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8 Ways People Avoid Their Emotions

Which of these have you done?

Key points

  • There are a lot more ways people try to escape their feelings than just food, alcohol, and video games.
  • People go to some surprising lengths to avoid their feelings.
  • Strategies that provide comfort and allow you to compartmentalize can be healthy at times.
 dusan jovic/Unsplash
Source: dusan jovic/Unsplash

Contrary to popular belief, avoiding your emotions is sometimes OK, or even desirable. For example, you can have routines of doing this: Perhaps every Friday is your yummy dinner and distractions night. On Friday nights, you eat something special and do something fun that's aimed at distracting you from your worries, concerns, goals, etc. That could be a very emotionally healthy routine, and help give you a better perspective on everything you have going on.

However, chronic avoidance of difficult emotions is a problem. People who are psychologically healthier and more successful use their difficult emotions to propel them, rather than trying to escape them.

Here are a bunch of ways that people avoid their emotions. I've left out some of the trite ones you've heard before, like "eating your feelings."

What you might notice is that these are not all solely unhelpful. However, anything you overdo likely will become unhelpful. I want to convey some of the nuance involved in this concept. Some commonly recommended strategies for coping with strong emotions can be a problem, and some "don't do's" can actually be helpful.

1. Over-feeling your dominant emotion.

People often have a dominant emotion, like anger or anxiety. They channel all their energy and focus into that emotion, partly because it helps them avoid other, less familiar feelings.

If, for example, you feel a lot of anxiety, but very little anger or sadness, it's a sign this concept may be relevant to you. I wrote about it here in detail recently.

2. Helping others.

Helping others is a great way to boost your mood and happiness. However, sometimes people do it to distract themselves from feeling their own pain. For example, someone might become over-involved in an online support group and spend hours a day helping others.

3. Sleep.

Sleep resets our emotional coping resources. Occasionally, I feel too depressed or anxious to do anything. I feel almost frozen or paralyzed by the emotions. Sleeping it off actually works for me most of the time. I don't have a problem with this causing nighttime sleep disruption. Once I wake up after a long nap, I don't feel frozen anymore.

However, if you overdid this, if it disrupted your nighttime sleep, or if you didn't feel refreshed by it, then it wouldn't be helpful. Some problems are made worse by excessive sleeping, so there's a lot of nuance here. However, some strategies you've heard you shouldn't do can be useful for some people.

4. Productive procrastination.

When we procrastinate, we're attempting to avoid the emotions that thinking about the task stirs, which could be boredom, frustration, anxiety, or resentment. However, I've produced some of my best work when I've been avoiding a task I really didn't want to do. In particular, I often do creative tasks when I'm avoiding admin. Realistically, my creative work is more valuable than my admin, although that still needs to be done.

Sometimes the "productive" procrastination people do isn't that valuable. And when you use productive procrastination, you're not training yourself to focus in spite of your difficult feelings. If you don't train this skill, avoiding tasks can become a large problem (if you miss deadlines) or very stressful (if you eventually do the task but it weighs heavily on your mind while you're procrastinating).

5. Nostalgia

One of my current favorite things to do when I need emotional comfort is to watch YouTube videos about wrestling from the 80s and 90s. I loved that as a kid, and it brings a lot of nostalgia. However, it's also not facing up to anything in the present.

A little nostalgic escapism is fine, but don't constantly engage with a different time period as a way of escaping the present.

6. Blaming others.

Blaming others for why bad things happen to you, or why you can't get what you want, is often a way of avoiding your own feelings. It helps you avoid the hurt you feel. It also helps you avoid other emotions feeling frustrated with yourself. However, this strategy has huge costs. It'll hurt your success, relationships, and overall happiness.

7. Podcasts, music, or other forms of entertainment.

Having entertainment always playing in your ears can be a type of avoiding your emotions. If you feel antsy going for a walk or taking public transport without a podcast, this might be an issue for you.

8. You're always learning and improving.

Love of learning is an important strength. If you've got this strength, it has probably contributed greatly to your success in life. However, sometimes when people are always engaging in new learning or self-improvement, it's a defense against anxiety and not feeling good enough.

You shouldn't always be engaged in self-improvement or other forms of learning. Most therapies that are well-supported by research only last a few months. Notice if the idea of not knowing everything, or not constantly working on your flaws, provokes anxiety for you.

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