Last week’s post was about how all human beings experience pain, and how trying to stop ourselves from feeling pain is a natural behavior. Like an animal with a foot in a trap, a human in pain tries everything she can to avoid feeling discomfort. She squirms and tries to run, but only ends up wounding herself further and tightening the trap’s hold on her.
Not trying to escape painful emotions seems counterintuitive—it did to me for many years. As someone who has wanted to control and not feel sadness, anxiety, loss and insecurity, I’ve justified my attempts to push emotions away in almost every way I could.
After losing someone I had loved dearly for most of my life, I didn’t know what to do with my pain. I sought out my friends for validation, tried to lose myself in relationships, over-worked myself, and exercised like a woman possessed.
On the surface my behaviors might have looked ‘healthy,’ but inside, I was running as fast as I could from a loss I didn’t know what to do with. I felt that if I truly let the loss wash over me, I would be bowled over by sadness, and I would never emerge as a whole human again. I was also afraid that my feelings of loss meant that there was something wrong with my life or myself. In short, I was terrified of not having control, and of being deficient, and so I did everything I could to feel productive and in control.
But when my attempts at control didn’t work—when I didn’t feel any better after working myself to the bone or getting praise—I was left confused and even more broken-hearted. I wondered: Why do we naturally try to stop ourselves from feeling pain if trying to control our feelings only seems to make things worse? Why don’t control strategies seem to work?
It was only after I began to understand where my attempts at control came from that I could start to disavow myself of them. The next point speaks to why we try to control emotions, and why our critical thoughts come so naturally.
The Problems With Getting Too Attached to Control
- The Negativity Bias
Human brains naturally tend to focus on negative aspects of life rather than positive ones, and this is sometimes referred to as the ‘negativity bias.’ Our brains do this because they are designed to seek out threats and negativity in order to keep us safe.
As mammals trying to survive in a dangerous world full of potential harms, we evolved to scan the environment to pick up on danger rather than to see the positive things around us. For example, a primitive human who noticed predators or was alert to food scarcities had a better chance of surviving and procreating than the happy go lucky man who sat around enjoying the sun and noticing the beauty around him. Thus, the people who had the ability to scan best for negative things about their environment had an evolutionary advantage.
In our contemporary society, the negativity bias no longer serves the purpose it once served. We still need to notice the glaring negative components of our lives—like when we’re in an abusive relationship or working a job that’s killing our soul. But when we are constantly focused on things that are wrong or could go wrong with our lives or with other people, we fail to appreciate the good things we have.
This keeps us from living in the moment because our brains are zeroed in on how the present moment could be better. When we’re stuck in a negative thought cycle about our partner, we won’t be able to appreciate the meal she cooked us, and we won’t be able to see her vulnerability. We then push that partner away because she doesn’t measure up to our standards.
When we are really engaged with our negative thoughts, nothing can ever be good enough, and we will perpetually feel that others are falling short.
But perhaps the most destructive iteration of the negativity bias shows up when we turn against ourselves.
At the first sign of a negative emotion, our brain acts like it has just encountered an environmental threat: our alert system gets activated. We begin to wonder what is wrong with our environment or ourselves and how to fix it.
In trying to explain negative emotions, often the first explanation we come to is that we are doing something wrong. If only we had more friends, or lived in a different place, or chose a different life path, then we wouldn’t feel so much anxiety, insecurity or despair.
Some of us (like me) embark on debilitating ‘self-improvement’ projects in order to feel in control and OK, and many of us also try to numb out with alcohol, drugs, unhealthy relationships, exercise, food, facebook, tv, and material possessions because feeling that we are wrong or bad is so overwhelming.
When we are turned against ourselves, we are believing all of our very natural negative thoughts and robbing ourselves of the present moment and the joy around us. We put ourselves in a trap of our own devising, and then we struggle to emerge from that trap. The trap can become deeper and more complicated as our habits of avoidance become more natural.
My attempts at control didn’t work because they only reinforced the idea that something was wrong with me and that I didn’t have any control over my life. I was stuck in an endless thought cycle, believing every destructive thought I had and then desperately trying to fix my life so that the thoughts would go away.
But what I eventually realized, after years of reading, therapy, yoga, and self-compassion, is that I could choose to release myself from the trap that I created, and that I could choose to relate to my emotions in a different way.
The first step for me was recognizing that having a desire to control is what has allowed the human species survive. But I also had to recognize that it was keeping me from truly living.
We are more than a species of cavemen, fighting to survive. We are capable of choice. We are capable of full, messy, beautiful human lives.
Emma Kobil is a licensed professional counselor practicing in Denver, Colorado. Her philosophically informed therapeutic approach is designed to foster a sense of strength, understanding, and joy. Her expertise focuses on adults, adolescents and teens suffering from depression, anxiety, self-esteem and identity issues, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. Learn more about Emma, or schedule an appointment, at mindfulcounselingdenver.com.