We humans are connected by a river that runs through us all. It’s a powerful river, deep and still in some places, frothy and rapid in others, yet sometimes dry and arid, and other times flooded.
We are all stimulated, challenged, warmed, cooled, driven, and connected by the emotions that are biologically wired into us at birth.
An important fact that most people never consider: We cannot choose what we feel.
The feelings we naturally feel are biological and automatic. Emotions arise automatically from our deepest self, a deeply personal expression of who we are, what we want, what we need, what we enjoy and who we like.
Our emotions tell us when we need to protect ourselves (fear), when to prepare (anxiety), when to reach out (lonely), when to let go (grief), and what we need (longing). They also tell us much more about ourselves, if we would only listen.
It is also true that, however useful our feelings are, they can hurt us. Feeling sadness, rage, grief or pain can be deeply unpleasant. Especially when we do not know what to do with those feelings.
In truth, it is our responsibility to listen to our feelings, use them to guide and connect us, and also manage them.
But if you grew up in a family that did not know how emotions work and did not teach you how to listen to your feelings, use them, and manage them (the definition of an emotionally neglectful family or Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN), you may find yourself with only one trick up your sleeve when you come upon rapids in the river.
Unfortunately, it’s the lowest common denominator of tricks and the trickiest of tricks. Because it seems to work but it only makes things worse.
You can indeed become brilliant at this tricky trick. You can discover genius ways to avoid your feelings. Few people make a conscious decision to avoid their feelings. And likewise, you do not consciously choose your ways to do it. Your brain makes the choice for you out of necessity, probably outside of your awareness.
As the psychologist who coined the term CEN (Childhood Emotional Neglect), I am in a good position to see the myriad ways people distract and avoid their feelings. Below is an incomplete list of the infinite variety of possibilities.
Part of what makes this trick so tricky is that many of the strategies listed below are healthy, positive activities that make you feel good. Do not be misled by that. Instead, as you read them, please think deeply about not only what you are doing, but why you are doing it. Are you “using” these ways in a healthy way?
Or are you using them to avoid your feelings?
20 Ways to Avoid Your Feelings
- The avid pursuit of hobbies or interests
- Chronic and excessive busyness
- Dwelling on the past or future (avoiding the now)
- Over-focusing on other people’s problems or needs
- Video games
- Surfing online
- Social media
- Phone gazing
You may be surprised to hear that one of the most giveaway signs of someone who grew up with Emotional Neglect is excessive smiling and joking.
Research on smiling has shown that just pulling the corners of your mouth up makes you instantly feel better. And nothing says, “I’m fine. I don’t need anything at all,” better than a smile. I have seen CEN adults smile through painful stories, and crack jokes while crying. All in an attempt to avoid feelings.
It is very common for movies and TV to show favorite characters drinking to escape their pain. It is often glamorized, normalized, and made to appear dramatic and cool in these depictions.
Feeling better is good! But not if it makes you more vulnerable to painful feelings overall. And that is exactly what avoidance does…
Why None of These Ways Actually Work
Another important fact about emotions is this: Ignoring, escaping and avoiding them does NOT make them go away. It only feels that way at the moment.
Denied, avoided, or escaped feelings actually become stronger because they have not been processed. Unprocessed feelings linger under the surface waiting for something to touch them off. Then they come out even more powerfully.
So the longer and more successfully you avoid your feelings, the more powerful, painful and potentially harmful they can become.
And in this process, you lose in two pivotal ways. You not only increase the power of what you’re trying to avoid, you also lose out on all the vital guidance, connection, motivation, energy and stimulation that your feelings should be providing for your life.
3 Ways to Stop Avoiding Your Feelings
- Accept that you have feelings, off and on, every single day. Accept that it is normal and healthy to have them.
- Decide that you are going to change how you deal with your feelings. Decide to pay attention to what you are feeling. Get curious about your feelings, what they mean, and how to listen to them and use them as they are meant to be used.
- Learn the emotion skills you missed in childhood. It is never too late to learn how to sit with your feelings, even painful ones. You can learn what your feelings are telling you, learn the skills to name and manage your feelings as well as the skills to express what you are feeling to others.
I have watched scores of people go through the process described above, dramatically changing how they view and handle their feelings. It is a remarkable series of steps that gradually transforms how you view, understand, and feel about yourself.
By following the steps of CEN recovery, you learn much more about yourself from the inside. Who are you? What do you want, need and feel?
As you become aware of your own feelings, you become aware of your self. And you realize that what you’ve been running from all these years is actually a vital, useful expression of your deepest self.
No need to run anymore.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you grew up with it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free on EmotionalNeglect.com.
To learn much more about the steps of CEN recovery, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. To learn how to strengthen and deepen your relationships by sharing on an emotional level, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. Learn more about both books below in my Bio.