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Emotion Phobia: A Key Culprit in the Unworthiness Phenomenon

How to Feel Your Feelings on the Path to Real Self-Love

Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash

In a recent interview with on-line mogul Marie Forleo, Tim Ferriss, successful entrepreneur and author of best selling books The 4-hour Work Week and the recent, Tribe of Titans, opened up about his past experience with depression and suicidality. He talked about his healing journey and declared this as his most pivotal belief: “You have to figure out a way to love yourself and love other people fully. That is just the state of reality. There’s really no way around it.”

Thank you, Tim, for bravely and unapologetically naming the importance of self-love. I call this brave because in Western culture, emphasizing self-love is generally poo-pooed, mocked and relegated to the feminine realm (recall SNL throwback Stuart Smalley?). Tim stands amidst other men, like Lewis Howes and Justin Baldoni, who are calling for a cultural shift in masculinity that sheds the many masks that impede men from living authentically and embracing vulnerability. These men are marching in the shadows of women like Brene Brown, who has published prolifically on the importance of vulnerability and the social and cultural constraints of shame, not to mention feminists who for half a century have challenged the constraints of gender norms. Men’s recent engagement in the cultural conversation will assuredly amplify attention to the problem of an unworthiness phenomenon in the West, and legitimize the importance of authenticity and self-love for all men and women. So, while they’re a little late to the table – I welcome their arrival. Our suffering is not separate and it will not be healed in isolation. 

Disrupting the unworthiness phenomenon is no easy task. There are many blocks and barriers to people loving themselves. In her research on self-compassion, Kristen Neff observed a phenomenon, which she termed “backlash”, which refers to resistance and hindrances people experience when they first start treating themselves with compassion and care. The downside of backlash is that many people quit practicing self-compassion, thinking it doesn’t work, thereby halting the process of cultivating self-love and self-worth, frosting the seeds at first planting. I believe that part of people’s resistance to developing self-compassion and self-love lies in the dysfunctional relationship to emotions that we all share as an inevitable outcome of living in a cultural landscape of emotion phobia.

I have worked in the trenches of emotional pain for over a decade as a therapist trying to help people heal and transform their distress, suffering and unquenched longing into greater happiness, joy and fulfillment – or at the very least, less suffering and misery. At times it has felt like I’m hiking Mount Everest sans gear teaching individuals one by one how to unlearn their problematic relationships to their emotions. We live in a culture that espouses control over emotions, with particular gender rules around emotional expression. At an early age, we are told to “Stop crying!” or “whining”. If you’re a boy, you’re likely shamed contemptuously at expressions of vulnerability like tears or sadness – E.g., “Don’t be a baby/wuss” or “Stop acting like a girl” (enter internalized sexism). As a girl, you’re more likely to be admonished for expressing assertive-type emotions, such as anger or frustration, or even independence (i.e. put others before yourself or risk being called the b-word). These rules around emotion exist within a binary construction of gender of which we are all subjected and restricted within.

Consequently, we learn early on to hide much of what we feel. We try to control our feelings and swallow them with denial and suppression. On top of the original emotions experienced, we then feel bad about having the emotions. I see this in action when clients apologize to me in session for shedding tears. The rules to not have feelings and not show emotion apply even in therapy! Since inevitably we feel things we are told we ‘shouldn’t feel’ and eventually show our feelings we ‘shouldn’t show’ in some way, we judge ourselves for lack of control, ultimately deepening our misery and internalizing shame, a sense of badness and an unconscious belief that ‘I am not lovable fully and wholly as I am’. In order to be acceptable and loved, I must hide parts of myself. When we discount, judge and devalue our emotions, we diminish and invalidate our experience, our humanness. This is an act of self-betrayal and the opposite of self-love.

Medical science is continuing to learn how much stress and psychological pain can impact the physical body. Part of that ‘stress’ is unprocessed emotion held in the body. Studies have also shown the many valuable benefits of high emotional intelligence, citing it as more important that IQ in success in life and health. There’s no denying the mounting scientific evidence supporting the importance of emotional balance and regulation skills in well-being. And yet, the archaic notion that values rationality and ‘human robots’ devoid of most emotions creates a community of people with lifetime patterns of disintegration from their emotional experiences, disconnection from their needs for happiness and fulfillment, and, more seriously, to physical and mental illnesses.

I lived 30 years without the understanding that my emotions are fundamental to life and actually useful. Like many people, not knowing how to cope with and listen to my emotions, I stuffed them with food and avoided them through substance use. Obviously, this caused greater suffering and disconnection from myself and, well, life. A slow journey of changing these habits and healing eventually led me to study to become a therapist. As a graduate student I trained with Dr. Les Greenberg, the originator of Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT), and learned that, for example, the sadness and anger I felt was okay and essential to my humanness. That if I allowed it to be and followed its innate wisdom and unique ‘action urge’, I could understand what it needed, meet the need in some way, and it would move through and release. This new understanding felt like a shot of epinephrine to the chest after slowly suffocating my entire life. Like suddenly something so important to survival and meaning was granted me, a piece to a puzzle that was always missing. After the “Aha” came shock and disbelief that people are so incredibly misguided and wrongly conditioned around emotions. That so much suffering is a result of our inability to feel what we feel because of erroneous cultural paradigms.

I see that same relief on my clients’ faces. They look surprised by the permission I offer to feel what they feel. There is a relaxing and calming when I validate that what they feel made sense in the situation (placing it in the context of their history), and that it is okay to feel sad, hurt, angry, etc. Then we can move on to the other business of the sticky situation and what to do about it – but this part can’t be skipped over. In fact, in EFT, we follow the emotions themselves as they shift and deepen like a circling downward staircase to the core emotions, which are the gateway to accessing healthy and adaptive emotions that clarify the unmet need, which inherently holds the wisdom of ‘what to do’. We need to change our relationship to our emotions in order to change anything in a deep and transformative way.

We are in desperate need of a cultural revolution in how we approach our emotions that will serve us, rather than continue to perpetuate illness and dysfunction. An attitude that ‘it’s okay to have feelings’ is a good start and would be radical from the current climate. Simply knowing that what you feel in reaction to this world is not inherently wrong or bad, and you are not wrong or bad for having emotions would be a transformational shift for most people. I know intimately how learning how to access and harness the inherent wisdom of emotions can heal past wounds while increasing fulfillment in life, deeper meaning and joy. Greater acceptance and compassion towards one’s emotional life means embracing our vulnerability.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change” (Brene Brown).

It is also the bridge to connection with each other. A movement towards embracing our vulnerability can pave the way for a more loving, equitable and peaceful world. Changing how you relate to your emotions has profound potential for how you parent, teach, lead and live in your community. 

How to Approach Your Emotions to Cultivate Acceptance and Self-Love:

1. Practice Expanding Attention:

For many folks, changing one’s relationship to their emotions is a tortoise-speed process. Like building a muscle or learning a new skill, it takes effort, and practice. Emotions are often felt in the body, however, for various reasons, many people are cut off from awareness in their bodies. Usually, when I ask clients how they feel, they think about how they feel with their head, rather than expand their attention to the full embodied experience of what are they feeling inside. Thinking about what we might be feeling is very different from tuning into our bodies to discover what emotions are actually present.

2. Observe Sensations in the Body:

When you recognize a strong emotional reaction or problem situation, notice what sensations accompany the – likely more -negative judgy-type thoughts directed at yourself or another person. Clenching of the jaw, tightness in the chest or throat, or butterflies in the stomach are common sensations, but how emotions are manifested as sensations in the body can be uniquely experienced. Allow your attention to rest on your body while noticing the thoughts and sensations that arise. Just observe with mindful presence without judging what you are experiencing in the moment. Breathe.

3. Label:

Next, try to label what emotions are present. What word might best encapsulate this? Anger, sadness, fear, excitement, or disgust are examples of our most primary and early developed emotions, but we can also experience an array of mixtures and combinations of more than one emotion at a time. You might even whisper them aloud as you try to name what emotions are present for you.

4. Deepen Inquiry:

If you are able to stay with the experience a little longer, you might inquire into the body with an attitude of openness and ask yourself, “Is there another emotion underneath?” As Tara Brach instructs, you might ask yourself: “What am I unwilling to feel?” Be curious. Under the anger, for example, is there sadness or fear, or a more vulnerable emotion that the anger is serving to mask? Breathe and let be whatever arises.

5. Listen for the Need:

If you have opened to all of the emotions that are present and alive, you might next ask the part of your body “What do you need?” Listen. Maybe you don’t hear or sense anything in response – that’s okay. This might be all you do for now. This is a practice of not judging your emotions and beginning to listen inwardly. When we have been avoiding listening to our emotions for years, it can take a while to tune in. You may hear inner guidance like a soft whisper, or a thought. For example, the word “allow” might come to your mind as you inquire into felt sadness.

6. Extend Compassion to Yourself:

If what comes up when you ask the emotion what it needs is a message of needing comfort or soothing, or even if you don’t know, offer yourself through either comforting words or affectionate touch compassion and nurturance (exercises). Experiment with different words that express care and compassion that might bring comfort to the felt emotional pain. “It’s okay” or “I’m sorry that you are suffering” are examples that clients have found fitting, but it is a personal choice. You may chose to do some self-care (e.g., rest, take a hot shower, walk or sit outside in nature). It takes time to re-learn a new way of approaching one’s emotional experience, so be patient and compassionate with yourself and where you are in the process of creating a new relationship with yourself.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

While we can change our approach to ourselves and our emotional experience, we also need to change the cultural customs around emotion. A good place to start is a revised definition of self-love, one that means to cherish and value oneself with tender care and regard, which is the antithesis to narcissism and egotism. What would it be like if people believed that it is okay to be loving towards themselves? The more compassionate and loving of ourselves we are, the more we are able to fully connect and extend real love to others (Sharon Salzberg).

Loving ourselves means accepting and understanding our emotions. This change is so critical, that I predict we would see a drop in the rates of mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, if the next generation was raised with the understanding that emotions are not bad, but can be harnessed through healthy emotion regulation strategies in order to have a happy and socially successful life. I know in my own life, and in the lives of the hundreds of clients I’ve witnessed heal and repair a disordered relationship to their emotions, the power of emotion is not to be underestimated in its healing and thriving potential for humankind.

So, kudos to you, Tim Ferriss and fellow men, for showing up to help expand the cultural conversation on vulnerability so that it’s no longer relegated to the feminine, but recognizes the importance that we all participate in a self-love revolution. I could not agree more that finding a way to love yourself is paramount for everyone. And while there are many ‘how-to’s on a path to self-love, learning how to allow and listen to our feelings is a critical gateway to accessing a deeper connection with the self, which translates to a clearer path to happiness, fulfillment, and deeper love and connection with others. The path of awakening to our true worthiness of love is one that holds the greatest promise for a more peaceful world.

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