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Are You Afraid to Feel Your Feelings?

Addressing animotophobia.

Key points

  • Perfectionists tend to cope with their fear of feelings by overachieving.
  • People with a fear of feelings tend to believe their feelings will suffocate them.
  • Suppressing feelings is often a defense against external punishment.

Animotophobia is the intense fear of one's feelings. One can protect oneself from his feelings when he resolves to intellectualize them, telling you all about their causes and how to manage them. One may project their feelings, noting how another may be upset, but not able to say the way they are upset themselves. One might avoid people who arouse intense feelings, and give themselves excuses to do so. And one could deny their feelings, having a sense of numbness filling the void meant for their grief.

Perfectionists tend to pursue external validation and success not only to block negative feelings, but to eliminate feelings altogether, failing to acknowledge how even joy, while seemingly good, terrifies them. Essentially, they may seek out an unlimited sense of joy, freed from the shackles of anxiety and doubt.

For some, potential negative experiences, like harm or death, carry the weight of their biggest fears. For others, their own everyday emotions do.

They live in terror of their own anger, anxiety, sadness, and, again, even joy. Each of these emotions do little more than forebode. Anxiety indicates the worst-case scenarios. Anger indicates loss. Sadness indicates hopelessness. And joy indicates disappointment. To these individuals, emotions aren't to be managed, and they certainly aren't helpful; abstractly, they're mere insights into the relentless tragedy of life. What is bad is bad and what is good is bad. Nothing is, therefore, tolerable.

People often say that anger is solely rooted in self-respect, as you aren’t tolerating bad behavior. But, in reality, it’s rooted in shame as well because you blame the other for making you feel it. At once, you’re both ashamed and offended, a tension you desperately try to resolve through rage. For if you are convincing, the other, in turn, relents, and their new perspective becomes yours. But, for the individual who fears anger, there's no hope for a positive resolution. She chronically believes that her rebellion will be thwarted, leaving her feeling completely broken and even isolated once her self-defense is shattered. Rage is, thus, both uncomfortable and feeble, serving no discernible purpose.

For the person who fears anxiety, anxiety is always right. There's always something awful waiting for them and no one is to be trusted. Through mental filtering or cherry-picking data, you'll only recall the times when your fears came to pass, conveniently forgetting when they didn't. This individual will tell you that people should always trust their guts. Yet, their guts are always gurgling. Could it possibly be that only, or mostly, bad things happen to them? They'll tell you, "My gut is always right."

In deep despair, the individual terrified of sadness believes that it will never cease. Many of us consider our emotions to be transient, which is especially true for individuals diagnosed with a disorder marked by the cyclical nature of one's emotions. But, those who chronically experience bouts of depression, even in the bipolar disorders, often believe that they've become permanently scarred. When the darkness is so intense and everything feels so bleak, all that is good or potentially good becomes submerged. They'll never be happy or successful, nor recover their self-esteem. Depression is a reinforcing feeling, meaning the more you feel it, the more you find reasons to.

And, finally, ecstasy falters in the throes of one's cognitions. A little bit of joy, or pride in oneself or accomplishments is met with ridicule and censure. One is reminded of where they stand in comparison to their ideal and to those who will always outshine them. One is scolded for making others feel bad for what they have and who they are. At once, one is told: You're nothing, and you aren't allowed to feel proud of being good. So, joy, or the prospect of it, inevitably leads to anxiety.

Many of our patients believe they come to therapy to feel better, but, in reality, they enter treatment because feeling anything is painful. Their preference, more often than not, is to cultivate a life without emotions, as though something like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy could ever help them become fully logical. Fundamentally, they seek to rid themselves of their shame, which permeates through all of the other emotions. They feel ashamed of being happy. They don't believe they'll ever overcome their shame when feeling sad. Anxieties are mere signs of embarrassment or public shaming. And anger is a last ditch effort to overcome it.

Psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams wrote that "feelings have their own kind of wisdom." And, when functional, feelings make life worth living while protecting us from harm. But, when not, feelings supersede experience, becoming the boogeymen tormenting us.

In conjunction with analyzing the validity of the beliefs accompanying one's feelings, one would need to learn how to sit with them and not feel as though their life may end. Returning to McWilliams, she writes, "A person wants to learn how to cope with difficulties without falling apart and not feeling completely destroyed. Or he hopes that after the completion of psychotherapy, he will be able to withstand the temporary regression and destabilization necessary for development." Here, she means that therapy helps you encounter and tolerate your fears in order to learn that you can; and the key word here is "temporary." In treatment, patients tend to learn that feelings, like so much else, are merely transitory. And, as significantly, they learn that no matter how apparently irrational, their feelings won't lead to punishment.

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