There’s something called affect phobia– and we all have it to different extents.
Affect phobia is pretty much what it sounds like: a phobia (fear) of affect (emotions). When we fear feeling our emotions -usually the difficult, unpleasant, grasping ones- our defensive structures come online to avoid facing, feeling, and moving through them. The neural firings that lead us into avoidant states happen quickly (0.10 seconds, to be exact) and beneath the surface of our conscious awareness, at first.
There’s bodily wisdom in avoiding unpleasant emotions. We don’t want to experience feelings of discomfort or difficulty– who does? When something emotionally activating hits us, our nervous system sounds the alarm. It does this to protect us from feeling a perceived threat of hurt, rejection, abandonment, loss, shame, guilt, or traumatic stimulus.
So what can we do?
First, we can begin by simply noticing that a feeling is present. Bring non-judgemental awareness and compassionate recognition to it. Oh, I notice there is fear of rejection here. It’s not easy to recognize a feeling that doesn’t wish to be noticed, but practicing overtime helps to re-wire our oh-so-luckily-plastic brains. Eventually we can begin to gently become aware of our difficult feelings as they arise.
Second, we can invite ourselves to pause and bring non-judgemental allowance to the feeling. Knowing that that the way to move beyond difficult feelings is not around them, but through, we can start to accept that a tough feeling has emerged. Okay, fear is here. It’s not pleasant, but I allow this feeling to let me know it’s here. We can slowly allow ourselves to feel what’s coming up without it hijacking our nervous system.
Then, because our nervous systems move into various states of affect phobia to protect us from feeling badly, we can see if there’s room to thank them for looking out for us. Thank you for looking out for me. You felt I needed protection, and you went on autopilot to protect me from unpleasant feelings. We can let them know we are no longer needing them; that we feel safe and courageous enough to be with and move through the feeling. I’m ready to release some of you. I’m able to recognize this feeling without it overwhelming me.
Next, we can apply gentle curiosity to the feeling. What is this fear responding to? Where is this fear coming from? Is this a familiar feeling? What purpose does fear have here? What is fear protecting me from? Is this fear serving me right now?
Finally, we can offer compassion, validation, and re-patterning. It’s understandable to feel this fear. I’m choosing to utilize new tools and ways of thinking that remind me that I am safe. What does this need right now? By allowing our selves to acknowledge the feeling, allow it to be present, and be curious about it, the feeling itself begins to have less grip on us, and we can utilize new skills to come back to being present and engaged.
The recently passed Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hhanh once said, “The art of happiness is also the art of suffering well”. We can begin, ever so slowly and with ample safety, to notice suffering. Begin this practice with something small– nothing activating or traumatic. You may want to try this in the safe presence of a therapist, trusted friend, partner, pet, or nature. Most of all, be in the company of your own compassion towards your self.
Start small, go slowly, and be kind and gentle to your self.