NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, April 14, 2018

Overcoming Your Fear of Allowing Yourself to Feel Your Sadness

Many people have a fear of allowing themselves to feel their sadness.  Their fear is if they allow themselves to feel sadness or grief that they will drown in it, so they use various defense mechanisms to avoid feeling sadness or grief, which prolongs their discomfort (see my articles: Grief in WaitingCoping With GriefDiscovering that Sadness is Hidden Underneath Your Anger, and Allowing Yourself to Experience Your Emotions in a Healthy Way).

Overcoming Your Fear of Allowing Yourself to Feel Your Sadness

Usually people who fear feeling sadness or other feelings that cause them discomfort had experiences as young children where left alone with their emotions, so they were forced to soothe themselves with the limited capacities available to them as children (see my article: Overcoming Your Fear of So-Called "Negative Emotions").

Sometimes, this is related to experiences of childhood abuse and/or neglect where one or both parents were either emotionally unavailable to soothe them or where the parents were the perpetrators of the children's emotional distress (see my article: What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?).

In other cases, the parents weren't dealing with their own emotional discomfort and, as a result, they didn't know how to soothe themselves or their children.  Often, this becomes an intergenerational pattern unless people get help in therapy to cope with their fears of experiencing uncomfortable feelings (see my article: Intergenerational Family Dynamics).

People who fear dealing with sadness or other emotions that are uncomfortable for them usually don't seek out help in psychotherapy for the same reason why they don't allow themselves to feel their full range of their feelings--fear of being overwhelmed by their emotions.  Instead, they might keep themselves distracted and "busy" to ward off uncomfortable emotions (see my article: Are You Constantly "Keeping Busy" to Avoid Uncomfortable Feelings?).

The various forms of trauma therapy, including Somatic Experiencing and other experiential forms of psychotherapy, can be helpful to these clients because the work is titrated to the needs of the client after the psychotherapist assesses the client's ability to tolerate emotions that are uncomfortable to him or to her (see my article: Experiential Psychotherapy and the Mind-Body Connection: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious Mind).

Fictional Clinical Vignette: Overcoming the Fear of Allowing Yourself to Feel Your Sadness
The following fictional vignette illustrates how a trauma therapy, like Somatic Experiencing, can help a client to gradually develop the capacity to tolerate sadness so that the problem can be worked through and resolved:

Gene decided to begin psychotherapy after his medical doctor ruled out any medical cause for his headaches.  Since all tests were negative with regard to a physical cause to his problems, his doctor explained the mind-body connection and how psychological problems can create physical symptoms if these psychological problems are not dealt with and resolved.  The doctor recommended that Gene attend psychotherapy to deal with the underlying emotional reasons for the headaches.

Gene was reluctant to attend psychotherapy, but he also didn't want to continue to have headaches or develop other physical ailments, so he contacted a psychotherapist for a consultation.  During the consultation, Gene told the psychotherapist, "I don't believe in psychotherapy, but my doctor recommended that I begin therapy, so I'm willing to try it."

When his psychotherapist asked Gene about his family history, Gene, who was in his late 30s, said he didn't have clear memories of his childhood.  He provided basic information that he was the oldest of three children and grew up with both his parents in New York City.

He said he remembered that when he was a child, he spent most of his time alone because his parents were preoccupied with their own lives.  He also mentioned that he was not close to his parents or his young brother and sister.  They all lived in the same household, but they were each living a separate life (see my article: Disengaged Families).

With regard to his current relationship with his family, he only saw them a couple of times a year on holidays when Gene and his siblings visited his parents, who now lived in Florida.  He said that family relationships were strained, and he was always glad when he was on his way back to New York.

Gene told his therapist that he had been in one romantic relationship when he was in his late 20s.  He said it ended after a year because his then-girlfriend told him that she didn't feel he was emotionally available to her.  He said that, after the initial stage of passion and excitement in the relationship, he didn't want as much emotional intimacy as his girlfriend did.  He said, vaguely, that he thought they just "grew apart," but he didn't really understand what she meant when she said he was emotionally unavailable.

He also said that, although he dated "here and there," he didn't especially miss being in a relationship because he thought a relationship would demand more from him than he could handle.  He would see friends occasionally, but he spent most of his time alone, which is what he preferred.  Overall, he considered himself to be "a loner" (see my article: Seeing Yourself as a "Loner" vs. Experiencing the Shame of Feeling That You Don't Belong).

As his psychotherapist listened to Gene talk about himself, she could see how tense and uncomfortable he was feeling.  Towards the end of the consultation, she asked him how it was for him to talk about himself and history.  Gene thought about it for a moment, and then he said he wasn't sure how he felt about it but, in general, he never felt comfortable talking about himself.

She explained to Gene that she tended to work experientially and she developed treatment plans in collaboration with each client depending upon their needs.  She also told him that she worked in a way that respected each client's capacity to tolerate dealing the emotions that came up regarding his or her presenting problem.  Then, she provided Gene with basic psychoeducation about experiential psychotherapy (see my article: Why Experiential Psychotherapy is More Effective to Overcome Trauma Than Talk Therapy Alone).

His psychotherapist could tell that Gene was cutting off emotions that were uncomfortable for him and that he probably spent a lot of his childhood using the defense mechanism of dissociation in order to deal with his aloneness and lack of emotional support, which is why he had so few memories from childhood.

When Gene came to his next psychotherapy session, he asked his therapist what he needed to do to "fix things" so he didn't continue to get headaches.  His psychotherapist told him that she would need to get to know him better to assess the problem, and he would need to see if he felt comfortable enough with her to do the work.  She explained that the therapeutic alliance between the therapist and the client takes a while to build, and there would need to be a therapeutic alliance before they did any in depth psychological work.

In other words, there was no "quick fix" for his problems (see my article: Beyond the "Band Aid" Approach to Psychotherapy).

Gene was displeased with this answer.  He wasn't accustomed to the idea of an emotional process and that there would be a process in therapy where he and his psychotherapist would need to develop a relationship.  He thought it would be similar to going to the doctor where he would receive either medication or a shot to deal with his problems.

So, his psychotherapist provided him with more information about the psychotherapy process and how, if there was a good fit between the client and the psychotherapist, the client would learn to trust the therapist over time.  In the meantime, they could continue to explore the timing of his headaches and if these headaches coincided with something that was going on in his life.

At first, Gene said that he didn't see the connection between his headaches and anything that was going on his life.  So, his therapist asked him if he remembered what was going on when his headaches started.

Initially, Gene said he didn't remember anything in particular.  But then, he remembered that his headaches started after his maternal uncle died last year, but he didn't see the connection between his uncle's death and his headaches.  When his therapist asked Gene how he felt about the loss of his maternal uncle, Gene was confused by this question.  So, she asked him specifically how he grieved for the loss.

Gene still didn't understand what his therapist meant by "grieved."  He said he wasn't aware that he did anything in particular other than going to the funeral and paying his respects to his aunt and cousins, which was something that was "expected" of him.  He said he wasn't aware that there was anything more to do about his uncle's death.

His psychotherapist provided Gene with psychoeducation about the rituals that many people perform in order to grieve this kind of loss, but Gene still didn't understand.  He said that, although he cared for his uncle and they were close at times when he was a child, he went to the funeral out of sense of obligation to his aunt and cousins.

As they explored Gene's reaction to his uncle's death, it became apparent to his psychotherapist that Gene was defending himself against his uncomfortable feelings about the loss.  As she watched Gene fold his arms across his chest and look away with barely any eye contact, she could see that he was defending against feeling his sadness.

At one point, as he was talking about the loss of his uncle, Gene became irritated and told the psychotherapist that he didn't see how talking about his uncle's death was going to help him to get over his headaches.  He thought this was a waste of time.

His psychotherapist asked Gene what he was experiencing in that moment, and he said he was feeling annoyed.  Then, she asked him if it would be tolerable for him to stay with that feeling for a moment to see what happened next.  Gene didn't see how this would be helpful, but he agreed to try it.

After a minute, Gene said he was surprised that, as he focused on his feeling, he felt his annoyance starting to dissipate.  His therapist explained to Gene that, often when a person focuses on an emotion, it changes because emotions tend to come and go.

She also explained that each person has a particular capacity to deal with uncomfortable emotions.  She called it their "window of tolerance" (see my article: Expanding Your Window of Tolerance in Psychotherapy So You Can Overcome Emotional Problems).

As they continued to work together, Gene was beginning to discover that he had a narrow window of tolerance, which was why it was so difficult for him to relate to emotions that made him feel uncomfortable, especially sadness.

Over time, Gene also discovered that he was warding off much of his sadness for his uncle's death because he was afraid that he would drown in his sadness if he allowed himself to feel it.  Using Somatic Experiencing, his psychotherapist helped Gene to experience his sadness in a manageable way, rather than dwelling on it for a long period of time in therapy.

Gradually, Gene began to develop a greater capacity to tolerate sadness and he allowed himself to grieve in his psychotherapy sessions.  Having his psychotherapist there to help him with his sadness and grief was an experience that he had never known before because he grew up in an environment where he was alone with his feelings almost all of the time.

As Gene mourned the loss of his uncle, his headaches dissipated.  He realized that when he was warding off his sadness in the past, he was placing himself and his body under a lot of stress, which is what was causing the headaches.

He also realized that, prior to allowing himself to feel his sadness and grief, he feared that his emotions would be overwhelming and he would drown in his emotions.  But, with the help of his psychotherapist and the titration of his emotional experiences so that they were manageable, he was able to cope with whatever came up for him emotionally.

As he opened up to experiencing his emotions more, Gene also realized that he was feeling lonely, but he had not allowed himself to experience that feeling until this point in his therapy.  The loneliness and his increased openness to other people allowed Gene to open up to connecting emotionally with women and the possibility of finding a relationship.

When people shut down emotions that are uncomfortable for them (whether it's sadness, anger or any other emotion), they usually don't realize that this is what they're doing because they're often out of touch with their emotions in general.

Fear of experiencing uncomfortable emotions usually begins at a young age when the child is overwhelmed by emotions that aren't mediated by his parents.  Since children need their parents to help them to cope with uncomfortable emotions, they don't develop the emotional capacity to deal with these emotions, and this continues into adulthood where they have a fear of uncomfortable emotions.

Getting Help in Therapy
Experiential therapy, like Somatic Experiencing, is usually much more helpful to overcome fear of allowing yourself to feel uncomfortable emotions.  The problem with not allowing yourself to experience uncomfortable emotions is that these emotions remain and continue to come up from time to time and get in the way of connecting emotionally with yourself and others.

It usually takes more and more effort to  avoid these feelings, which can develop into physical symptoms, like headaches, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), stomach problems, and other medical issues.

A skilled experiential psychotherapist will help the client to begin experiencing uncomfortable emotions in a manageable way a little at a time.  During that process, the therapist helps the client to develop and expand their window of tolerance so s/he has a greater capacity over time to experience and eventually let go of these emotions (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

If you think you might be avoiding emotions that are uncomfortable for you, you owe it to yourself to get help from a skilled psychotherapist who uses experiential psychotherapy.

Once you have expanded your window of tolerance for experiencing uncomfortable emotions, you might be surprised that you can experience and let go of these emotions over time.

With a greater capacity to feel a range of emotions, you can live a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC experiential 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 expand their window of tolerance so they can overcome their fear of their emotions and live a fuller life.

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.