When we find ourself struggling with negative feelings or mood states, like stress, fear, anger, boredom etc…we tend to want to make them “stop.” It’s pretty natural to want to avoid these feelings because we believe having them will make us feel worse. Many of us also believe we should be “happy” or “fine” all of the time. The reality is that no one feels good all the time and part of being human is figuring out a way to live with and experience the range of emotional experiences that are brought on by living life.
In our attempts to control our exposure to unwanted or unpleasant emotions we may find ourselves engaging in behaviors that actually pull us further from the life we want to be leading. For example, maybe you are someone with a fair amount (or a lot) of social anxiety. But you are also someone who values relationships. If you cope with the discomfort you feel when facing social interactions by avoiding them, you are likely engaging in a short term strategy that could lead to a long-term consequence that is painful for you…social isolation. In other words, it may “feel good” not to face that anxiety in the moment, but in the long-term you are far away from having a life full of rich relationships that you value.
When trying to relate to your sense of vulnerability or anxiety in a different way, it can be helpful to think of your desire to avoid it as someone living with a hungry baby tiger. Although the tiger is just a baby, he is scary enough, and you think he might bite you. So you go to the fridge to get some meat for him so he won’t eat you. And, sure enough, throwing him some meat shuts him up while he’s eating the meat, and he leaves you alone for a while. But he also grows just a little bigger. So, the next time he’s hungry, he’s just a little bigger and a little more scary, and you go to the fridge to throw him some more meat. Again, you feed him to keep him at bay. The problem is that the more you feed him, the bigger he gets, and the more frightened you feel. Now eventually that little tiger is a big tiger, and he scares you more than ever. So you keep going back to the fridge to get more meat, feeding and feeding him, and hoping that one day he will leave you alone. Yet the tiger doesn’t leave – he just gets louder and more scary and hungry. And then one day you walk to the fridge, you open the door, and the fridge is empty. At this point, there is nothing left to feed the tiger . . . Nothing? . . . Except you!
Are you aware of avoiding anxiety (feeding the tiger) with the hope that it will just go away?
Do you engage in behaviors to avoid negative feelings that actually are against your goals and values, but feel good in the short-term?
Consider examples of how you have fed your own anxiety monsters. Does your experience tell you that feeding them makes them leave you alone? Is there anything that indicates that this is going to happen?
Attempting to control your exposure to negative feelings and mood states can significant reduce your ability to engage with the world around you because many times doing what is important or what matters in life is difficult. Change and growth often comes along with a sense of vulnerability or fear/anxiety. Consider letting yourself “have” your feelings and see if you can see the value in sitting with them, approaching them, understanding them…you might be surprised and that baby tiger may not get so out of control.