Imagine that the fuel light in your car turns on. You have a pretty packed week, juggling work, appointments, and social life. The first thing that comes to your mind is, “Why now?” You decide to test your car and see how far it will go. “Maybe I’m able to finish my errands,” you say. You’re able to go to places, and it feels good. “Yes, I’ll make it! I really have no time to stop right now… I’m sure it can wait until tomorrow.” Then, all of a sudden, your car stops. The first thing that comes to your mind is “Why? Why didn’t I stop when I knew I needed gas?” If your car stopped in the middle of a busy highway, or at peak traffic hours, then you can picture the amount of anxiety that comes next…
Denying the fact that you needed gas clearly made things worse. Something similar happens when you deny your “negative” emotions, or those emotions that feel uncomfortable. The reason why I put quotation marks around the word negative is because there is no such thing as “good” vs. “bad” emotions. What could be potentially negative are behaviors that are implemented in order to deal with the uncomfortable emotions, but anger and sadness per se are completely normal responses.
Denying emotions is extremely common; most people have engaged in this behavior at some point. There might be a temporary relief from pushing emotions aside and not having to deal with them. However, if you push those emotions aside on a regular basis, you might end up paying an emotional price… similar to the one experienced on a busy road with no gas.
Why is denial worse in the long term? Because every day you spend avoiding the real issue is a day you spend not taking appropriate action to deal with the situation.
If emotions are bottled inside of us, they could manifest later in different ways. For example, Mark absolutely hates his job situation, but does not know how to address it with his boss. He decides to wait several weeks to see if the situation improves. He realizes that nothing changes and feels angry and hopeless. Mark then begins to notice that he gets very irritable when driving. He completely withdraws himself from interacting with co-workers, even the ones he enjoyed being around with. He also has found himself lashing out at his family after coming home from work.
Denial keeps people in unhappy situations, day after day, or even year after year (I’ve worked with individuals with unresolved issues from 20+ years ago). Confronting the truth or uncomfortable emotion after a long time might even feel more overwhelming, as there are now added layers or a bigger issue than the one you started with. If the accumulation of emotions or crises were never addressed, in some cases the result might end up being an addiction, an eating disorder, a suicidal attempt… in order words, a cry for help.
What can uncomfortable emotions teach us?
Emotions such as sadness, anger, fear or despair can provide the opportunity for addressing the root of the issue. For example feeling fearful could lead to the opportunity of working through a previous traumatic experience, or feeling sad could lead to finally addressing emotional disconnection in couples therapy. In the example above, feeling angry and hopeless can be an opportunity for Mark to address the issues directly with his boss. Which could then lead to deciding whether or not the job is a right fit for him.
Don’t be intimidated by uncomfortable emotions, let them be and let them tell you and show you what potentially needs to change in your life.
To schedule an appointment with Stephanie Paez, MA, LMFT-Associate, call 512-910-4052.