Josh Killam, LPC
Pitfalls to Emotional Growth
I want to touch on some of the pitfalls that can come from attending to your feelings. I have spent a lot of time recently trying to flesh out the idea that our feelings can be used as a map to navigate our world and fulfill our needs. Emotionally mapping our world is one of the few ways that we can have our needs met efficiently. However, there are a few things to consider when working to understand yourself. One of the biggest pitfalls we run into is your emotional impulses. These can be understood as emotional needs that you ignore or hide from because of what it would take to pay attention. Impulses can result from parts of you being cut off and forced to act out to get the attention you need. For example, the things you need from your family or spouse but are too scared to ask for or don’t have the words to ask for, so you compensate. I want to highlight that quite often, we are unaware of what we need. Which is part of the problem with impulse. We have an innate drive to compensate for our needs. Which can lead to unhealthy coping skills. Remember, your impulses are not always a conscious choice. Which makes this work that much more critical.
The lack of awareness can lead to an avoidance of responsibility. You might have valid reasons for your suffering. There are plenty of victims in this world, and this is a tragedy. The tragedy is a part of life that we must take responsibility for. It is a truth that we must grapple with if we want to lead fulfilling lives. Regardless of the reasons you are the way you are, you must take responsibility for where you are now. I recently wrote about being raised by an emotionally neglectful mother and how that has affected me personally and becoming a father. I work to no longer blame my mother for how I was raised and what effect that has on me as an adult. I make an effort to take responsibility for the side effects of being an emotionally neglected child. Along with feeling empowered to take responsibility, I can uncover what parts of me still feel unseen. I work to attend to those neglected parts of me.
The takeaway is that it is not someone else’s fault. Identifying and assigning blame is not what we are looking for. The aim here is trying to understand why you are the way you are so you can care for yourself more deeply. Yes, you might have been treated unjustly or experienced trauma in which grieving will be necessary. There is a time and a place for grief. Grief might even be an essential prerequisite to what we are discussing here. Grieving can be helpful to be able to move through any loss or neglect you might have experienced. Granting yourself space to grieve any past trauma or neglect can make space for understanding and moving past your resentments. However, when seeking to understand and navigate your feelings, you must be capable of taking responsibility for who you are in the present.
I have had countless conversations with clients about how they could have been more successful or happier if their parents had done a better job or if they had not been abused; the list goes on. Insert your childhood neglect or trauma. This approach is just not helpful when trying to grow and navigate the world effectively. Bitterness and resentment are what comes from this kind of approach. I want to offer some compassion to anyone who might be in this space right now. I would tell you that it is ok to be where you are right now as long as you are not willfully blind to downfalls. Being resentful and angry can be a helpful step in recognizing what needs to be looked at. In the long run, however, it will be fatal. I want to reiterate a sense of compassion for where you are in the moment. If you are struggling with resentment and cannot release blame to allow yourself to grieve, I would invite you to accept that this is where you are right now, understanding that resentment and victim are not where you must stay.
Ignorance is another hurdle. You don’t know what you don’t know. It can be as simple as not realizing that parts of you are unconsciously walled off or ignored. Or that you are unaware of the neglected aspects of you that require attention. This is the beauty and demise of impulse. You have lived your life, not even realizing that these parts of you have been ignored. Mainly because you developed unconscious impulses to cope with your distress. You end up living with the habits that you wish you didn’t have or the resentments that you just can’t let go of. All the while, your ignorance allows impulsive behaviors to run your internal emotional state leading to turmoil and pain. Remember, many of the emotional ailments that plague you result from unresolved needs. This leads to shame, guilt, sadness, isolation, depression, anxiety, divorce, etc.
When we ignore ourselves, we end up walling off the damaged parts or compartmentalizing them. Most of us understand the idea of compartmentalizing. I think it is safe to say that you have known someone to even brag about the ability to compartmentalize. I would agree that this can be a helpful skill. However, a very dangerous one if not used correctly. For example, when we do or say something that we know to not be true or wish we had not done, we ignore it until the little voice goes quiet. You have a brief moment of guilt or shame, but with time you have developed the appropriate coping skills to do with these pesky feelings. Time has a good deal to do with this. With enough time, most things can be swept under the rug. The problem with compartmentalizing is that parts of your personality get walled off. Which leads to unconscious impulses developing to attend to your needs in a maladaptive, often harmful, or guilt-ridden way.
We can compartmentalize our feelings too. We learn not to pay attention to them by whatever means. Staying busy, medication, alcohol, drugs, relationships, social media, etc. We find and develop behaviors that help us avoid what we are feeling. Eventually, we lose contact with these feelings. Being cut off from yourself leads to a type of momentum living. Running from one event to the next, not ever really being in the moment. You live off impulse produced from your feelings attending to your needs in unhealthy ways. Compartmentalizing and ignoring yourself does not work because these processes have emotional energy that must come out somewhere. If you are not conscious of this process, then your unconscious will do it for you. The result is often anxiety, depression, isolation, addiction, OCD, etc. Basically, mental health illnesses. I am not arguing that all mental health illnesses come from what I have been discussing here. Still, I would say a fair number of them, and it does not hurt to start with reorienting your life into a coherent story if you are struggling.
Reminder, you have needs. You deserve to have those needs attended to. Your unconscious processes are just trying to care for you, however harmful they may be. Remember to have compassion for yourself. Above all else, I think compassion and understanding are the most important traits to have when approaching yourself this way.