All mental or personality disorders have one thing in common: having a dysfunctional relationship with emotions through experiential avoidance behaviors such as flight or avoidance.
In this article I will explain the concept of experiential avoidance, how it works, what the consequences are, why it is the most used strategy to try to control emotions and why it does not work in the long term.
To have a good relationship with your emotions, it is important to adopt the opposite strategy: stay with them, understand them.use them to your advantage and be able to build healthier relationships.
What is experiential avoidance?
Experiential avoidance (EE) is a phenomenon described from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) that encompasses all these attempts to control private events (for example, emotions, thoughts, memories, behaviors, bodily sensations) in an attempt to modify their intensity, frequency or form.
Trying to protect ourselves from what “hurts us” is a biological act and has to do with the survival of the species. But today, it’s not just a biological thing, but this way of dealing with emotions has been learned socially for years. Historically, this “primitive” part has been underestimated and sensitive people have been categorized as “weak”..
We grew up listening and incorporating into our inner dialogue that “to feel unpleasant emotions is terrible”, that our natural state is to be happy, and we say things like “if other people see me crying, they will think ill about me”, “I can’t stand negative emotions”, “I have to get well as soon as possible”, “if I’m bad something bad happens to me”…
Experiential avoidance is very powerful and effective in the short term, which is why it is the most used strategy. All attempts at emotional control work in the short term: if I’m very anxious about being in social situations and not going to a party, the anxiety automatically goes away. The downside is that the emotional control lasts for a very short time and soon the discomfort returns, probably more strongly.
In the long term, the problem intensifies and spreads to more and more regions. If avoiding a situation eliminated my anxiety, it will increase my chances of avoiding more and more situations that generate this emotion in me.
In addition, disabling thoughts such as “I am not able to handle these situations”, “I am not socially competent”, “I never will”, are likely to appear.
Key steps to connecting in a healthy way with your emotions.
From ACT and positive psychology they propose to learn how to relate differently to emotions. If trying to escape, control, belittle emotions doesn’t work… ** Why not learn to live with it? **
These steps are essential to make this relationship healthy and you feel that you are not constantly struggling. The 4 main steps are used when emotions are in the window of tolerance, and if emotions have overwhelmed us, we will include step number 5 which I add at the end.
1. Recognize emotion (detect and classify)
In every situation we try to avoid, we feel an unpleasant emotion: it can be sadness, guilt, anger, anxiety…
At this moment it is important to stop to observe how we feel this emotion, what bodily sensations we have when we feel it (pressure in the chest, knot in the stomach, suffocation, tachycardia…). All emotions have their physical part.
Once detected, we name it and sort it: is it sadness, anxiety, anger, guilt, shame or secondary emotions such as frustration, disappointment, abandonment, loneliness, humiliation…
This answers the question: What do I feel? Naming it will help us in the next step.
2. Validate the emotion
To validate is to “give it value”. We allow ourselves to be with it, we analyze the situation and the thoughts that cause it, and we allow ourselves to feel it“It’s normal for you to feel like this in this situation that you think you’re not prepared for, nothing happens. It’s okay.”
It’s good to feel emotions, it’s human. With this step, we answer the question: Why do I feel this?
3. Ask for the goal
I wonder why he shows us the origin. Corn in psychology, it is not so important where the emotion comes from but the function of this emotion and answer the question: Why do I feel this way?
When we learn to identify the purpose of the emotion, everything is much easier. All emotions have a functionfor example:
Sadness helps us assess a loss, assess what went wrong, learn, seek support.
Anger motivates us to act in a situation where we feel we have been hurt or embarrassed.
Fear appears in potentially dangerous situations and drives us to protect ourselves or attack.
Guilt is used to maintain social relationships through apologies or actions to compensate for the “damage caused”.
Related article: “The 8 types of emotions (classification and description)”
4. Acting without using experiential avoidance
If you have followed all the previous steps, your emotion will probably have diminished in intensity, because simply staying with it and analyzing it “without a fight” or judging allows it to be regulated naturally.
The next step is therefore act to resolve the triggering situation. We will expose ourselves to situations that we previously avoided, such as having awkward conversations, expressing an emotion, setting a limit, negotiating, resolving a conflict, attending events…
It is very important to expose yourself little by little and to increase the level of complexity (intensity of emotion) that you can handle. With each step, you will gain confidence and self-confidence.
5. An additional emergency step: emotional ventilation
In the case of being in the hyperarousal zone and finding that the emotions have taken controlit is very important to add this step at the beginning.
Emotional Ventilation is the expression of the emotions that oppress us: crying if we want to, screaming if we need to… Try to channel that emotion outward (without hurting yourself or others) and without trapping it inside. “Pent up emotions build up until you explode.”
Crying is the most effective mechanism of Emotional Ventilation and the social norm often dictates that we don’t “cry”… throw stones at our own roof.
Being able to maintain a healthy relationship with your emotions is essential to being resilient and achieving well-being and peace of mind.
If you don’t feel capable of taking action to resolve the conflict that is causing you emotion, you don’t know where to start, you think you lack the tools to do so, or you have tried but it doesn’t. didn’t work, I encourage you to contact a psychologist so that you can make these changes with support..