To live a full and connected life in the face of difficulty and even tragedy requires the capacity to feel and make use of our emotional experience.
-Diana Fosha, The Transforming Power of Affect.
I have clients who have asked me to teach them how not to cry. It’s seen as fake or a sign of weakness. Others have walked away from those in distress, or even mocked the tears or deep feelings of others.
Affect phobia is literally a fear of feelings and their expression. If someone has internal conflicts with strong emotions in themselves and others, they are functioning in a maladaptive way. The hallmarks of affect phobia are avoidance of strong emotions in self or others, minimization of natural expression of emotions, and even taking pride in being strong or “stoic.” Similarly, they may tell someone in distress not to be vulnerable, sometimes guised as a compliment (you are stronger than that; be a warrior).
While phobias are traditionally associated with things like spiders, heights, enclosed spaces, and public speaking, it goes beyond that. For example, an individual with an aversion to grief might avoid feelings of sadness and become enraged instead. Instead of comforting someone in distress, they may sneer or tell them to stop crying. This can impact their relationships, environment, self-worth, ability to be present, experience joy, and more.
People may come to fear feelings because of early learning in their families-of-origin. They may adopt avoidant feelings, thoughts and behaviors to an extent that they are unaware that there is an underlying feeling that they are avoiding in self and others.
For example, if a child’s parents could not tolerate open expression of their anger as a child, they learn to “shut down” feelings of anger. They also may not be able to tolerate the angry feelings of another, similarly shutting them down, or avoiding them as “dramatic.” If parents said they were being a baby for crying, they may learn to view feelings of sadness as “weak.” As an adult, they pride themselves on being “strong and stoic” and dismiss feelings of sadness as “weak and pathetic.”
Affect phobia are anxiety and shame-based reactions that inhibit our natural expression of emotions. This inhibition often causes various mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression.
Some common indicators of affect phobia:
Guilt over anger
Embarassment about crying
Pain over desiring closeness
Shame about oneself
Avoidance of others who they deem to be overly emotional
Lack of ability to read and respond appropriately to feelings in others
Therapy helps to address affect phobias by identifying and helping to address blocks to feeling. It is often helpful to understand these anxiety and shame-based reactions as adaptations to the kind of childhood environment people grew up in. However, these responses are no longer needed and get in the way of healthier functioning – a tolerance for the FULL range of emotions in our lives and others.
(Affect Phobia Therapy, an integrative model of short-term Dynamic Psychotherapy that was created by Leigh McCullough, Harvard Medical School psychologist and researcher, 1997).