NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Friday, March 30, 2018

Overcoming Your Fear of Your So-Called "Negative" Emotions

In a prior article, Overcoming Fear of Anger, I discussed fear of anger and how psychotherapy can help.  But anger isn't the only so-called "negative" emotion that people often fear.  Aside from anger, many people fear sadness and grief.  There are also people who fear any strong emotion, including joy and happiness because of their history (see my article: Are You Afraid to Allow Yourself to Be Happy?).

Overcoming Your Fear of Your So-Called "Negative" Emotions

Why Are People Afraid of Experiencing "Negative" Emotions?
First, let me clarify that there's really no such thing as a "negative emotion," which is why I put quotes around the word "negative."  All emotions are normal.  It's what you do with your emotions that makes the difference.

So, I'm distinguishing feeling emotions vs. behavior.  If you get angry and you get violent, that's obviously a big problem.  But there's nothing wrong with feeling angry.  As I mentioned, it's what you do with it that matters.  Aside from getting violent, if you hold onto anger and resentment and, over time, you're unable to let go of these feelings, then this is a problem (see my article: Holding Onto Anger is Like Drinking Poison and Expecting the Other Person to Die and Letting Go of Resentment).

There is no one reason why people have fear of experiencing anger, sadness or grief, but for many people, it's about a fear of being engulfed or shattered by the emotion.  So, people with this fear often use various defense mechanisms to ward off what they consider unpleasant emotions.

Under optimal circumstances, children learn from their parents at a young age, in an age-appropriate way, how to deal with emotions that are uncomfortable for them.  If a child's parents are able to remain relatively calm when a child has a temper tantrum and help the child to calm down, the child learns that he can be angry; his parents aren't going to be angry with him because he's angry; and his parents will help him to calm down.

Conversely, if a child gets angry and the parents' reaction is to get angry too, then the child internalizes that his anger is "bad."  If the parents scold the child for having a temper tantrum and then isolate him in his room, this also gives the child the message that being angry is "bad" and he doesn't learn how to express his emotions in a healthy way.

Instead, the child learns that he has to hide his anger and not show it.  As a result, he grows up to be an adult who uses various defense mechanisms to defend against his anger and hide it from others and from himself.

Common Defense Mechanisms:
  • Denial: "I'm not angry." or "I never get angry."
  • Acting out: extreme behavior to express thoughts or feelings
  • Dissociation: zoning out and disconnecting from feelings
  • Projection: "I'm not angry--you're angry."
  • Rationalization: "Getting angry won't help me."
  • Intellectualization: Using intellect to disconnect from feelings
  • Regression: Going back to an earlier stage of development
  • Reaction Formation: Converting uncomfortable and unwanted feelings into the opposite feelings
and so on.

Temporarily Compartmentalizing Emotions vs Repressing Emotions
Warding off uncomfortable feelings indefinitely by using defense mechanisms is different from temporarily compartmentalizing feelings under particular circumstances.

For instance, if a manager is giving a presentation to senior managers and a thought crosses his mind about his father who recently died, he would want to wait until he had privacy to experience his emotions, so he would probably compartmentalize his grief and sadness temporarily until he had privacy to express them.  This would be a healthy coping strategy, and it's different from pushing down emotions indefinitely (How Compartmentalization Can Be Used as a Healthy Short Term Coping Strategy).

A Fictional Clinical Vignette: Overcoming Your Fear of So-Called "Negative" Emotions
The following fictional clinical vignette illustrates how psychotherapy can help a client to overcome fear of uncomfortable emotions:

Immediately after Nina's mother died unexpectedly, Nina got involved in a whirlwind of activities so that she almost always had something planned.  She feared that if she wasn't busy all the time that she would be engulfed by grief (see my article: Coping With the Loss of a Loved One: Common Reactions).

A few months later, Nina began getting headaches and she felt fatigued.  Her doctor ruled out any medical reasons.  When he asked her about what had been going on in her life in the last few months, Nina mentioned that her mother died unexpectedly.  She also mentioned that she was dealing with her grief by "keeping busy" most of the time (see my article: Are You Keeping Busy to Avoid Uncomfortable Emotions?).

When her doctor asked Nina if she allowed herself time to experience her grief, Nina was confused because she didn't understand why she would do that.  So, her doctor explained that grief is a normal reaction to losing a loved one and continuing to suppress her grief would be emotionally and physically unhealthy for her.

Overcoming Your Fear of Your So-Called "Negative" Emotions

He also told her that her headaches and fatigue might be the result of all this pent up emotion that she was suppressing.  Her fatigue might also be related to keeping herself constantly busy.  He recommended that Nina seek help from a psychotherapist.

Reluctantly, Nina began seeing a psychotherapist, who provided Nina with psychoeducation about grief being a normal and common reaction to the loss of her mother, and how psychotherapy could help her (see my article: Why It's Important For Psychotherapists to Provide Clients With Psychoeducation About How Psychotherapy Works).

When her psychotherapist asked Nina about her family background, including how family members dealt with so-called "negative" emotions, like anger, sadness and grief, Nina told her that her parents would discourage her from being upset when she was a child.  They didn't like when Nina was sad and cried or got angry.  They would punish her.  So, Nina learned to suppress her emotions.

As they talked about Nina's discomfort with her feelings, Nina said, "I don't see how it would help me to allow myself to feel sad.  That won't bring my mother back."

Her psychotherapist explained defense mechanisms to Nina, and she spoke to her specifically about the defense mechanism of rationalization, which is the defense that Nina was using.  Then, she asked Nina if she was afraid of allowing herself to feel grief about her mother's death.

Nina thought about it for a few seconds, and then she said, "I guess I am afraid of feeling grief.  Sometimes, I can't help it--I just think about losing my mother and I cry, but I hate to cry and find some way to distract myself."

Over time, Nina and her psychotherapist worked to help Nina feel more comfortable with her emotions in a gradual way so that she didn't feel overwhelmed by them.  As Nina developed more of a tolerance for these emotions, she was able to allow herself to feel her grief (How Psychotherapy Helps You to Expand Your Window of Tolerance).

As Nina's ability to experience her emotions expanded, she felt relieved to experience her emotions rather than suppress them.  Her headaches and fatigue disappeared and, overall, she felt better.  She realized that emotions came in "waves" and her fear that she would be engulfed by her grief, as if it was a tsunami, was unfounded.

All emotions are normal.  What you do with your emotions is the real issue.

People who have a fear of experiencing their "negative" emotions usually don't learn as a child how to feel their emotions.  As adults, they continue to suppress what they consider to be uncomfortable emotions, these emotions are often somatized (i.e., the experiencing or expressing psychological problems in a physical way) with headaches, stomachaches, back pain, and so on.

Some people "medicate" their emotional pain by drinking excessively, abusing drugs, gambling compulsively and so on, in an attempt to shut down these emotions.

Even if someone didn't learn as a child how to experience uncomfortable emotions, she can learn how to cope with emotions in a healthy way in psychotherapy.

Getting Help in Psychotherapy
If you're struggling with emotions that make you feel uncomfortable, you can learn to experience your emotions in a healthy way in psychotherapy (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

A licensed mental health professional can help you to deal with emotions that make you feel uncomfortable so that you're no longer using defense mechanisms or somatizing to ward off these emotions (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Allowing yourself to experience a full range of emotions can help you to feel alive, and it can add meaning to your life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many clients to overcome trauma and their fear of experiencing uncomfortable emotions.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW -NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.