Hilary Jacobs Hendel is a certified psychoanalyst and AEDP psychotherapist with a passion for helping people become their authentic selves. Her new book, It’s Not Always Depression, is full of patient stories and exercises that help ease anxiety and depression by helping us connect with our underlying emotions.
Most people are uncomfortable with emotions. And that makes sense to me. So many of us have been raised in an emotion-phobic culture. We are not given formal education on the biology of emotions and the brain. We are told we should have control over our emotions when the fact is that emotions are not under conscious control. No one teaches us the difference between categories of emotions. For example, core emotions, like anger, sadness, fear, disgust, joy, excitement, and sexual excitement, are biological survival programs. Anxiety, guilt, and shame inhibit core emotions to keep us in the good graces of our families, peer groups, and other social groups. This is useful information that I teach all of my patients.
What we are taught in our culture, very well I might add, is how to avoid emotions. Our society even praises people for not showing emotions, calling them strong, stoic, or independent. It’s no wonder most people are uncomfortable with them.
Here are 10 signs that you’re not comfortable with emotions:
- You sit at work yearning for a drink.
- You avoid conflicts with your partner.
- You laugh or smile when you or someone else talks about sad things.
- You change the subject when uncomfortable during a conversation.
- You find it hard to slow down and relax.
- You cannot be alone.
- You blame and judge others a lot.
- You can’t stop worrying.
- You prefer work to intimacy.
- You can’t accept a compliment.
All of the strategies above are defenses against emotions. Defenses are the things we do to avoid being uncomfortable. I don’t know about you, but when I feel stress, I look forward to blanking out with a game of solitaire or Words with Friends—it takes me away from what I am feeling. Avoiding emotions every now and then is fine, even adaptive, like when we swallow our tears to not cry at work or walk away from an enraging situation. However, habitually avoiding emotional discomfort using the 10 signs above and many others (that I list in my book) is not a recipe for wellness in the long run. It might be news to you that buried emotions are at the root of our most prevalent psychiatric disorders: anxiety and depression.
If you recognize yourself in any of the 10 signs listed above, try not to be hard on yourself. Remind yourself that we live in a culture with messages like: Control your emotions! Emotions are for weak people. Get over it! And we internalize these values. Then when we have emotions and cannot stop them with sheer will, we tell ourselves we are bad or weak. We believe we should get over it. And when we cannot, we feel worse.
Simply learning a bit more about emotions can make you much more comfortable with them and immediately make you feel better about having emotions in the first place. When I learned about core emotions and how to work with them, it was an aha! moment for me that changed my personal and professional life. I never knew that core emotions were actually a bunch of physical sensations that we come to recognize as an emotion. Just think about how your body feels when you are sad—kind of heavy in your heart area. I never knew until I was in my professional training that emotions are biological forces that put stress on the body when they are buried. My patients are always surprised, and then relieved, to learn that emotions are not under conscious control and are normal responses to the environment. One of the secrets to getting comfortable with emotions is getting comfortable with how they feel in our bodies. All of us benefit from understanding emotions, why nature hard-wired these programs deep in our brain, and how to work with them in line with our biology.
I became an emotion-centered psychotherapist to help people feel better and develop skills and resilience to meet the challenges of life. I am passionate in the belief that all of us need a basic education in emotions. I hope I have prompted you to consider learning more about emotions. Just like you learned in high school biology that you had eyes, ears, a heart, and a stomach, and you learned a little bit about how those organs work, you can learn about your emotions and have tools to work with them. To thrive in life, tending to both thoughts and emotions is required. It’s about coming into balance. We can all grow more comfortable with emotions, and it will serve us greatly.
From the book It's Not Always Depression by Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW. Copyright © 2018 by Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW. Reprinted by arrangement with Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.