Embrace Your Emotions—Don’t Let Society Numb You

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Untamed" by Glennon Doyle. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Does society suppress your true self? How can you learn to embrace your emotions fully? Does embracing your emotions really improve your life?

Author Glennon Doyle realized that she could use painful emotions to grow and evolve—to become truly alive. Doyle defines being “alive” as constantly evolving into a more authentic and fully-formed version of yourself.

Read on to find out how to embrace your emotions and why Doyle believes you must embrace your feelings fully to live a truly satisfying life.

Introduction to Embracing Your Emotions 

According to Glennon Doyle’s book Untamed, acknowledging your captivity in society is the first step to opening yourself up to freedom—in this guide, we’ll explore embracing your emotions.

(Shortform note: While embracing your emotions can be an access point for freedom, it’s important to note that too much focus on your emotions can be oppressive because it can cause you to become self-absorbed. Self-absorption can trap you in an echo chamber where you believe that only your thoughts and ideas matter. This mindset prevents you from being empathetic toward others and makes you needy and demanding in personal relationships. It’s important to be self-aware and self-critical as you explore your emotions to keep it a largely positive experience.)

Doyle asserts that you are taught by society not to embrace your emotions, to avoid feeling and pain at all costs. Numbing yourself keeps you in captivity, but you can evolve and challenge the status quo when you break free of this conditioning. Embracing emotion is thus a pathway to breaking free and living a more engaged and purposeful life. 

(Shortform note: You might be surprised by Doyle’s claim that society teaches women to suppress their emotions because there’s a cultural perception that women have more freedom than men to express their feelings. However, Doyle’s argument emphasizes that women are often limited to expressing socially acceptable emotions such as happiness, kindness, or concern, while suppressing their darker, more complex emotions.) 

This guide will explore Doyle’s experiences with addiction, rehab, and sobriety—and how they taught her the critical link between embracing emotion and fully living. We’ll then discuss how embracing your emotions makes you more powerful by developing your sense of empathy so that you can help your community and the world. 

Rejecting and Controlling Emotions

Doyle’s captivity started as a young girl. She, like most women, grew up being told the “right” way to be. In this section, we’ll explore the messages she received and how those messages altered the course of her life. 

Received Messages About Emotion

As a child, Doyle was very emotional. All of her feelings were at surface level, and she was very comfortable and in tune with all of her emotions, good and bad.  

As Doyle entered young adulthood, she received the message that strong emotions were undesirable. She learned from society that she was supposed to be agreeable and well-behaved. Based on these received messages, she concluded that she needed to repress her strong emotions—so as not to irritate or displease the people around her and to fit in with society’s expectations of her. (Shortform note: While Doyle notes that she hid her emotions so as not to be a burden to the people in her life, you may not relate to this reasoning. However, with some reflection, you may find that you hide your strong emotions for reasons she doesn’t touch on. For example, you may not want to show vulnerability, or you may always want to present yourself positively.)

Because she wanted to conform and be accepted, Doyle felt that she had to repress her emotions. She felt she must constantly put up a false front to accommodate those around her and follow the directives of society. Maintaining a false front caused her to become anxious and isolated from friends and family and made it impossible for her to be happy. Unfortunately, since she had also received the social message that she was always supposed to be happy, this inability to be happy made her even worse—like a failure. 

Why Suppressing Your Authentic Self Causes Pain

Doyle says that she was so interested in being pleasing and agreeable that she suppressed her true emotions and identity—which she found to be a painful and isolating experience. Shame and vulnerability expert Brené Brown explains why suppressing your identity is so painful in Braving the Wilderness

Brown has found that trying to be pleasing and agreeable can actually be a barrier to feeling accepted because it forces you to hide your true, authentic self for fear of being rejected for who you really are. The anticipation of this rejection causes you to feel isolated and fearful—this is the pain of suppressing your identity. 

To combat this experience of isolation and pain, Brown recommends you show people who you are: Commit to being vulnerable with others and expressing your true feelings and beliefs. When you do this, the people you interact with will often respond positively, and you can feel accepted and connected rather than isolated. 

Coping With Emotion Through Addiction 

Unable to express her emotions or cope with the heartache, pain, anxiety, and depression she experienced as a young woman, Doyle self-medicated with food, drugs, and alcohol. These behaviors destroyed her life and relationships, but she thought she was victorious because she had successfully numbed herself to all feelings, especially pain. 

Further-Reaching Effects of Numbing Your Emotions

In attempting to numb her negative emotions, Doyle numbed all of her emotions—which likely made her ability to cope with negative emotions even worse. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown explains why numbing your negative emotions often can backfire in this way. 

Brown says that your ability to recall positive experiences helps you build resilience—you can get through negative situations by remembering that they won’t last, and you can have happy times. However, when you numb all your emotions to avoid the negative ones, you block yourself from experiencing positive emotions—limiting your ability to draw on positive emotional experiences in times of crisis. 

Embracing Your Emotions: Lessons From Sobriety

Doyle decided to enter rehab in her mid-twenties when she became unexpectedly pregnant with her first child. Doyle knew she loved her unborn baby and wanted to be the mother that her son deserved—this led her to begin her path to recovery, and she entered a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.  

Doyle thought her addiction was her problem—but in the program, she learned that the real problem was how she was unsuccessfully coping with her difficult emotions and mental health issues. Her addictions were simply avoidance techniques that numbed the pain. 

Overcoming Avoidance Behaviors

Avoidance is a common method for coping with difficult emotions or situations, but it ultimately increases anxiety, as you may know from experience. When you avoid negative emotions for an extended period, they become unmanageable because you haven’t developed the skills to deal with them. Learn to tolerate negative thoughts and feelings by finding ways to diffuse triggering emotions and situations. 

It can also be helpful to examine your emotions in a professional therapy setting where you can identify your negative coping behaviors and create personalized goals. Forms of therapy that can be helpful for those struggling with anxiety include cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy. 

Embracing Emotion and Surviving

Doyle’s determination to feel it all without fear was crucial for her recovery. As she became sober, she felt all of her emotions without anything to numb the pain, but she realized that feeling these emotions did not destroy her. (Shortform note: In giving up her coping mechanisms, Doyle was able to clearly see her resilience—a common, and uplifting, experience for people in addiction recovery. In We Are The Luckiest, Laura McKowen writes that she feels lucky to have struggled with addiction because recovery allowed her to know what she was capable of.)

A woman Doyle met at her AA group encouraged her and helped her realize that it’s not wrong to experience painful emotions; happiness is not the goal of life. Rather, embracing your emotions fully should be your objective. The realization that she should feel negative emotions was a revelation for Doyle: It contradicted long-held beliefs that she was always supposed to feel happy and that feeling negative emotions meant something was wrong with her. 

Falling Into the Happiness Trap

Like Doyle, you may feel weighed down by the expectation that you are always supposed to feel happy. Research suggests that there’s a reason that you feel burdened by this expectation—you’re not wired to feel happy all the time

In The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris explains that humans are actually wired for survival—detecting and avoiding threats, prioritizing group acceptance, and constantly seeking to improve their circumstances. Happiness is not our natural state. When you try to be happy all the time, you engage in a constant fight against your evolutionary inclinations. The futility of this endeavor creates a “happiness trap”: Your quest for happiness makes you more unhappy in the long term.

Embracing Emotion and Growing

By avoiding pain, Doyle had stopped progressing and had limited her potential. She became stronger when she faced these painful emotions and didn’t look away. She realized that she could use painful emotions to grow and evolve—to become truly alive. Doyle defines being “alive” as constantly evolving into a more authentic and fully-formed version of yourself. She believes your emotions will provide all the instructions you need to guide you on your journeyand the most challenging emotions are often the most instructive. 

(Shortform note: Doyle’s post-rehab growth is a common experience—many people experience positive psychological change, which experts call Post-Traumatic Growth, after a hardship or trauma. This phenomenon occurs because enduring a life-altering event can suddenly force you to consider your relationships, who you are, and your place in the world.) 

Doyle names three instructive difficult emotions: 

  • Anger can reveal your core beliefs. When you get angry, it is a sign that someone has challenged your deeply held beliefs about yourself or the world.
  • Heartbreak can guide you toward purpose and activism. The issues that break your heart are the causes you should become more involved in. (We will explore this further in the next section.)
  • Grief requires you to let go of a previous way of life you can’t return to. Grief becomes an opportunity for rebirth. 
How Positive Emotions Can Be Instructive

Doyle says that negative emotions can be the most instructive, but in Positivity, author Barbara Fredrickson argues that good emotions do a much better job at broadening your mind and teaching you important truths.
 
Fredrickson says that positive emotions don’t just make you feel good. They can widen your sense of possibility, change your perspectives, and lead to new thoughts and actions. She explains that even small experiences with positive emotions can prompt these effects by increasing dopamine levels in your brain. This increase leads to creativity and openness to new experiences. On the other hand, negative emotions lower your dopamine levels. While negative emotions might be useful for assessing your purpose, letting go of your old habits, and identifying core beliefs, Fredrickson says that they limit the ways you can engage in new thoughts and actions

Fredrickson suggests that you learn to engage more actively with positive emotions by adhering to the 3-1 ratio: For every one negative emotion you feel, engage with three positive emotions. This ratio will allow you to focus more intentionally on dopamine-boosting positive emotions and what they have to teach you. 

Emotions and Activism: Emotions as a Guide Toward Purpose

We have discussed Doyle’s assertion that strong emotions can teach us a lot about ourselves, but what can emotions teach us about engaging with the larger world? Doyle argues that strong emotions can help you engage with the world and become more involved in activism— when you fully embrace the raw power of emotions, you can do anything. 

(Shortform note: Doyle says that you should harness the raw power of your emotions for activism—but even with strong emotions on your side, you may feel that you lack the opportunity or ability to help. Experts say that feeling strong emotions about an issue is productive only if you also feel a sense of self-efficacy (the belief that you have the ability and opportunity to act. If you feel emotions without self-efficacy, you may experience reluctance towards activism or feel frustrated. To increase your sense of self-efficacy, be realistic about your goals for activism and identify small, achievable steps you can take toward engagement.)

How Emotions Can Guide Your Activism

Doyle says that you should find ways of becoming involved in the causes that touch your heart most deeply. If you want to become involved in a cause but aren’t sure where to devote your time and resources, Doyle suggests reflecting on recent current events or looking into an issue that has affected your community. If you feel emotionally drawn to a particular cause or issue, it is an indication that you should become more active in that issue. 

Doyle uses her own experience as an example: In 2016, Doyle felt heartbroken when she learned about the treatment of immigrants and refugees in US detention centers, so she started a grassroots campaign to reunite families at the US/Mexico border. She raised $2 million in the first 48 hours of the campaign and $4.6 million within a few weeks. Doyle’s emotions not only inspired her towards action but also inspired others to contribute and become involved. 

The Power of Getting Inspired by Anger

Doyle discusses her call to action in the context of heartbreak about family separation at US detention centers—but it seems she was also driven by intense anger. This is important to think about, because—as other thinkers explore—anger can be a powerful tool for driving activism. 

In Rage Becomes Her, Soraya Chemaly explores how emotions, specifically anger and rage, are powerful forces in freeing women from personal and political oppression and inspiring them to activism. Feeling anger can help women identify injustice (recall that anger reveals your core beliefs about the world) and encourages them to override their social conditioning, which dictates that they must be quiet and obedient.

Chemaly acknowledges that knee-jerk reactions and impulsive responses to anger are not necessarily productive. Instead, reflect and plan how to use the anger you feel—as Doyle did when she designed her fundraising campaign. To meaningfully reflect on and use your anger, write down exactly what makes you angry, research the issue, and connect with others who are involved in causes addressing the issue. 

Embrace Your Emotions in Daily Life

In the previous sections we have seen how embracing your emotions is a productive mindset that allows you to evolve as a person and pursue activism. Now we’ll consider how to embrace your emotions in your daily life so that you can fully immerse yourself in this mindset. Doyle encourages two practices: 

1) Do not avoid, distract, or numb yourself from strong emotions. Approach these feelings with excitement and curiosity. 

2) Stay with your feelings, and allow them to teach you something new.  Embracing your emotions enables you to feel more deeply and experience life more fully. Feeling everything is part of being fully human. 

Practical Steps for Allowing and Embracing Your Emotions

Doyle advocates for embracing your emotions, but she doesn’t specify how you might go about doing this. In Welcoming the Unwelcome, Pema Chödrön describes a helpful sequence to follow when you experience difficult emotions. 
– Investigate the emotions within you—reflect on your emotions in a private, quiet space. Try to identify and investigate each emotion you are feeling. Identifying each one will help you acknowledge each emotion and learn how it affects you. 

– Embrace your emotions by showing affection and openness to them—as you reflect on your emotions, greet each one with affection (for example, “Hello, sadness,” or, “Hello, loneliness”). By not expressing fear towards your emotions, you can understand them better and learn not to avoid them. 

– Interrupt the story that you might be telling about these emotions—once you greet and welcome your emotions, you can reflect on how you have treated them in the past and identify the narratives you have created about them. Identifying your old ways of thinking will allow you to create new narratives about your feelings. 

– Stay with the emotions and continue feeling kindness towards them—tell yourself that you will stay with your emotions for longer than you might be comfortable with. Being willing to stay with difficult emotions will help you learn not to run away from your feelings.   

– Use emotions to connect with the suffering of others—as you embrace your emotions, think about others who may be having the same feelings. Being in touch with your emotions can help you cultivate your ability to empathize. 
Embrace Your Emotions—Don’t Let Society Numb You

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Glennon Doyle's "Untamed" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Untamed summary:

  • Glennon Doyle's story of freeing herself from society's rules and expectations
  • Why you should rebuild your life using emotion, intuition, and imagination
  • A look at how young women are taught to repress their emotions and desires

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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