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  • Writer's pictureDr Sarah Bishop

Why do we need to "sit with" our feelings? Birmingham Psychologist, Dr Sarah Bishop explains.....

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

Psychologists often emphasise the importance of sitting with and exploring difficult emotions rather than trying to get "rid" of them because this approach can be more beneficial for emotional well-being and personal growth. Here are several reasons why we recommend this:

1. Emotions are a natural part of life: Emotions, including difficult ones like sadness, anger, and fear, are a normal and essential part of the human experience. Attempting to eliminate or suppress these emotions can be harmful and may lead to emotional suppression, which can have negative consequences for mental health.

2. Understanding and processing: Sitting with difficult emotions allows individuals to understand the source and triggers of those emotions. It provides an opportunity for introspection and self-awareness, which can help individuals make sense of their feelings and address underlying issues.

3. Emotional resilience: When people learn to tolerate difficult emotions (staying with a feeling, even though it’s hard), they can build emotional resilience. This resilience enables them to cope with future challenges and stressors more effectively, as they become more adept at managing and processing their emotions.

4. Personal growth: Difficult emotions often signal an opportunity for personal growth and change. By sitting with these emotions and working through them rather than supressing or denying them, individuals can learn more about themselves, develop coping strategies, and make positive changes in their lives.

5. Avoidance may lead to long-term problems: Trying to get rid of difficult emotions through avoidance, such as substance abuse or distractions, often leads to more significant problems in the long run. These avoidance strategies may provide temporary relief but do not address the root causes of emotional distress.

6. Emotional acceptance: Sitting with difficult emotions is a form of self-compassion and self-acceptance. It involves acknowledging that it's okay to feel the way you do, without judgment. This self-compassion can be a vital component of emotional healing.

7. Improved relationships: When individuals can sit with their emotions, they often communicate more effectively with others. They can express their feelings and needs in a healthier way, which can lead to better interpersonal relationships.

Psychologists may use various therapeutic approaches like mindfulness, cognitive-behavioural therapy, or acceptance and commitment therapy to help individuals learn to sit with their difficult emotions. These methods often focus on teaching individuals how to acknowledge and process their emotions in a healthy and constructive manner.

Talking therapy with clinical psychologist

Why should I feel the difficult feelings, when I can distract myself instead?

Distracting oneself from emotional pain, discomfort, or difficult emotions is a common coping mechanism, and it can be both helpful and have potential risks depending on how and when it is used. Here's a balanced perspective:

When Distraction Can Be Helpful:

1. Short-Term Relief: Distraction techniques can provide temporary relief from emotional pain, anxiety, or stress. Engaging in activities like exercise, hobbies, or spending time with loved ones can temporarily shift your focus away from distressing thoughts or emotions.

2. Immediate Calming: Distraction can help calm the body's physiological response to stress. Engaging in activities that require focus and attention can reduce the fight-or-flight response and promote relaxation.

3. Breaking Negative Thought Patterns: Distraction can interrupt rumination or obsessive thinking patterns. When done intentionally, it can break the cycle of negative thoughts and provide a mental break.

4. Increased Resilience: In certain situations, distraction can be a useful tool to regroup and gain the mental and emotional strength to confront an issue or difficult emotion at a later time. It can be seen as a way to build emotional resilience.

Potential Risks and Drawbacks:

1. Avoidance: Overreliance on distraction as a coping mechanism can lead to avoidance of underlying issues. While it may offer temporary relief, it does not address the root causes of emotional pain or stress. This can lead to unresolved emotional issues and may hinder personal growth.

2. Emotional Suppression: Constant distraction can result in the suppression of emotions. Unacknowledged or suppressed emotions may resurface later, potentially with greater intensity or in more harmful ways.

3. Interference with Problem-Solving: If used excessively, distraction may hinder problem-solving and adaptive coping strategies. Sometimes, it's important to confront emotions and difficulties to find long-term solutions.

4. Negative Coping Behaviours: In some cases, people might use unhealthy distractions, such as substance abuse or excessive escapism (e.g., binge-watching TV, overeating), which can lead to more significant problems.

5. Dependency: Relying solely on distraction to cope with emotional pain can become a habit. As a result, individuals may struggle to tolerate difficult emotions without immediately seeking distractions.

The key is to strike a balance between distraction and facing emotions. Distraction can be a useful tool when applied consciously and in moderation, especially when used to manage acute stress or gain a respite before addressing underlying issues. However, it should not replace the importance of acknowledging and processing difficult emotions, as doing so is essential for long-term emotional well-being and personal growth.

A healthy coping strategy involves knowing when to use distraction for temporary relief and when to engage in activities like mindfulness, therapy, or self-reflection to address the root causes of emotional pain and foster resilience.

Relaxing and connecting therapy

I'm often told by clients that it is their loved ones who felt the impact of their avoidant coping styles, before they themselves realised it was a problem. The risks associated with overreliance on distraction as a coping mechanism can indeed have a significant impact on our relationships in various ways:

1. Emotional Disconnection: When individuals consistently use distraction to avoid or suppress difficult emotions, they may become emotionally distant from their partners, friends, or family members. This emotional disconnection can strain relationships, as loved ones may feel that the person is not fully present or engaged in the relationship.

2. Communication Breakdown: Avoiding emotions and problems through distraction can hinder effective communication. Healthy communication is essential for resolving conflicts, understanding each other's needs, and maintaining strong relationships. When one or both parties are consistently distracted, meaningful conversations become difficult.

3. Conflict Avoidance: Distraction can be a way to avoid addressing relationship issues or conflicts. This avoidance may temporarily reduce tension, but it doesn't lead to resolution. Unresolved issues can fester and create long-term problems within the relationship.

4. Loss of Emotional Intimacy: Emotional intimacy, which involves sharing vulnerabilities and connecting on a deep emotional level, can be compromised when one or both partners consistently use distraction to avoid emotional discomfort. Emotional intimacy is a cornerstone of healthy, fulfilling relationships.

5. Increased Stress on the Partner: When one person in a relationship constantly relies on distraction to cope with their emotions, the partner may bear the burden of managing the relationship's emotional challenges. This can lead to increased stress and strain on the partner.

6. Decreased Empathy: Over time, the person using distraction as a coping mechanism may become less empathetic toward their partner's emotional needs. They may struggle to understand and validate their partner's feelings and experiences.

7. Escapism Impact: If the individual uses unhealthy distractions such as substance abuse or excessive screen time as a way to cope, these behaviours can lead to neglect of responsibilities and an inability to fully participate in the relationship.

8. Stagnation and Lack of Growth: Avoiding difficult emotions and conflicts through distraction can hinder personal and relational growth. Relationships often require confronting challenges and evolving together. A lack of growth can lead to stagnation and dissatisfaction.

It's important to strike a balance between healthy distraction and addressing emotions, both personally and within relationships. Open and honest communication, self-awareness, and a willingness to engage in constructive conversations about emotions and relationship issues are essential for maintaining strong, resilient, and fulfilling relationships. Additionally, seeking support from a therapist or counsellor can be beneficial in addressing the impact of coping mechanisms on relationships and learning more adaptive strategies for managing emotions.

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