Putting up barriers and blocking out experiences is a common strategy you might use to avoid the discomfort they could cause you. In fact, your modern human mind has evolved to help you survive dangers.
One hundred thousand years ago, our essential needs were food, shelter, and the ability to reproduce. Of course, none of this would’ve made much sense if we were dead. Therefore, the priority of our brains was to look out for what could harm us and avoid it.
In psychology, this is called negative reinforcement. It’s a phenomenon that explains why avoiding unpleasant or dangerous consequences is a behavior that remains in our repertoire today.
Blocking out experiences because you’re afraid of suffering
If you don’t take risks, you neither suffer nor lose. On the other hand, you’ll find it extremely difficult to win. You’ll get stuck, you’ll conform, and you’ll learn to adapt, trying to avoid the inevitable fear. For example, you’ll tend to block experiences because you’re afraid of suffering. Nevertheless, with this behavior, you’re ignoring the fact that the fear you’re trying to hide will seek alternative ways to manifest itself.
This doesn’t mean that you should deny the existence of fear. In fact, it’s a basic emotion that helps you identify and respond to threats. Indeed, you should remember that, if you want to live a full life, you’ll have to accept the presence of fear in your palette of emotions.
One extremely common fear is the fear of pain. Fear of pain leads you to avoid situations that cause it. However, your mind isn’t always too good at separating what your imagination creates from what actually happens. On the other hand, the good news is that, with cognitive training, you can improve in this regard.
“Being scared is part of being alive. Accept it. Walk through it”.
Blocking out experiences and the illusion of control
Russ Harris, in his book, The Happiness Trap, explains, on the basis of acceptance and commitment therapy, how you try to control your emotions and the illusion of control that you often fall into along the way. Nevertheless, thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations have far less power than you give them.
You might tend to block out experiences that cause you discomfort because they bring back painful memories, as well as make you anxious. Unfortunately, this solution is more of a Band-Aid than an effective form of coping. It can rescue you at a given moment, just like denial, but as a systematic and stable strategy over time it’s no insurance against suffering, the exact feeling that you’re trying to avoid.
“Those who look outside dream, those who look within awaken.”
-Carl Gustav Jung-
Common control strategies
On the one hand, there are escape strategies, which lead you to escape or protect yourself from certain events.
- You try and shelter or escape from situations or activities that could cause you unpleasant thoughts or feelings. For example, you leave a social gathering in order to avoid feelings of anxiety.
- You distract yourself from your thoughts and feelings and focus your attention elsewhere. For instance, if you’re bored or anxious, you might eat ice cream or go shopping. Or, if you’re worried about an exam, you may spend the afternoon watching tv.
- You disconnect or numb yourself. In fact, you try and forget your feelings and thoughts. This usually involves medication, drugs, or alcohol.
On the other hand, there are fighting strategies that involve battling against events and trying to dominate them.
- You directly suppress your unwanted feelings and thoughts. This happens when you forcibly expel the inopportune thoughts that come to your mind or push them deep down inside you.
- You argue with your own thoughts and try to rationalize them.
- You try to take charge of your thoughts and feelings. For example, when you tell yourself to cheer up.
- You try to force yourself to feel differently. For instance, when you blame or criticize yourself.
Undertaking psychotherapy means you’ll become more aware and be able to seek other more appropriate ways to manage your emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations.
“There are pains that kill, but there are crueler ones, those that leave us with life without ever allowing us to enjoy it.”
-Antonie L. Apollinarie Fée-
The difference between setting boundaries and blocking out experiences.
To a greater or lesser extent, we all use control methods to manage discomfort. The problem isn’t in their use but in their abuse or misuse. For example, when you use them at times when they don’t work or when you use mistakenly use them and they manipulate your priorities.
However, does this always happen? As a matter of fact, the degree of control will depend on the type of experience that awaits you and how important it is for you. When your thoughts are less intense, you have more control than when they’re disturbing. Just as you’ll also have more control when you block experiences that aren’t too important to you.
Placing healthy limits on your inner world to improve its management is highly recommended. In this sense, it’s key to work on your self-knowledge.
One more psychological aspect that can help you build a meaningful life is learning to experience what life offers you without constantly evaluating and judging. In fact, adopting a posture of acceptance.
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