Why do I need to feel emotions?  

Lately, I’ve been rewatching the iconic medical drama, House, renowned for its abrasive yet brilliant physician protagonist, Dr. House, who tackles cases that baffle everyone else. While the show hasn’t aged gracefully in some respects, I find comfort in its formulaic structure, knowing that each case wraps up neatly by the episode’s end. 

One particular episode stands out (“Insensitive” [Season 3 Episode 14]) whereby House confronts a challenging case involving a teenage girl named Hannah who is afflicted with Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis (CIPA), a rare genetic disorder rendering her unable to feel pain.

At first, the thought of being unable to feel pain sounds desirable. However, this condition poses grave risks due to the likeliness of sustaining severe and frequent injuries. The episode is interesting because of the challenges House and his team face in their attempt to diagnose someone unable to feel symptoms. Normally when we go to the doctor, pain serves as a crucial indicator of underlying issues. Yet for Hannah, the absence of pain leads to undetected problems. 

The episode concludes with House removing a massive tapeworm out of Hannah’s stomach, which has been causing nutrient deficiencies. Typically, a person without CIPA would experience intense abdominal pains if they had a massive tapeworm, which was why it went undetected in Hannah for so long. 

We often view physical pain as negative, yet it serves a vital function in maintaining our well-being. Pain signals alert us that something is not right and needs our attention. 

Emotions play a similarly crucial role. I frequently have clients tell me they wished they didn’t feel emotions (mostly sadness, anxiety, or anger). At first, it seems great to not feel anxiety or anger or sadness. But, upon further inspection, these clients see how important these emotions are. 

Consider anxiety, for instance. Imagine living without it. You wait for the subway at the very edge of the platform, standing right on the yellow line. You take a shortcut home through a dark alley, alone, in an unsafe neighbourhood, in the middle of the night. While there is no absolute threat of injury, the lack of anxiety would increase our exposure to risky environments and situations.

Like physical pain, uncomfortable emotions alert us that something is not right and needs our attention. Anxiety warns of danger, anger reveals the presence of unacceptable conditions, and sadness indicates unmet needs.

When experiencing an uncomfortable emotion, consider what it would mean to lack that specific emotion in that context. Think about the last time you experienced an uncomfortable emotion and ask yourself: “What would it mean if I didn’t feel X?” 

When I ask my clients this question, typically one of two answers emerge: 1) It means I didn’t actually care about the thing I’m upset about, or 2) It would be weird (cue laughter). Both answers are helpful because they show us that either 1) This thing I’m upset about was / is important to me, or 2) It’s totally normal that I’m feeling this way. Which reveals a deeper, more significant issue in need of attention: When / how / where did you first learn that your emotions either didn’t matter or weren’t important?

Next time you feel an uncomfortable emotion and wish you were not feeling it, think about the importance of feeling that emotion and seek to identify when, how, and from whom you learned emotions didn’t matter and / or weren’t important. Because just like physical pain, emotional pain indicates that something needs our attention. And if we aren’t feeling those pains, we have no way of knowing that a massive tapeworm is eating away at us.

Rachel (she / her) is a Registered Psychotherapist in Ontario, offering online and in-person sessions in downtown Toronto. She primarily works with teens, young adults, and 2SLGBTQIA+ folx.

Learn more about Rachel at https://cwcp.ca/clinician/rachel-warner/