Feelings: The Other F-Word for Trauma Survivors

Fear of emotions

Some of my clients have called feelings “the other f-word.”

Can feelings be scary? Yes, they can, especially if the emotions you experienced early in life felt overwhelming or were ignored. You may have a fear of emotions if no one helped you learn to regulate, comfort or understand them. You probably tried to do anything you could to not have them!

The fear of feelings can be quite real, especially when you are unsure whether they will pass, or suddenly return by surprise. You may fear emotions will overtake you with no way out. You may worry if you can get through them and still “act normal”.

If you’d rather suppress or avoid feelings, I have a question for you: Are feelings bad? My answer is, No. In fact, actually feeling them is part of the process of healing from trauma. One of my goals in trauma-informed therapy is to help clients feel their feelings, slowly and safely.

The journey from a fear of emotions to feeling emotions fully and safely is learnable. We start by asking: Why avoid them?

Did You Learn Not to Feel?

The need to live with feelings is human. We start trying to express them from the day we are born.

When you’re a baby and you have a wet diaper and are uncomfortable, you cry. If somebody changes you, you learn others can help you feel better, and you realize your voice matters. If you’re left in distress in a dirty diaper, you come to realize crying and screaming does nothing.

As early as infancy, you can learn to numb and shut out your feelings especially if you find they are painful, and ultimately “don’t matter.” The anguish of disconnection can happen incredibly early in life, as shown in the  still face experiment.

Perhaps you grew up in a family that didn’t talk about feelings. This may have made it hard to learn to hold space for your feelings and regulate them. So when feelings appeared, you didn’t know what to do.

Maybe expressing your feelings wasn’t acceptable in your family. You were told to “suck it up.” Perhaps culturally your feelings weren’t accepted, or maybe your feelings weren’t “manly enough.”

Maybe your history includes trauma and abuse, and nobody listened to you. People important to you may have discounted the emotions you shared or told you you were crazy. If your feelings didn’t matter, perhaps you learned not to trust your own experiences. If you can’t trust what you feel, it’s hard to trust yourself or anybody else.

It’s not surprising that trauma survivors do not like to have feelings.

Many trauma survivors don’t want to experience their feelings.

Feelings can seem too big, and too scary if you don’t know how to regulate them. If you didn’t grow up with secure attachment, you may have a narrow window of emotional tolerance. You may not realize you can ride the wave of emotions. If you don’t know what to do with emotional energy you may think feelings are bad. You may avoid feelings.

New Mothers Struggle with Emotional Overwhelm Too

Early childhood is one when people may learn to link pain with feelings. Another vulnerable time is for women during pregnancy or as new moms.

Women who are pregnant, or who recently had a baby may experience overpowering feelings. One example is postpartum depression. The pressure to act as expected, while feeling dead, confused, or terrified inside can be traumatic.

Our culture celebrates having a baby as one of the best things in the world! But when cultural norms say you’re supposed to feel wonderful, and you’re actually miserable, your emotional world can become terrifying! You may think, “What’s wrong with me?” You may try to avoid your own thoughts and feelings because you think it’s wrong to have them. You may think: If I have these feelings, I’m never going to recover.

The opposite is true. It’s a good thing to notice you’re overwhelmed. Self-awareness is the first step in finding and creating healthier responses to taking care of yourself. (Professionals can learn more about a trauma-informed approach in my classes, such as: Master Class and Consultation: Treating Trauma in the Perinatal Period.)

Coping Mechanisms for a Fear of Emotions

If those close to you did not value or validate your feelings early in your life, you did what you had to do to survive. You dissociated. You found ways to distract yourself or become numb to feeling emotional pain. You did what you could, even for a short period of relief: drugs, alcohol, self-harm, food or sex—anything to not feel badly.

People often come to therapy when these coping mechanisms are no longer working.

How Do We Make Feelings Less Scary?

Trauma-informed therapy starts with building an emotionally corrective relationship. Part of building safety and stabilization is learning how to be present, where you are safe today. Safety and stabilization work to expand your window of tolerance. That is, you can learn to have feelings while being present in your body—so you can think and feel at the same time.

A first step in healing is learning how to deal with a little bit of discomfort to feel better. You may “feel worse” before you feel better—because you’ll be turning toward uncomfortable feelings in new — and safe — ways. The things you don’t want to feel—fear, sadness, shame, confusion—you will be able to experience, tolerate and heal—slowly. The goal is to let their energy trickle, like gradually opening a faucet, so there is no flood. It’s not easy. But you’ll know you are healing when you realize:

  • I made it through — I’m an adult and I’ve got this!
  • I have now developed healthy coping skills.
  • My past is in my past.
  • I get to now decide what my future is and be there for it.
  • I have a voice, I feel empowered—I’m no longer a victim.

The Language of Feelings

If you grew up with emotional neglect or abuse, talking about feelings may seem like a foreign language to you. My clients are accomplished and intelligent, but many need to learn to put words to feelings. I often use Todd Parr’s flashcards to introduce the language of feelings — they’re not just useful for children! They can help you learn how to notice and put language to feeling a particular feeling.

Let’s Talk About ANGER

If there is one feeling that trauma survivors usually do know how to feel, it’s anger. Anger can feel “good,” because it’s motivating and energizing. But anger is often the protective shell that masks other feelings. What’s underneath the anger is often sadness, disappointment, confusion, shame or guilt.

Anger doesn’t make room for healing relationships. It keeps people at a distance. For trauma survivors, anger feels “better” than sadness, disappointment or vulnerability and the distance has, in the past, helped keep them safe.

As so beautifully shown in Pixar’s Inside Out, ideally our feelings work together. Without being able to feel sadness, for instance, you won’t be able to feel joy.

Know That Healing Is Possible

Even if your emotions seem negative now, I believe you can feel much more positive ones too. I am absolutely sure you don’t have to live with the same struggles and pain you’ve been living in. Being present with yourself is one way to honor who you are and find acceptance that feels good. You can embrace your authenticity. You can learn how to feel joy. You can experience life and relationships in ways that are more rewarding and meaningful to you.

You may also enjoy better physical health. Studies have shown that adverse childhood experiences can have a negative impact on health later life. But you can change this for yourself. By replacing old answers to toxic stress, and learning healthier practices (such as self-care, compassion and bottom-up self-regulation, The brain can gradually heal the stress-induced changes.

Feelings aren’t bad. And we can help you move through them, safely, one step at a time— in ways that feel better.

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