TIFT #103: The 10 Most Dreaded Inner Emotions

May 21, 2024


Why do we need to understand what unconscious emotions a Limbic Protector is “trying” to soften or eliminate? The act of joining with our client to seek this knowledge is an excellent way to create the conditions for change. The Five Key Questions referred to in TIFT#101 represent a framework for that exploration. To further support our efforts, the aim of today’s post is to suggest starting points for bringing to light unconscious emotions often encountered in practice. And of course these are emotions the dread of which leads to the Entrenched Maladaptive Patterns (EMPs) we want to help our clients change. First, a bit about unconscious emotion in general…

Unconscious Emotion: Chicken or Egg?

We need to think of unconscious emotion as primary. That’s the opposite of how it is commonly pictured. Often, unconscious emotion is thought of as derived from conscious feeling, pushed out of consciousness. Following Jaak Panksepp and other neuroscientists, unconscious emotion is the source of conscious feeling not the reverse. Unconscious emotion is an automatic phenomenon, which can be, and often is, projected onto the screen of consciousness, where it gathers additional associations and meaning. It is not surprising that our thinking has tended to take the point of view of conscious experience, but when we look at the mind as having evolved from our mammalian ancestors, we begin to see consciousness, not so much as the center of mental life, but as a glorious add-on, built on top of a foundation closely resembling the limbic protective systems of other mammals. 

This is important because activating unconscious emotion is one of the necessary requirements for change through memory reconsolidation. Freud, in 1894, said, correctly, that making unconscious emotion and surrounding circumstances conscious was a requirement for healing. Today’s neuroscience suggests that the need for consciousness awareness is simply to show that unconscious emotion is in an active state, as required for memory reconsolidation to take place.

There is evidence that what I just said omits part of the story. Recent research suggests that conscious feeling also serves to shape the limbic mind’s evaluation of a situation. R.C. Lappet et al, (2016) report that conscious experience projected to the cortex from the amygdala actually feeds back and modifies what is going on in the amygdala. It is not clear if this regulation implies an additional role of consciousness in clinical healing, but it does show how important consciousness is to our experience.

How Freud was right: Lowering excitation

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud proposed the idea that the mind seeks to minimize unpleasant emotions in order to keep our lives in balance. In his thinking, those negative emotions arise from frustration of desires. That is very close to a modern neurophysiological view that the mind is designed to calm negative unconscious emotions, which have been activated by circumstances deemed to be threatening. The point of confusion is, as explained above, whether the thing being avoided is conscious feeling or, as presented here, unconscious emotion,  arising from limbic structures.

Implications for psychotherapy

What this all means is that our goal as therapists is to help our clients activate painful, uncomfortable, and overwhelming unconscious emotions in a way that is not threatening. Our indicator of this is, of course, the presence of affect, exactly as Freud observed. It is the simultaneous experience of inner dread with an equally palpable feeling of safety that allows healing to occur. The safety represents the second requirement of memory reconsolidation, disconfirming information, communicated in the native language of the limbic system and available for rewriting the procedural memory that has been the source of a troublesome EMP.

This leads back to the aim of this post, to create a catalogue of likely unconscious emotions as starting points for joint exploration.

Dreaded Unconscious Emotions

I like the word dread, because it implies something the mind anticipates and does not “want" to experience, even if the avoidance is unconscious and automatic. Here are ten circumstances likely to be the focus of client’s avoidance. These unconscious emotions are proxies for major, even existential threats, particularly in relation to social life, and often first experienced in childhood. It is the seriousness of those threats at a point in time that creates the imperative that the Limbic Protector must employ any and all means to suppress these unconscious emotions, even responses that will later become problems in themselves. Those efforts at coping are embodied as the Entrenched Maladaptive Patterns (EMPs) that psychotherapy aims to change. 

Dreaded emotions as proxies for a threats

As pointed out in TIFT #101, a peculiarity of the human Limbic Protector is that it is designed to suppress the dreaded emotion rather than the threat, itself. The emotion stands as a proxy for the threat. In the light of this arrangement, strategies that suppress emotion, conscious and unconscious, but fail to address the threat are common. This is the case with traditional “defenses” such as denial, projection, etc, described in the psychodynamic tradition. The strategy of diminishing dread by distorting perception seems universal, applying to essentially all 10 of the sources of dread listed here.

In an opposite manifestation of the decoupling of dread from actual threat, the “cognitive distortions” of CBT such as “catastrophization” appear to amplify threats, perhaps in order to influence behavior so as to broaden the scope and intensify conscious motivation to take protective actions. Rationalization falls into this group as well.

Biology is messy, so the categories presented here will sometimes overlap. Some are dreaded circumstances, some are qualities, and some are consequences. Some are innate and some are learned. They can be influenced by biology, affected by chemicals, and can involve multiple limbic emotional systems with different neurotransmitters. Overall, they can all be identified as triggers for EMPs. We’ll look at each, along with some of the strategies the Limbic Protector uses to suppress them.


Dread of:

  1. Abandonment
  2. Being done to
  3. Weakness
  4. Bodily harm
  5. Being caught by surprise
  6. Aggression toward others
  7. Deprivation of essential needs
  8. Having to accept
  9. Shame
  10. Guilt


Let’s look at each one:

Dread of abandonment: The smallest babies react intensely to loss of a sense of connection. The inability to form an emotional connection starting in the first year of life is what leads to the maladaptive responses embodied in anxious, avoidant, and disorganized attachment styles. Dread of abandonment leads to deep rooted maladaptive strategies including clingy behavior, denial of needing anyone, and chaotic attempts to engage. A slightly less obvious strategy is provoking discord or tension in order to feel connected.

Dread of being done to: Agency, the power to act and to be in control is extremely important to humans and we react strongly to its loss or the feeling of being controlled by others. Interestingly, less toxic is the sense of being done to when it comes from nature or some other impersonal force. The most painful emotion arises from being controlled by someone else’s will. A common strategy incorporated in EMPs is repetition of self-devaluing behavior but at our initiative. Then it doesn’t feel like bing done to. Another EMP strategy is bullying, exerting power and control over others. In both cases, the EMPs consist of ways to assert the opposite of what is dreaded.

Dread of weakness, that is, inadequate strength or resources: Humans are constantly monitoring the environment for threats and calculating what they can do to quiet the dreaded emotion. We also calculate our ability to overcome a danger or challenge. Just as animals size up their enemy, humans are highly sensitive to situations where we lack the resources or strength to prevail. This emotion triggers powerful response strategies such as freezing, fawning, and identification with the aggressor. It can also be a source of lifetime anxiety, as it was for the man whose father had a heart condition, such that the son might suddenly have had to become “the man of the family,” a role which he saw as beyond his capabilities. 

Dread of bodily harm: Anticipation of possible bodily harm and pain is essentially universal, but when experienced early in life or with intensity, it can call out maladaptive strategies like avoidance of healthy risk taking or the opposite, denial of fear or concern and counter phobic behavior. I’m not sure about Dread of death. It is my impression that death is rather abstract, and the Limbic Protector is more often concerned with the consequences of death such as losing important connections or not fulfilling one’s plan for life.

Dread of being caught by surprise: A primordial fear, perhaps not so different from being done to is sensitivity to being fooled or failing to anticipate a threat. Perhaps this is an example of shame due to failure to adhere to the value of always being in control. In that way it might be a subcategory of shame, but the dread is unique and powerful enough to have its own category. That’s how the mind is messy.

Dread of aggression toward others: It’s earliest form is in the temper tantrum, where much of the scariness is fear of one's own destructive power. That fear leads directly to the dread of destroying that relationship and being alone. Later on in development, it may be a dread of unconscious guilt. Here, as with shame, the dread can be guilt or it can be fear of the consequences of one's rage or destructiveness. The most common mitigating strategy is to avoid aggressive actions or to adopt a value system based on non-assertiveness.

Dread of deprivation of essentials: This one is especially important as a source of depression and difficulty engaging with life. Children have a remarkably clear sense that their mission is to survive and thrive. They also understand the outside supports they need to succeed in their mission. With the experience of deprivation of love, guidance, or other parental services, the Limbic Protector is faced with an intractable problem. What can one do when those responsible for support don’t give it? The most common strategies are to blame the self, soldier on, and wait for someone to fulfill the need. The strategy that children generally cannot implement is acceptance of the shortfall. That would be unbearable. The result is often a life of depression, pessimism, self-hate, and passivity while waiting. Development is slowed or arrested. Transference can be intense, where the therapist becomes the waited-for source of support and/or disappointment. Of all the strategies, blaming the self is the most harmful and the one most important to reverse. The antidote, of course, is learning, through the therapeutic relationship, that the self is, indeed, lovable. Arrested development means skills not learned, which makes for a therapeutic challenge finding motivation to overcome pessimism and practice unfamiliar skills.

Dread of having to accept: Acceptance is the same as giving up or capitulating. Doing so is very painful, not surprising, since evolution is, I’m sure, not in favor of giving up. The anticipation of having to accept failure, helplessness, or hopelessness generates intense negative unconscious emotion. A number of strategies represent ways to avoid defeat. This is closely related to the hopelessness of lacking parental support. The pursuit of an unmet need is driven by dread of having to accept. Frequently in adults, inability to accept an unfortunate circumstance from childhood continues indefinitely. Other irretrievable adverse experiences can follow this pattern as well, leading to perpetually holding out for “closure,” or some kind of resolution. What these have in common is that acceptance of a bad outcome is experienced as an existential threat to be avoided at any cost. In terms of strategy, the Limbic Protector can follow a wide variety of paths including self-deception to avoid or put off to the future the dreaded need to accept.

Dread of shame: A very common way of turning an immediate threat into a long term solution is to create an “internal electric fence.” That means internalizing a value system that uses shame as a deterrent to a problematic behavior. A common example is shame focused on weakness. A man spent a great deal of energy embodying his ideal of strength and manliness. The underlying strategy was to avoid shame by never allowing himself to show weakness. Deeper, underneath that, was a layer of acute pain from experiences of weakness and being overpowered. The shame layer keeps the individual far away from re-experiencing the original pain, but in doing so, it also blocks healing of the original experience, even when it is accessible to memory. In many cases, it is only when the shame and unhealthy values that support it are resolved, that the original experience can be brought back for processing. In general, values and the dreaded shame form a second layer of EMP, and are the most common way multiple layers of EMPs protect against an original threat.

Dread of guilt: I often think of shame and guilt together, since each is the result of a judgment based on an internalized value system. On the other hand, clinically, guilt is different. Where shame is the bad feeling of being something one should not be, guilt is a fear of doing something one should not do. In both cases, the range of possible internalized values is infinite. Guilt is usually developed later when some sense of adequacy as a person has been solidified and is no longer the thing in question.

Compound dread

The article would be incomplete without considering the situation where the solution to one problem creates another. One man was caught between honoring his father’s values and his own drive to succeed. For his father, being competitive was considered immoral, and loyalty to that value conflicted with personal success. The solution to one problem became the cause of another. In that case, the solution was to sacrifice having a career. In such cases, it will help us to gain full empathic appreciation of both of the incompatible internal imperatives.

Achieving accurate empathy

As per our experience with the Five Key Questions (Click to download), exploring the client’s dreaded unconscious emotion can be a highly successful way to activate the dreaded unconscious emotion while building safety and perspective. The accuracy of our empathic appreciation of the Limbic Protector’s experience and strategy will contribute strongly to building trust. The working alliance creates (via common factors) a safe setting where the activation or anticipation of the dreaded unconscious emotion can take place along with a communication channel by which a new, disconfirming perspective can reach the limbic system and replace the old procedural memory responsible for the EMP. Those are the conditions for enduring change by memory reconsolidation. 

Jeffery Smith MD


Lapate, R. C., Rokers, B., Tromp, D. P. M., Orfali, N. S., Oler, J. A., Doran, S. T., Adluru, N., Alexander, A. L., & Davidson, R. J. (2016). Awareness of emotional stimuli determines the behavioral consequences of amygdala activation and Amygdala-Prefrontal connectivity. Scientific Reports, 6(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep25826


Photo credit,  Egor Myznik, Unsplash

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