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Fear of feeling

Let’s face it. We’re all a bit intimidated by emotions. When we’re very young, we’re entirely at their mercy. Because our brain isn’t fully developed in childhood, especially our frontal lobes, the capacity for judgment and the ability to self- soothe are beyond our grasp. These capacities expand as we grow. In fact, experts say that our frontal lobes don’t reach full maturation until we’re between 20 and 30! Therefore, absent the part of our brain that helps us judge and reason, we have no access, internal way to modulate distressing feelings. Without the ability to label emotions, we lack even the small comfort of recognizing that other people feel as we do—terrified, overwhelmed, scared. No wonder feelings are so fearsome

Are all feelings created equal?

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According to Sigmund Freud’s pleasure principle, we move toward pleasure and away from pain. This theory states that human beings have an innate, internal drive that propels us toward what feels good and an equal, innate drive that repels us from what feels bad. Using CAT scans, today we can even view the parts of the brain that researchers call our pleasure and pain centers, that is, the areas that light up when exposed to pleasurable and painful sensations. No dummies, we humans naturally prefer enjoyable feelings—joy, delight, contentment, ecstasy, happiness, excitement, love—to distressing ones—hate, despair, remorse, powerlessness, loneliness, anxiety, frustration. So, on the face of things, it would seem that all feelings are not created equal. It’s evident that some emotions lift us up and others drag us down, and we know which ones are going to win a popularity contest and which will be the wallflowers. However, on a deeper level, all feelings really are created equal because each has the same function—to transmit information. It’s not their fault that some come in a more attractive package than others. So be warned, if you’re determined to only feel good and never feel bad, you’re obstructing feelings from doing their job. If you’re screening out the upsetting ones, the truth is that you’re not doing your job of letting them teach you what you need to know! My hunch is that there’s a high correlation between running from your pain and your disordered eating. What do you think? If you’re just plain scared of your emotions or feel overwhelmed when they hurt and hurt bad, focusing on food, or on restricting your food, seems like the perfect escape. Unfortunately, out of fear and ignorance, you end up targeting the wrong organ: You should be zeroing in on your heart, not your mouth! The more you recognize why you avoid your feelings, the better your chance of learning to accept each one with an open heart.

Other essay:   Conquering the enemy called fear

Do I have feelings about my feelings?

We have emotional reactions to almost everything we think, do, say, imagine, and remember—so the short answer is yes. In fact, many times, it’s your feelings about your feelings, what we call secondary emotions that are the most troubling and cause the most discomfort. Secondary feelings are reactions, usually unconscious and judgmental, to our primary emotions. You’re angry at yourself for being jealous of your sister, scared that you’re too insecure to change jobs, ashamed that you still feel upset about self-destructive behavior you engaged in decades ago. There is any number of permutations of primary and secondary feelings that can worsen your original feeling. It’s as if you’re standing in an endless hall of mirrors that reflect only the negative—you feel bad about feeling bad about feeling bad and on and on into infinity. Unfortunately, growing up in this culture, even with parents who have reasonable emotional intelligence, we often find ourselves caught up in judgmental secondary emotions. Society values a stiff upper lip and glorifies the macho ideals of playing down feelings, going it alone, and being in control. Sadly, this only exacerbates emotional pain in the long run and prevents it from being healed. That which is truly healthy and healing—feeling deeply—is valued as unhealthy, while that which is actually unhealthy—pretending not to have pain—is valued as healthy. How crazy is that? No wonder emotions send us scurrying to the refrigerator or to the scale.

How did I learn to fear my feelings?

Other essay:   Fear and anger

Aside from cultural messages, we pick up along the way from teachers, extended family, clergy, neighbors, media, celebrities, books, politicians, and the medical world, most of what we believe about feelings come from our parents or primary caregivers. Usually, our first lessons came from observing how the people closest to us handled their feelings. In many families, feelings are never discussed. I know of instances in which clients have lost a sibling or parent, and life went on as if the death had never occurred. Lips were sealed and neither the death itself nor the deceased were ever mentioned again. What message might this kind of dysfunctional scenario suggest? That feelings are wrong to have and should never be expressed. Also, many of us associate strong effect with discord and fighting or even physical harm, confusing feeling angry with behaving angrily. You may have had a parent whose feelings constantly overflowed and who unduly burdened, frightened, and embarrassed others—especially young you—whenever they unloaded. Maybe you wanted to clap your hands over your ears and hide in a corner whenever they let loose. Somewhere along the way you then made an unconscious decision to never lose control of your emotions and embarrass yourself or scare others in this way. Or if you were raised in a family in which your parents constantly argued, any level of conflict might frighten you now. Although you’re safe as an adult (because you’re no longer dependent upon your battling parents), the fragile child inside still withdraws into a shell or becomes paralyzed around interpersonal tension and conflict.

How am I able to learn to just accept all of my feelings?

Other essay:   Overcoming fear

you’ll learn exactly what to do with emotions, including how to become more accepting of them. For now, here’s a general outline to get you started. First, acknowledge that, as a person who intentionally and regularly rejects or consumes food to distract from feeling, you most likely have a negative view of uncomfortable emotions. But for some, this may be shocking news, as you may not have seen your food or weight focus as a way to avoid distress. Second, identify exactly what you believe about emotions. A belief, sometimes called a cognition, is what you hold true about yourself and the world. Let’s call it your truth, but not necessarily the truth. We internalize beliefs in childhood and tend to cling to them tenaciously even when they’re not working for us. As you consider your beliefs, try to remember the exact phrases your parents used when responding to your distress. It’s those words that are lodged in your head today wreaking all sorts of havoc. Notice in particular the beliefs that are unhealthy and irrational, that is, the ones that don’t contribute to emotional balance and resilience, to being an authentic person, to trusting yourself, to enjoying intimacy in relationships, and to having positive associations to food, eating and your body. Third, make a conscious, ongoing effort to change your beliefs. That means developing your own cognitions about emotions. It doesn’t matter what anyone else believed way back when or what your partner or friends believe now. You no longer have to drink your milk or go to bed before your favorite TV show is over and you certainly don’t have to take someone else’s word for the right way to view feelings. Even mine! You’re one of the big people now, and you can choose to believe whatever you please.

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