Avoiding Uncomfortable Emotions

Published Categorized as behaviour management, emotional literacy, negative emotions, resilience, Understanding emotions

As I delve deeper and deeper into reflecting upon and understanding emotions, one message keeps appearing: some of us have a tendency to try and avoid unenjoyable and uncomfortable emotions to the point of really restricting what we do. And we don’t just avoid our own emotional discomfort. As parents we can also jump to ‘protect’ our children from any kind of ‘distress’, even over very minor issues – like stepping in with full ‘problem solving mode’ when your child has a difficulty with a friendship or giving your child an ice-cream in the queue to alleviate the risk of them becoming bored. Mostly we do this completely unconsciously. We are not always aware that can’t bear the chance of our children experiencing any kind of negative emotion.

(Note: I had to look ‘distress’ up and found this definition: to cause strain, anxiety, or suffering to. Even reading that definition triggered a protective reaction in me! Of course it’s natural not to want our children to suffer in any way but there’s a difference between a suffering that causes actual harm and emotional discomfort. In this post, I am talking about emotional distress or discomfort.)

If you consider the impact of avoiding of any kind of emotional distress or discomfort, you can see it can mean you’re perpetually trying to stay within your comfort zone. This can mean:

  • You take few risks – physical, emotional, mental, social or in relationships
  • You avoid conflict (and conflict is where beneficial changes can happen in relationships if managed well)
  • You keep your expectations low to avoid disappointment
  • You remain relatively withdrawn and fearful of engaging
  • You strive for certainty and try to control situations
  • You are fearful of unknowns and try hard to avoid them
  • You become anxious when threatened with anything that might take you outside your comfort zone

While the extreme of ‘the complete opposite of staying within your comfort zone’ might also be considered a little reckless, as is often the case: a happy medium might be the healthiest zone to aspire to. So how do we find this happy medium?

This is where emotional intelligence comes in. It starts with making yourself conscious of the emotions you are experiencing: the ones that prevent you from reaching out, having hopes and expectations or venturing into ‘unknowns’! To become more adventurous, you need to learn to become accepting of the vulnerability that you’ll feel knowing uncomfortable emotions might arrive. The process of making yourself aware of your emotional state and its impact, in itself helps. You soon learn to trust that uncomfortable emotions are not only transient, you’ll realise can cope with them!

With our children, therefore, as much as it feels like good parenting to perpetually protect, keep any discomfort away and jump in and problem solve, in doing so, we’re not giving them the opportunity to see that they can manage uncomfortable emotions. We also prevent the opportunities to help our children demonstrate to themselves that they can be self-reliant. As our aim is to eventually guide our children to becoming ‘effective adults’, it’s better to increasingly equip them to manage situations than to always step in and sort them.

So what does this look like in practice?

With young children it’s being a steady and comforting presence to help them ‘survive’ and eventually regulate their emotional outbursts. When you do this, you are giving your child the clear message, ‘you can totally cope with negative emotions’.

And as your children get older, it’s stepping back more and more from the tendency to sort everything out for them. If your child has a problem, you can help them work out what to do by listening to them attentively (for more on active listening visit this post) to enable their full exploration of any problem. You also need to resist the temptation to bombard them with solutions – as tempting as this is. It’s also about giving them information that will enable them to navigate life (rather than trying to protect them from knowing about the full spectrum of things outside in the big-wide-world! e.g. information about bullying, sex, drugs, a discerning eye for internet content etc.).

And here’s an activity I have used with parents and carers to show that over time, we ideally move from protecting our children (keep all risks away from them because they cannot yet protect themselves) to equipping them (giving them the tools and knowledge so they can protect themselves and make their own decisions). Which of these are equipping and which are protecting, and which are appropriate in your opinion….?