There is nothing inherently wrong with our natural tendency to want to fight or flee what causes us discomfort. It is our natural survival mechanism. However, fighting feelings or denying their existence often does not work (or complicates the situation). I would like to start this post with a humorous example (see Figure 1) to illustrate this point.
The example concerns a man’s fear of spiders. The red arrow shows him accepting his feelings of fear (that a little spider frightened him). And the blue path shows him fighting his feelings, and as a result experiencing additional unpleasant feelings, behaving based on these feelings, then experiencing more unpleasant feelings….
Of course, you might sympathize with a man who does not want to be afraid of spiders. There are probably feelings you too would rather not experience.
Sometimes the unpleasantness comes from the feeling, the context, or both. For instance, though you may not have any problems with accepting your feelings of hatred for someone, it is understandable why you, as a parent, would have trouble accepting your feelings of hatred for your own child.
As you have probably noticed from your conversations with friends and family, we do not all have the same reaction toward negative emotions. Although many of us have trouble accepting negative emotions, some of us find it easier to accept negative emotions (unless particularly intense or in certain contexts) while others struggle to tolerate even mildly negative feelings.
Reasons behind aversion to feelings
What are some causes of aversion to emotions? The causes may be related to our biological makeup and/or childhood environment. Although a detailed analysis of individual variation in the acceptance of feelings is beyond the scope of this article, below I briefly describe how certain environmental factors can make it more difficult for us to accept our emotions.
We have all had experiences, directly or indirectly, with invalidation. For example, numerous people have been raised in invalidating environments.¹ How may invalidating environments affect the growing child?
An invalidating environment punishes emotional expression, intermittently reinforces extreme displays, or insufficiently authenticates or altogether denies the private experience the child communicates (e.g., “you’re not sad, you’re hungry”). Consequently, the child does not learn how to understand, label, regulate, or tolerate emotional responses and instead learns to oscillate between emotional inhibition and extreme emotional lability. The child also fails to learn how to solve the problems contributing to these emotional reactions and how to manage the consequences of emotional experiences (p. 1008).
Therefore, invalidating environments make it difficult for young people to learn to tolerate their feelings, express their emotions properly, and regulate themselves. A sizable portion of adults who struggle with accepting their emotional experiences may have been raised in such invalidating contexts.
Accepting your unpleasant feelings
Consider a person who, regardless of her preferences and wishes, experiences negative feelings toward someone she wants to, needs to, or “ought to,” love. Or she happens to desire an object or person she “should not” desire. Of course, this causes her much suffering.
For her (and the rest of us), it is helpful to remember people do not choose their spontaneous feelings. The feelings just happen. So we might as well accept them.
When I talk about you accepting your emotions, I do not mean you approving of your feelings, acting on them, or interpreting them in a certain way (e.g., I feel sad; therefore, I’m a depressed person and will always be so).
At the most basic level, accepting negative emotions means acknowledging them. Think of acceptance as equal to greeting someone. You may not know or even like the person, but you still look their way and say hi.
Or think of yourself as, say, a porter or doorkeeper. As the feelings (i.e. guests) come in, you greet them for a minute and see what they need, then return to your post and wait for the next arrival. See Figure 2. If this metaphor speaks to you, see the poem “The Guest House” by the Sufi poet Rumi.
Acceptance is a process; it requires work. It will not happen overnight. Sometimes you might need help (e.g., support groups, medications, therapy). Therapy, for instance, could help you learn specific tools for managing very intense emotions. With practice, you will learn to accept more and more of your feelings, and as a consequence, a greater portion of your experience. Hopefully, soon you will feel more grounded and stable and less motivated to distort reality, deny core parts of your experience, or disconnect from the real world.