We don’t like to hurt.
Why would we? Hurting… well, hurts. As a species, we have learned to adapt to avoid things that cause us pain. Burn your hand on a pot? Next time you use an oven glove. Hit the car in front of you? Next time you leave more space between cars.
It makes sense that we do the same thing with our emotions. After all, many emotions feel terrible. Guilt, shame, loss, self-hatred, doubt, loneliness, worthlessness… these are not feelings most of us want. So, we learn to adapt. One way we do this is by examining the values of our culture and deciding if we agree with them. In the western world, the message about unwanted emotion is clear:
Don’t let it get to you.
Not being affected by feelings is considered a sign of strength. We are told to “get over it,” “stop crying,” “have a thick skin,” “man up.” Unwanted emotions are the enemies trying to conquer, enslave, or ruin us.
So, we do what any good defender does: We build walls.
Since early civilization, physical walls protect us from invasion. Emotional walls are no different, though they take many forms: denial, numbing, disconnection, avoidance, anger, distraction, etc. We create these barriers to protect ourselves from the invasion of an unwanted emotion, denying it entry and keeping us safe.
But do they?
Four Reasons Emotional Walls Don’t Work:
1. They Make Us Afraid
In horror movies, writers know the effect of keeping the monster out of sight; the result is terrifying. Where are they hiding? What do they look like? When will they jump out and attack? When we create emotional walls, unwanted emotions become monsters, lurking in shadows, able to surprise us at any time. We begin to change things in our lives from fear they may appear. Someone who is afraid of feeling abandonment stops having relationships, someone who is afraid of feeling worthless doesn’t apply for their dream job… instead of taking the risks we crave, our lives become centered on avoiding the emotions we fear.
2. They Can Increase Our Pain
It happens. Sometimes our defenses fail. Unwanted emotions break through our walls. When this happens, we experience secondary emotions, which we can think of as “emotions about our emotions.”
Not only do we experience the invading emotion, but we also feel the emotions that arise from failing to defend ourselves. “I should have been stronger…” “I’m so embarrassed I cried…” “I’m ashamed I lost my temper…” These are often just as difficult as the emotion we were avoiding. The inability to stop an emotion increases the amount of unwanted emotion we feel.
3. We Still Feel It
Our brains use our past to predict our future. This is why you seldom trip over the same tree root twice. As you approach it, you remember the contact, the fall, the pain, the embarrassment… the memory reminds you to be more careful. The same happens with emotions. When we feel an invading emotion, our brains access the memories of previous times we have felt it. So even if you are able to stop yourself from experiencing it in the present moment, often times you still re-experience the past version of it.
4. They Prevent Us From Healing
A healthy circulatory system flows smoothly. Running water grows less bacteria than still water. It’s a fact of life: healthy systems are moving systems. The sad truth is that when we wall off emotions, they don’t go away. They are still there. Sometimes they masquerade as other emotions and try to weasel their way in (for example, fear can manifest as anger). They can also wait for years, affecting us in ways we don’t see.
Like ivy, unwanted emotions attach to our walls, growing and chipping away at them over time. A large piece of going to therapy is discovering these emotions, inviting them within our walls, and allowing them a chance to be felt. (Often times, this is why we talk about our childhood. We learn to make emotional walls at a very young age.) Only once we allow ourselves to finally experience these emotions can we learn to live with them. Think of the time wasted defending ourselves from feeling them, when in the end we feel them anyway.
So, if walls don’t work, what can we do instead? We can learn to build doors.
Think of a castle. When it has a wall, the enemy attacks on many fronts, searching for a weak spot. Now add a door. What happens? The enemy focuses the attack. Now unlock the door, and watch the enemy enter the castle. Yes, it passes the wall. But what if there are defenders ready and waiting? Suddenly, the castle has the advantage — it decides where and how to engage the enemy, which must abandon the attack to defend itself.
By making a door, we create control. It’s not that we won’t be invaded, but we get to decide where and how we will engage. We gain the same advantage when we build emotional doors. When we accept that we cannot prevent emotions, we begin to develop thoughts and behaviors that allow us to experience them in a way that feels doable. We learn to let them in, but on our own terms.
There are many ways to build emotional doors and we can all find ones that work for us. Here are just a few:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A specific type of therapy, CBT explores our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, and the relationships between them. It teaches us to gain distance from our experiences and use rational thinking to understand why we are the way we are. Consider finding a therapist trained in CBT.
- Mantra Work: Originally a Hindu/Buddhist technique, the use of repeated words or sayings is not only used in meditation, but is a proven way to change the biological pathways in our brains. Just as our brain can jump to past experiences, we learn to jump to places that feel safe. For example, someone experiencing road rage can adopt a mantra like, “I’m angry, but I can’t change things out of my control.” While the anger may not go away, it is no longer overwhelming.
- Self-Care: Many of us have all pulled an all-nighter, skipped a few meals, or had a few too many drinks and learned the truth: our bodies need certain things to be physically healthy. The same truth applies to our mental health. Just as we take care of our bodies, we must take care of our minds. Time in nature, sports, video games, alone time, hobbies, friends, sex… in psychology, these practices are often called self-care. Developing self-care helps create emotional doors because these practices are the foundations of our castle — they create the emotions we want, making the ones we don’t want seem less intimidating.
- Radical Acceptance: As the saying goes, the sooner we learn to accept it, the sooner we can move on. Radical acceptance is a DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) technique. It’s a no-nonsense approach to emotions: they exist, we may as well learn to deal with them. Finding a therapist trained in DBT can help develop a valuable skill set for handling unwanted emotions.
- Communication/Support: It takes a strong person to ask for help, to show others vulnerability. Emotions do not need to be private. Often when we communicate them, we find support where we didn’t’ know it existed.
When we stop building walls and start building doors, unwanted emotions stop being enemies. This doesn’t mean we like them, but we don’t fear them anymore. We no longer avoid them or see them as failures. They become a piece of us, one we would rather not have but can live with.
Let’s retire the phrase “don’t let it get to you.”
Let it get to you. Just build it a door.