Emotions are a natural part of the human experience. No one wants to feel negative emotions like anger or grief, but sometimes they’re a normal reaction to difficult situations. Learning to acknowledge emotions even when they’re uncomfortable is one of the key steps toward strengthening your mental health. Emotional acceptance is the ability to acknowledge and experience both positive and negative emotions. This helps you develop emotional management skills and prevent unpleasant emotions from worsening until they affect your mental health.
One of the most common causes of psychological distress is the avoidance of negative emotions. Although avoiding or distracting yourself from negative feelings may help in the short-term, it can actually cause more damage over time. You may be able to decide not to feel a particular emotion for a little while, but eventually, the feeling will return with even more strength.
Sometimes, reaching your goals or making improvements in your life requires you to work through challenges. Avoiding negative emotions instead of acknowledging them makes it difficult to work toward self-improvement. You may find yourself trying to avoid people, places, or situations that bring up unpleasant emotions, which can make you feel limited or even imprisoned.
If you’ve been avoiding your emotions for a long time, you may not even realize that it’s happening. Emotional avoidance can become a habit that you don’t consciously think about.
Here Are 5 Signs That You May Be Struggling with Emotional Acceptance
1. You Have to Be Busy All the Time
Enjoying being active is not unhealthy. Everyone goes at a different pace, so it’s okay to prefer to have a full schedule. However, if the idea of having time to yourself makes you feel stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed, it may be a sign that you’re avoiding your emotions.
Staying busy is a classic coping mechanism for painful feelings or experiences. Surrounding yourself with other people or keeping your mind occupied with tasks allows you to keep your mind off of difficult emotions.
This won’t work forever, though. No one can stay busy every single day indefinitely, and there will come a time when you have to sit with your feelings. Constantly being busy also stops you from enjoying your life. Working to accept and manage emotions can be tough, but it provides long-term relief and peace.
2. You Feel Guilty for Feeling Bad
Many people feel multiple layers of emotions all at once because they have an emotional reaction to an initial feeling. For example, you may feel sad after a relationship ends, but you may also feel guilty, anxious, or angry about your sadness.
These reactionary emotions can be a sign that you’re uncomfortable with negative feelings. You don’t want to feel bad, so when you do, you also feel guilty. This guilt makes it more difficult to unpack, process, and manage emotions because it creates an extra layer to work through.
The initial emotion may be unavoidable, but it is possible to learn to avoid the reaction. If you can accept your emotions without self-judgment, you won’t feel bad about feeling bad.
3. You Intellectualize Your Emotions
Intellectualization is a defense mechanism that helps you separate yourself from your emotions. Instead of saying, “I feel anxious,” you may say, “I’ve been stressed out lately.” Stress is a physiological response, so it’s a more concrete, intellectual description of your current state. It may feel easier to admit that you’re stressed than to admit that you’re anxious, which is more of an emotional experience.
Intellectualization can also involve over-explaining or over-researching your current situation or emotional state. For example, instead of allowing yourself to process feelings of grief after a loved one passes away, you may look up statistics or articles about the psychology behind grief. Instead of acknowledging your feelings of anxiety about credit card debt, you may stay up late into the night calculating a repayment plan.
Trying to understand your feelings or experiences from an intellectual standpoint isn’t always unhealthy. However, using intellectualization to think away the emotions you don’t want to feel is a form of avoidance.
4. You Engage in Negative Self-talk
Negative self-talk is an inner dialogue with yourself that is overly critical, mean, or judgmental. Most people would never talk to a loved one as harshly as they talk to themselves, but we are our own worst critics.
People engage in negative self-talk for a variety of reasons, but one common source is the fear of acknowledging emotional suffering. If you talk down to yourself as soon as you start feeling something negative, it may be a sign that you’re struggling with emotional acceptance.
Here are some common examples of negative self-talk:
- “I always get upset over the stupidest things.”
- “I mess everything up.”
- “Pull it together!”
- “Other people have it so much worse than me. I’m ungrateful.”
- “I’m useless.”
- “I can’t do it.”
- “My feelings don’t matter.
- “Get over it!”
Negative self-talk can quickly become habitual, so you may find your inner critic saying these insults at the slightest mistake or uncomfortable feeling. Fortunately, because it’s a habit, it can also be unlearned.
5. Your Mood or Personality Has Changed
Emotional suffering can take a serious toll on your overall mood and mental health. If you feel that you’ve changed or that you don’t recognize yourself, you may be struggling with some unresolved emotions.
For some people, these issues lead to unhealthy habits or behaviors. Engaging in risky activities or feeling the urge to engage can be a sign that you have some emotions to work through.
It’s common for people who are in emotional pain to feel anxious, angry, or fatigued. You may isolate yourself from other people or have a hard time concentrating on tasks. Close friends or family members may mention that you seem different or express concern about your mood or behavior changes.
Recognizing that you’ve been avoiding or ignoring emotions is the first step toward improving your mental and emotional health. Processing these feelings can be difficult, especially if they’ve been building up for a long time. Resolving emotional challenges is always possible with hard work, though. Emotional acceptance therapy is one of the best ways to learn to identify and acknowledge emotions. Working with a counselor can help you explore negative feelings in a safe, nonjudgmental environment.
If you’ve been struggling with emotional acceptance, it’s time to start working toward healing. Dr. Howard Samuels is a licensed therapist serving clients in the Los Angeles area. Reach out today to learn more about his approach and services.