The Fear of Emotional Quicksand

Fear…It is one of the most overwhelming of emotions. It’s one of the four basic human emotions (happy, sad, angry, and scared).  We all feel fear, it is engrained in our DNA. Our ancestors even used fear as a survival skill.  If you think you don’t feel fear, you’re kidding yourself.  If anyone tells you they don’t get scared, they are lying to you.  People get scared, that is just reality.  However, in a society that tells us we shouldn’t be, we start to judge ourselves for feeling fear.  We think we’re “weak”, “ridiculous” or “stupid”.  How many times have you told yourself, “I know I am just being stupid/ridiculous, but I am scared”? We have become a society that is afraid of feeling fear because we think it will reveal something deficient about us, about our character, about our strength or lack thereof.  Yet, if you acknowledge your fear, you are in a better position to manage it.  If you deny your fear, it can grow and manifest in other ways—usually as anger towards yourself or others…and then you’re still left with your unresolved feelings of fear!

A few days ago, I came across this quote….

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After reading this, I felt a sadness come over me for the person who posted this. I wanted to reach out and say “It must be really hard to carry around all that hurt and to live a life afraid of trusting people”. It had me thinking about the fear of the emotional quicksand.  This is the fear of an emotion that is so strong it will overtake you, suck you in, and eventually destroy you.  Those emotions that make up emotional quicksand can be anger, sadness, or fear.  It’s usually the negative emotions that can create a debilitating fear, even though sometimes people can be afraid of positive emotions like being happy (let’s save that topic for another blog post).  Sometimes this fear can develop from surviving a traumatic event, multiple traumas, or having grown up with parents with unregulated emotions.  Other times, this fear slowly builds up over time, like a callous, because emotions can be too difficult to regulate.  Maybe you didn’t have a good role model for managing emotions (like an empathetic parental figure) or maybe no one ever taught you that it was even possible to survive extreme emotion. In our society, many people were taught at a young age to not show their emotions or that their feelings were “too much”. Unfortunately, this can be translated into “I AM too much for others” or “I AM a burden” in a child’s mind and can be a message that someone carries on into adulthood.

The only way to know that extreme emotions are manageable is to strap yourself in and ride the emotional rollercoaster.

Strong emotions come in waves, very similar to waves of emotion that come with grief and loss.  It is possible to ride them out and SURVIVE.  Even the strongest of emotions will eventually pass.  You may be left exhausted, you may be worn out, you may be physically weak from the ride, but eventually your strength will return and you will have peace. You may have to ride many roller coasters, but each time it might get easier to handle the feelings.

Like in the quote, many people have developed their own ways of dealing their emotions and fears and even shutting them out completely. Humans like to avoid unpleasant feelings, we distract ourselves, numb ourselves, and even dissociate.  Each person has their own thing that works for them.  Some are healthy, like writing or yoga, others are not. Addictions are one way of distracting ourselves or numbing ourselves from our emotions.  The trick is to know what you turn to in order to regulate your emotions.

Can you think of your go-to to deal with tough emotions?

Do you work a lot? Drink? Do drugs? Self Harm? Work out? Eat too much? Restrict your food consumption? Jump from relationship to relationship? Have sex? Obsess about a person, place or thing? Browse the web? Read? Write? Call a friend? Clean obsessively? Go to an AA meeting? Party? Go shopping? Masturbate? Look at porn? Make lists? Watch T.V.? Play video games?  Gamble? 

Some of these things are healthy coping skills and some are not. There is no right or wrong, since you have kept coping mechanisms because they work for you (or so you think).  It all boils down to the fact that everyone has a way to deal with negative emotions, but if you do something to the point that it is negatively impacting your life, your work, your school, or your relationships, you should consider that there is probably an emotion you are avoiding that should be dealt with.

If the idea of facing that emotion is too strong, don’t do it on your own.

Find someone who you trust to help you with it or even sit with you with it. It may be hard to let someone else in, especially if you have never experienced genuine empathy and acceptance before.  Therapists can also be a good resource as well, especially since we are trained to help people through this type of thing. Human beings like to experience fear in a safe setting. We like to be scared, as long as the threat is not real, like the experience of watching a scary movie or riding a roller coaster (an actual one). Therapists can help offer a safe, separate space to explore these feelings.

What is the thing that you do when you are feeling overwhelmed?  The next time you find yourself doing (or about to do) whatever that is…pause.  Check in with yourself and how you’re feeling. Is there a feeling you’re wanting to run away from? If you accept my challenge, give that feeling one minute.  Can you let yourself feel it for just 60 seconds?  You can always continue to do whatever it is that you were going to do after those 60 seconds are up.  But, you are creating an experience where you “survive” that emotion for a little bit longer than you thought you could. This in itself takes the power away from the emotion, even if just for a minute and gives it to you, and doesn’t that feel good for a change?

 

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