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- we find powerful ways 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 major 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 rejection, abandonment, loss, shame, guilt, or in some cases, traumatic stimulus.
So what can we do?
First, we can begin by trying to simply notice that the feeling is present. Bring nonjudgemental 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-plastic brains so that this type of awareness becomes more natural.
Second, we can allow ourselves to pause and accept that the feeling is here. The thing about difficult feelings is that the way to move beyond them isn’t around, but through. Okay, fear is here. I’ll let it be here rather than fight it. Eventually we can begin to gently become aware of our difficult feelings. We can slowly allow ourselves to feel them without them hijacking our nervous systems.
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? What purpose does fear have here? What is fear protecting me from? Is this fear serving me right now?
Finally, we can offer some emotional salve of compassion, validation, and understanding. It’s alright to feel fear. I am safe. What do you [the fear] need right now? By allowing our selves to greet the feeling, become aware of it, allow it to be present, and be curious about it, the feeling itself begins to have less grip on us.
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 guidance or company of a therapist, healer, friend, partner, pet, sacred object, or nature. Most of all, be in the company of your own compassion for yourself.
Start small, go slowly, and be kind and gentle to your self.