Taylor Wark

Taylor Wark, RP #11063

The Culture of Emotional Avoidance

Have you ever watched a movie where the main character starts to get tears in their eyes, there’s almost a heartfelt moment, then… BAM! The character gives a little cough, a head shake, and changes the subject, leaving the audience thirsty for the emotional connection. No? How about when you’re upset and you see people appear physically uncomfortable (fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, getting flustered), so you change the subject? Oh, the dreaded second-hand embarrassment from simply experiencing human emotion. Sigh. It’s happened to all of us; whether we are the person experiencing the emotions, or the friend who is uncomfortable with the display of emotions. Avoidance, or repression of emotions, has become part of our societal norms. 

The question is, how do we teach people to express and experience emotions in an effective way? When people first enter therapy and are asked to identify, label, and talk about their emotions I am often met with questions like:

“What if I start crying, but never stop? What if I open up and can’t function?”

That is the real fear when expressing your emotions, isn’t it? If I allow myself that space, I may not be in control of what comes out. 

Dialectic Behaviour Therapy (DBT) is a newer orientation that focuses on four main goals: mindfulness, emotion regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, and distress tolerance (Lynch & Bronner, 2006). Historically, standard therapeutic practice focused on Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) to help clients challenge and change problematic thinking patterns. Today, CBT is still an effective form of treatment and is often used in collaboration with DBT for concerns such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (Webb, Beard, Kertz, Hsu & Björgvinsson, 2016).

The main difference between the two approaches is the focus on emotions and acceptance. DBT aims to help clients understand and regulate intense emotions; to explore healthy ways to accept emotions and cope (Linehan, 2014). Acceptance of emotions is one of the driving factors of Dialectic Behaviour Therapy.

Let’s think of it this way – it’s easy to tell a child why something they did was wrong and teach them to change their behaviours without much thought. This is the societal default. But what happens if we asked them WHY they did something ‘wrong,” or what emotions drove them? What came up in their physical body when they were angry, or sad, that made them react? As an adult, when was the last time someone asked you why you responded a certain way instead of placing blame on the emotion? Identifying and understanding emotions is a skill many adults do not possess because we are not used to the questions,

“How did you feel in that moment? What was your physiological reaction? Where did your thoughts take you?”

If you were asked these questions the last time you yelled at your spouse, child, or felt stressed at work, I wonder if you would be able to thoughtfully answer. For many adults, they cannot. The feedback I receive when people seek out therapy is that they feel “weak” or awkward about sharing their emotions and reactions because, for so long, they have been encouraged to hide these natural emotions. Being able to identify these emotions is the real strength. DBT holds space for validation of each emotional experience as clients learn how to process, feel, and move through the emotion instead of staying “stuck.” The goal is to always move through the tunnel instead of running back out the way we came. Feeling and accepting our emotions is the way forward. 

So, what’s the antidote for emotional avoidance you may ask? For starters, increased mindfulness. Mindfulness has become a popular trend in our society as yoga and meditation become more popular. Believe it or not, these are effective forms of mindfulness and distress tolerance taught in DBT sessions.

The goal of mindfulness practices is to help people be present, in the moment, instead of worrying about the future or being stuck with the past.

Noticing how our body reacts in situations, what information our emotions are giving us, and being able to label observations without judgement or interpretation (Wagner, Rathus, Miller & Baer, 2006). When we practice being present, we are forced to also practice sitting with the emotions of the moment. We can then name the emotion, identify where it presents in our body, get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and allow ourselves space to self-soothe, without judgement. 

Moving through emotions can look different for everyone: taking a walk or run, doing jumping jacks, listening to an emotional playlist, a sad movie, having a dance party, and many other fun actions that engage our body’s natural biofeedback of emotions (Lehrer, 2017).

The part that makes humans uncomfortable is what happens when we stop the emotion and place judgment on ourselves. Emotions are neither good nor bad, they are simply information. Once we accept that information is there to guide us, just like directions on a map, we can begin to embrace emotions and learn more about our own needs. This is the real goal of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy.

It is not weakness to show and connect with emotions, it takes strength to be vulnerable and give yourself that space in your day. Imagine the next time you are upset, when someone asks you what’s wrong, to be able to tell them. Are you truly an angry person, or are you experiencing a lot of emotion? To know that once you start crying you will feel a release instead of internal distress, and eventually, you will stop crying. That is the power of emotional intelligence, and the skills that DBT helps to teach.

References:

Lehrer, P. (2017). Biofeedback: An important but often-ignored ingredient in psychotherapy. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 4(1), 57-63.

Linehan, M. (2014). DBT? Skills training manual. Guilford Publications.

Lynch, T. R., & Bronner, L. L. (2006). Mindfulness and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): Application with Depressed Older Adults with Personality Disorders. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-based treatment approaches: Clinician’s guide to evidence base and applications (pp. 217–236). Elsevier Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-012088519-0/50011-3

Wagner, E. E., Rathus, J. H., Miller, A. L., & Baer, R. (2006). Mindfulness in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) for adolescents. Mindfulness-based treatment approaches: Clinician’s guide to evidence base and applications, 167-189.

Webb, C. A., Beard, C., Kertz, S. J., Hsu, K. J., & Björgvinsson, T. (2016). Differential role of CBT skills, DBT skills and psychological flexibility in predicting depressive versus anxiety symptom improvement. Behaviour research and therapy, 81, 12-20.

Taylor Wark

Taylor Wark, RP #11063

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