True Resilience: Addressing the Legacy of Emotional Avoidance with Self-Compassion

 
Clinical Psychologist at Balanced Minds
People often come to therapy because they have been noticing how dominated their lives have become by the intensity of their feelings, including those of fear, anger, grief or sadness. There is a deep longing for these feelings to go away and a hope that they will learn coping strategies to ensure that this happens. It makes a lot of sense that this hope would be there.
 
If you think for a moment about how familiar the following phrases are to you:
 
“Don’t worry about me”, “Don’t cry about that”, “I wish I didn’t feel this way”, “Why on earth are you worrying about that?”, “You worry too much”, “You shouldn’t be angry” and “S/he is way too sensitive”

The Desire to Avoid Feeling Bad

So many of us – myself included – have grown up with the view that certain emotions, like happiness and joy, are welcomed and wanted, whilst others are unwanted or we should try not to feel them. Public displays of positive emotions and experiences seem to be prioritised on social media platforms, and, how many of us, in response to the question “How are you?” automatically reply “I’m well, thanks,” even if we are going through something really difficult?
 
There appears to a scale of “social acceptability” connected to the range of our emotional experiences; we can all confidently discuss our feelings of happiness/joy and also our feelings of sadness at particular times, for example, when we lose a loved one. Yet how many of us would admit to our friends and family our feelings of intense fear, anger, embarrassment, jealousy or shame? How can we admit to feeling them when we are forever told we ‘shouldn’t’ be feeling them or, worse still, criticised when these feelings are expressed?
True Resilience, Compassion meets avoidance

Shaped by Experience

For many of us, somewhere along the line, we have come to perceive that there is an association between fear/vulnerability and personal inadequacy. This may be through our early experiences of seeing outward displays of emotional “toughness” being valued and praised, whilst more vocal expressions of fear – tears and tantrums – were at the receiving end of tuts and raised eyebrows. I can remember various times during my life where I have been described as ‘too emotional’ and I have sadly heard this spoken about others too.
 
Some years ago, I was interviewing alongside a senior colleague to help recruit new therapists in to a local mental health service. I can clearly recall one of the candidates who was feeling scared by the whole experience; she was visibly shaking, her voice trembling as she spoke. And yet with the presence of all of this fear, she could speak passionately about her experience. After the interview was over and the candidate had left the room, I was just about to turn to my colleague to express how courageous I thought the candidate had been, but before I could say anything, they turned to me and said “there’s no way we can give her the post, she’s too anxious.”  I felt my heart sink and an overriding sense of disappointment at this response- particularly from an “experienced” mental health professional. This was very early on in my career, and, looking back now, I wish I had had the confidence to speak up more for the candidate’s fears. I know I let her down.
function of self-criticism, Self-Compassion vs Compassionate Self, Image of the Self-Critic
Holding such strong aversion to the “darker” side of our own or others emotional experiences can lead us to start to view ourselves and others in very critical and pathological ways. There is a sense that because these emotions are viewed negatively and not widely acceptable in society- there must be something wrong with us if we are struggling to manage them. 

Even if we can logically reason that distress is a normal reaction to traumatic life events, at some level, there is still a resistance to it, or, as I often hear “well yes my anxiety makes sense, but I should be over it by now.” We can also develop our own ways of trying to escape our feelings including through alcohol, overeating, pleasing others so they can’t criticise us, overworking, overexercising, binge watching boxsets, or through ruminating on what we are doing “wrong.”
Whilst there are so many campaigns out there today trying to normalise emotional distress, encouraging us to “speak up” about our mental health, if we are so deeply conditioned to dislike our feelings, it can feel difficult to trust that others could also fully accept the reality of our emotional experience.
 
Furthermore, our orientation against our fears, anger and sadness prevents us from learning that our emotions are actually meaningful responses to our lived experience. Essentially, they hold the key to understanding who we truly are. Because here’s the thing: our pain, our vulnerability and our deepest fears are an important part what makes us human, and it is through this shared common humanity that we can wholeheartedly connect with one another.

The Power of Compassion

If you take a moment to reflect on these questions. Who are the people in your life with whom you feel totally safe, and accepted for who you are? The people with whom you can share your deepest fears without feeling judged for doing so? Would these be the people who on the surface appear totally unflappable and “in control” of their own emotions when the going gets tough? Or would it be those who have been open with you about the pain they have felt in their lives? 
 
If like me, you would choose the latter, then you already have good insight in to what your feelings need. They don’t need to be shut or “managed” away. They need to be welcomed and understood as the meaningful parts of who you are- they need our deepest compassion.
Compassion is linked to the understanding that the most fundamental need that we have as humans is our need to belong. Many of my clients tell me that despite being around lots of family and friends, and having a good social life, they still feel alone in their lives. And this is because no matter how many people we have around us, if we have never felt safe enough to firstly feel and accept our own feelings, we won’t show these feelings to others. And not being seen as we truly are can cut us off from a sense of true belonging. This is likely to be one of the main reasons that recent research has found high levels of loneliness in adults in all age groups.
 
It is compassion that can help us understand why within the context of our own life experiences, at some point we felt we had no choice but to turn away from our pain and avoid sharing it with others. But importantly, developing our own compassion helps us to then courageously change that orientation and move towards it, with our deepest empathy and care.
Compassion Focused Therapy
Important discoveries from research in to the biology of attachment and compassion show us that our capacity for compassion and mindful awareness is actually “inbuilt” within the human brain – within the prefrontal cortex. When we keep trying to resist or push away our emotions, we don’t activate those capacities – we shut off from them. But studies also show the good news, which is that no matter how old we are, the neuroplasticity of our brain means that when we purposefully practise paying attention to our feelings and purposefullypractise welcoming them with warmth, we awaken and bring “online” our capacity for true emotional connection and healing.
 
We also need to work collectively to change the social narrative of what constitutes resilience in the face of difficulty. If we keep seeing resilience as “rising above” our pain (like it is something to be defeated) or in our need to be overly pragmatic when we go through difficult times, we will keep repeating the same cycle of pushing down the truth of what we feel. In doing so, we will continue to struggle to meet our potential for authentic connection with ourselves and others.
 
Finally, I’ll share an example of how compassionate mind training has helped me to start to tap in to my own resilience

Compassionate Mind Training & Resilience

A few months ago, I unexpectedly bumped in to someone who I had not met since childhood. We were catching up with a bit of general chat and then he said “It’s really good Sheena to see that you’re not so anxious anymore. I remember as a child how you were a real scaredy cat and really touchy. You used to run crying to your mum any time anyone teased you!” At that moment, I could feel a wave of emotion running through me, including the blood rushing to my face and a sinking feeling in my chest, which were my embarrassment and shame speaking loudly. Some years ago, if the same meeting had taken place, I would have giggled nervously in the moment and then later ruminate on how humiliating the experience had been, harshly criticising myself for ever appearing weak. 
 
But on this occasion, I paused and allowed myself some deep soothing breaths to help me to connect with my feelings. And with my hand over my heart and a gentle smile across my face I replied “Well actually my anxiety has not gone away, in fact I have many moments where I feel very anxious. It’s just that now I really really welcome it all.” It’s hard to describe the perplexed look on his face and the awkwardness he appeared to be feeling in not knowing how to respond! It wasn’t my intention to make him feel uncomfortable. But it has felt empowering to start to be motivated to stand up for my own pain, rather than trying through my actions to avoid my fears.  
 
I share this not to highlight that being compassionate towards ourselves is easy. I didn’t find it an easy experience. And in my lifelong journey towards greater self-compassion, I will undoubtedly in future have many moments where instead of feeling and caring for my fears and frustration, I will be “organised” by them in ways that I may not want.  But I do know that the more we all dedicate our time and energy in to learning how to befriend what we feel rather than resisting it, the more we can awaken our innate capacity for greater self-awareness and living true to ourselves. This is where our real resilience lies.
 
Clinical Psychologist at Balanced Minds


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