel any pain? I’m guessing that, although you certainly wouldn’t like feeling pain, you wouldn’t judge yourself for it either. Instead, you’d probably try to tend to the wound. Try treating your emotions the same way.

3.  When you catch yourself denying yourself permission to have certain emotions, reassure yourself that you’re allowed. They may not feel great to you, but they’re all okay.

4. Remind yourself that your emotions are not the same as your behavior.  All emotions are acceptable.  It’s what we do with them that can be constructive (e.g., expressing ourselves in an authentic, thoughtful way) or destructive ( yelling, name-calling).

5. Don’t feel like you need to undertake the journey of emotional acceptance on your own. Consider reaching out to a therapist to work on this with you.

6. Importantly, if you don’t feel ready to acknowledge your emotions for any reason, that’s okay.  Don’t force yourself. Give yourself patience and kindness.

References

Bailen, N. H., Koval, P., Strube, M., Haslam, N., & Thompson, R. J. (2020, September 10). Negative Emotion and Nonacceptance of Emotion in Daily Life. Emotion. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000898