Something really upsetting happened yesterday. But you have too much to do to think about it.
In fact, it always seems like you have too much to do. Naturally, you refocus on your to-do list. Maybe you even add another seemingly necessary commitment. After all, that networking event is important.
So is the charity function. So is coaching your friend’s summer soccer league. So is helping to plan your colleague’s retirement party. So is that speaking gig and writing an article for that newsletter. So is baking cookies for your book club. So is working an hour later on most days.
In the midst of all of this, you also decide to start a new project. You’ve been thinking about it for a while, and now seems like a good time.
Many of us pile on commitment after commitment. We jam-pack our schedules. We keep ourselves busy to avoid painful—or even pleasant—feelings.
Sometimes, it’s not obvious that this is what we’re doing.
Clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior, Ph.D, suggested exploring these questions: Does your busyness feel like you’re running away from something (versus running toward it)? Do you feel anxious or uncomfortable when there isn’t a task immediately in front of you? When you end up unexpectedly having a few unstructured hours or alone time, do you automatically try to fill it with distractions (such as social media)?
One of the biggest signs that a client is staying busy to avoid a feeling is exhaustion, said Claudio Zanet, a marriage and family therapist and co-founder of 360 Relationship in San Francisco. Zanet specializes in relationships of all kinds, a client in relationship to themselves or to others, including intimate partners, family or co-workers. “Many clients who come to me during a difficult period have worn themselves out and are showing signs of anxiety and/or depression.”
Some of Zanet’s clients will throw themselves into work, take work home, and always be “on.” Bonior’s clients have become consumed with work to distract themselves from their divorce. This stops them from grieving, which is vital for moving forward. In other words, it just “puts off the problem,” said Bonior, also author of The Friendship Fix and Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World.
For many people staying busy is how they’ve coped for years. According to Zanet, “They have integrated this into their defense structure as a tool to protect themselves from difficult feelings, and it has provided tremendous value to them in their lives.” But the strategy has run its course when individuals start experiencing anxiety, depression or fatigue, he said.
For Zanet’s clients, there’s tremendous fear in feeling a difficult feeling. “I have heard many clients talk about the fear akin to falling into the abyss: a giant black hole that they won’t be able to escape from,” he said. They believe that if they try to process the emotion—whether it’s anger or sadness—they won’t be able to stop.
Maybe you believe this, too?
Even happiness can become a painful emotion. Zanet’s clients worry that their happiness won’t last. They start ruminating about what can go wrong. They adopt an attitude of “waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
Zanet shared this example: A client gets promoted at work. Instead of letting themselves feel happy, they worry that they won’t be able to meet the challenges of this new position. They see their promotion as a lucky break, and they’ll be exposed as a fraud.
Connecting to your emotions doesn’t have to be overwhelming. You can ease into it. For instance, pick one or several of these methods:
- Write about how you’re feeling, Bonior said.
- Carve out time to feel the feeling, reminding yourself that you don’t have to think about it outside of this time, she said.
- Talk about how you’re feeling with someone who’s trustworthy and supportive.
- Channel the feeling into a drawing or some other art piece, Zanet said.
- See a therapist. “I believe that reaching out to a trained therapist is one of best ways to learn to process difficult emotions,” Zanet said. He shared this example: In therapy, you can learn to process emotions while in a relatively relaxed state (i.e., activating the parasympathetic nervous system) and avoid activating the sympathetic nervous system. Which helps you be less reactive.
Again, remember that you can go slowly with feeling your feelings. And the more often you process your feelings, the more natural doing so will become. Our emotions are wise teachers. We owe it to ourselves to honor them.