Today’s post is the seventh in a series that I call “The 10 Most Useful Facts about Emotions”. I wrote this for a forthcoming book about parenting. I was trying to find a way to help parents appreciate what I call the emotional hazards of parenting. So, the 10 most useful emotion facts are applied to parenting but they can be used to better understand the emotional hazards of any relationship.
Fact #7: Emotions Don’t Cause Problems; Avoiding Emotions Causes Problems
The power and prominence of negative emotions are realities of human existence, but that doesn’t mean we should hunker down in an emotional bomb shelter.
Psychologists who disagree on just about everything else agree that persistently avoiding negative emotions is the main cause of emotional problems. That’s because there’s an interesting paradox here: When we try to avoid negative emotions (and unwanted thoughts) they only grow bigger and more persistent. This psychological rebound is well documented and shouldn’t be ignored.
Think of it this way: Ugly feelings and unpleasant thoughts can act at times like alien creatures that gain strength from our efforts to fight them. They actually feed off the energy we use in trying to escape from them!
The best example of this is Panic Disorder, which is a pattern of recurring panic attacks. Panic attacks are nasty emotional events in which our body’s alarm system is basically turned up full throttle: We sweat, our heart beats rapidly, we can’t breathe, and we get nauseated or dizzy. We might even get tunnel vision, tingly skin, and become convinced that we’re going crazy or are going to die. Panic attacks can happen to many of us but not all of us will develop panic disorder.
Panic disorder arises when we give in to our fear of fear.
People with panic disorder have an intense fear of having another panic attack, so they desperately try to avoid any feelings that hint at panic. Any muscle twinge or chest flutter is interpreted as the start of another panic attack, and when that happens the battle is on to prevent it. Unfortunately, this only serves to bring on more and more panic attacks. The person with panic disorder is also prone to imagining various catastrophes that will happen if a panic attack were to happen. In some cases, the individual with panic disorder comes to believe they are only safe if they stay home, never venturing out because of the risk of having a panic attack. This pattern is called agoraphobia (Greek for fear of the marketplace).
The good news is that most cases of panic disorder can be successfully treated in just a few sessions. The bad news is that patients have to be willing to generate the very sensations (e.g., dizziness, shortness of breath) they’ve been running from. With help, they learn to live with negative feelings and unsettling sensations that might signal a panic attack. They also learn to pull back from catastrophizing thoughts about what will happen if they did have a panic attack. In other words, they learn that the healthy response to panic is to turn toward it and lean in.
I sometimes use this phrase when working with folks whose lives have become distorted by anxiety and fear: Walk toward the barking dog.
The same is true for family problems that carry lots of emotion. I occasionally have sessions with families after something really bad has happened. It could be a really ugly fight or perhaps some tragic accident. My job is to help them face with eyes open all that has happened.
These are not pleasant sessions. Family members slowly march in, barely holding up under the emotional weight of recent events. After a bit of silence to get everyone centered and present, I begin with a search for the facts. What has happened? Who was hurt? How badly? Who did the hurting? What led to the hurting? What has happened since the hurting? Was this an unusual event or part of a pattern? I ask for facts but I also get opinions, especially about who’s to blame or what’s to be done. I try to keep opinions out of the discussion. Every few minutes, I restate the facts so all are aware of them. When all the facts are out in the open, I offer a summary observation, a simple validation of what they’ve been through. I might begin by saying, “This is all so very sad (or tragic)” or “This is really tough” or some other general statement. I then review the facts. There’s a great deal of emotion when families tell these facts and I re-state those facts. But once we’re done, breathing comes easier, tension in the room drops, and smiles are more likely. I have led these families back to scenes they want to forget and I reconnect them to feelings they didn’t want to have. And we all lived through it.
I have families go through this exercise because the experience carries an important lesson: Families are bigger and stronger than bad feelings. If they can learn this lesson and use it, even for a short while, it’s a huge advantage. They can better accept the facts as facts.
The famous psychologist Carl Rogers once said, “The facts are always friendly.” We are not well served by ignoring them. With facts in hand, families can better focus on any behaviors that led to bad, hurtful events. They can begin working together to promote responsible behavior and healthy relationships. They can focus on things they can control. They can walk toward the barking dog.