Why We Humans Have Emotional Problems

avoid feelings

Somewhat to my surprise, I have become convinced that the source of all the emotional and psychological problems (that can be resolved through psychotherapy) is our natural tendency to avoid painful and uncomfortable feelings, especially the ones that once threatened to overwhelm our being. As part of a conference presentation, I have made a plain language list of all 12 ways we do it. Please click here to look at, share, print or download it (I only ask you not to change it).

Much of the time, we are not aware of avoiding feelings because the patterns that allow us to do so have long been buried, and were never labeled as avoidance, anyway. Look at the list and you will get an idea of what these mechanisms might actually look like in life. Also, note that much of the time, avoidance is layered, with more than one mechanism combined. How We Heal and Grow: The Power of Facing Your Feelings (seem main page) tells a lot more.

The good news is that healing happens automatically when we face our feelings in a context of safety, truthfulness and empathy. That’s what it takes. The hard part is getting to the feelings. That’s both because we may not be aware of avoiding, and also because we naturally run into significant resistance as our mind still thinks the original intense feeling is still dangerous. Here is another link to the PDF document:

Take a Look at the “12 Ways…” info-sheet



  • Thank you so much for generating and sharing this. It is a good reminder for myself and all the people I come in contact with. I especially like that you included the possible biological/genetic factor in some of the ways. The more we learn about how the brain actually works really proves that much of our emotional behavior is due to our wiring.

  • Hello Dr. Smith,

    I’ve enjoyed reading your blog entries as I think they’ve helped me understand a lot of what I experience in therapy. I wanted to ask your advice on a crossroads my therapist and I have come to. In short, he gave me advice to stay in a relationship where I wasn’t being satisfied. I listened because he told me as long as I did what he said I would get better. This relationship was short – 2 months maybe – but we saw each other often and it was one of my first romantic relationships. I told my therapist I didn’t want to stay in it for two reasons: 1, I didn’t like what the guy did (showed up late, flaked, didn’t pay for drinks, etc.) and, 2, I was worried I would regress into this dependent/child-like state that had been an issue for me in the past where I become attached and blame the other person. He dismissed my first point as me just being angry and trying to run away from it and ignored my second point. Well, in short – The guy broke up with me but wanted to be friends. I felt humiliated because I forgave him for all his shortcomings but didn’t get that in return. And yes, I tried talking to the guy at the time with the things I had issues with but kept getting dissatisfying answers (like: let’s not keep track of what we spend or I thought those dinner plans weren’t serious). We tried being friends then he came to me drunk after a break-up, tried making out with me, and i fell for him again admittedly. I hoped it would turn into something (and I told my therapist this). Then the next week he tells me he met a new guy that he was super happy about. That’s when my old habits kicked in. I told him off and humiliated myself in the process. He said he didn’t want to be friends anymore. I went back to my therapist and blamed him for the humiliation and the circumstances. He threw his hands up in the air and said it wasn’t his fault and I was just trying not to take responsibility for my feelings and actions. It’s been 2 years now, and this is still an issue for my therapist and me at every turn. I see my therapist as someone who influenced me into a dependency but is unwilling to take responsibility for the role he played in it. He constantly tells me it’s transference, or egodystonic, or attachment issues, or me not taking responsibility, and that he has nothing to apologize for, and so on. I just think he’s a bad therapist who let his cockiness get in the way of his therapy, fostered a dependent relationship, then fostered feelings of abandonment when he didn’t take responsibility for his advice. Every time I try to end therapy, he tells me I shouldn’t. He tells me it’s a mistake. He tells me this is something I need to work through and that I’m just running away from the issue (even after 2 years of working on it). He’s a fan of this philosophy called ‘healthy dependency’ and I think that’s why he thinks it’s okay to give advice. But I’m the patient, how am I supposed to know what is good for me? Maybe I am just crazy and don’t realize it? I feel like I’m caught in a Catch-22. I thought the idea of a therapist giving advice might be a good article. I see conflicting views online and there are little resources for the patient. Thanks for any insight.

    – Kyle

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