Are You Sabotaging Your Happiness by Avoiding Emotional Pain?

WebMD Blog:

Are You Sabotaging Your Happiness by Avoiding Emotional Pain?

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Man looking serious, not emotional
Photo: George Hodan/


People enter therapy because they are, in some way, suffering. Whatever the specifics of their situation, most patients are struggling with at least one significant problem: avoidance. When people try to avoid their struggles and pain, they are also avoiding their own experience – and this leads to more problems and unhappiness.

People often don’t even realize when they are actively avoiding certain feelings or experiences. Some signs that you might be engaging in avoidance are:

  • You say, “I don’t know” a lot. If you are frequently unable to say what you feel, then you may be chronically avoiding your emotions. This may keep you “safe” from painful emotions, but you may also frequently feel emotionally cut off, numb, or confused. (You may also get feedback from others that you seem hostile or angry even though you don’t think of yourself as angry.)
  • Your conversations frequently meander between topics, especially when those topics involve personal problems or dilemmas. People close to you might express frustration with not being able to talk about particular (or any) difficult issues. You might experience a sense of feeling lost in conversations, or unable to even think much about certain situations.
  • You have a limited range of emotions. You may notice that while you do not feel many negative emotions, you also don’t feel positive ones. You may (or may not) be conscious of limiting your happiness to protect yourself from the pain you expect when that happiness ends.
  • You are chronically bored. Many people try to avoid potential pain by limiting their interests and activities. This extinguishes their life energy. As a result, they are not engaged in, or interested by, anything.

If your efforts to avoid pain are unintentionally causing you more suffering, it may be time to start accepting your distress.

You may find help in a kind of therapy called “acceptance and commitment therapy” (ACT), which focuses on helping people to accept their experiences. “Acceptance” means acknowledging that an experience exists and not fighting against it, even if you are not happy about it. For instance, you might accept that your partner has ended your relationship even though it makes you desperately upset. “Commitment” refers to committing to taking actions that lead you toward living your values. So, rather than continuing to stalk your ex, you allow yourself to grieve the relationship and set about finding a new partner.

To feel inner peace and happiness, you must make peace with your personal experiences. While we all, on occasion, feel the need to temporarily distract ourselves from a distressing topic or suppress a particularly painful emotion, if you continually use avoidance as a basic way of coping with life’s difficulties, you will inevitably experience other problems.

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Important:  This article is part of the WebMD Relationships blog. The articles in the WebMD Relationships blog are for general education purposes only. They should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment, or advice. Do not delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider because of something you have read in this article.