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Posts Tagged ‘avoidance’

Navigating Your Feelings

Darlene Kirtley, MS LPC

Avoidance of feelings is one of the biggest causes of struggle for people. That feeling may be boredom, sadness, anger, fear, loneliness, or any number of other unpleasant feelings. Of course we don’t like having those feelings but listen carefully to this: Attempting to avoid feeling them is harmful. People do all kinds of self-destructive, unproductive things in order to avoid experiencing feelings they don’t like. They may turn to food, alcohol, drugs, sex, affairs, materialism, excessive worry, or excessive busy-ness. Another avoidance strategy is to flee a situation or try to manipulate people or events so that they are more to our liking. All of these attempts usually make the problem worse. Unfortunately, some feel so trapped in painful feelings or circumstances and want so desperately to avoid them that they take their own lives.

By learning effective coping skills, including mindfulness and distress tolerance, people can learn to accept an unpleasant feeling for what it is–a temporary experience that is not preferable, but which does not need to be eliminated immediately at any cost. Although strong emotions of fear, anger or sadness can feel like emergencies that require swift action to make them go away, most of the time, there is no emergency about it, no action required to “fix” it.

In addition to mindfulness, another helpful strategy that I like to teach people is the Event-Thought-Feeling sequence developed by psychologist Albert Ellis. 999 out of 1000 people truly believe that events cause feelings. For the most part, it is our thoughts that cause our feelings. The same event can happen to 10 people and it’s possible they could have 10 different feelings about it. For the sake of example, let’s take two people who both got a a bad grade on a test. The Event is the bad grade. Person A thinks “Oh well, I’ll try harder next time. The teacher will probably grade on a curve since the whole class bombed this test.” His feeling is one of calm and/or slight disappointment. Person B thinks “This is a disaster! There goes my GPA. I’ll never get into college. My future is ruined!” And his feeling is one of despair. The way we talk to ourselves has a ton to do with how we feel at any given moment. The mental commentary is always running, and it is from that self-talk that our feelings originate, not from the event itself.

Try keeping a log of Event-Thought-Feeling. If you see some feelings on there that you don’t like, go back to your thoughts and see if there is anything there that may not be true, may be an exaggeration, or the result of another thinking error. One clue is “Would you say that to a friend in a similar situation?” If you wouldn’t say it to a friend, you probably shouldn’t be talking to yourself that way either! In the example above, would you say to your friend “Well, you’re screwed. You’ll never get into college now!” Of course you wouldn’t! Can you replace that thought with a different, more reasonable or positive thought? If you do, I think you will probably experience a change in your feeling as well.

We can’t escape difficult feelings or difficult circumstances but we can develop healthy coping and thinking skills to help us face them. By accepting and learning to tolerate some distress, things have a way of becoming less distressing!