Emotion — Too Little or Too Much
Neil brought in a dream this week. He and his wife Ellen are somewhere exotic, on an island or maybe in a jungle. Everything has been carved in stone — buildings, statues — and he talked about the interesting rock faces and their angles.
“I dreamed it all in color,” he said, “and that’s unusual for me.” He and Ellen were holding hands, which even in the dream, he thought was odd (given their emotional distance). When I asked if the dream brought anything to mind, he told me that he and Ellen had gone to a gallery over the weekend and saw some interesting sculpture. He thought about buying something for their home, as they used to do, but then he felt, “Why bother?” It would only stir up trouble, meaning the struggle over whose taste would prevail. He didn’t want to go there.
I had many ideas about the dream but no conviction as to any of them. I waited. Neil went on to say he’d been very “self-destructive” this past week. It seemed an unlikely description — I don’t think of him as “self-destructive” — so I asked him to fill me in.
On impulse, Neil told me, he’d decided to fly to Las Vegas with a friend where he stayed up all night and drank so much he wound up vomiting. He surprised himself. He hadn’t stayed awake all night in many years; then to be in a public rest room, feeling the room spin, about to be sick. He felt much better after he’d thrown up. When I asked why he’d gone to Vegas, he told me he felt he just “had to get away.” He couldn’t stand it any more.
After the trip, he felt better able to go back to his routine.
I felt conviction about the dream settle in. I know Neil well enough now to understand the cycle and I tried to describe it for him. His preferred solution to the pain of his emotional life has always been to deaden it, petrify it, so to speak — referring to the fact that everything in the dream is made of stone.
But then he gets to the point where he can’t bear to feel so dead. When he feels trapped by the emotional deadness of his life and marriage, he then needs “to get out.” He escapes to Vegas, but there he feels too much and out of control. He hates the deadness but is also afraid of strong feelings that may overpower him. So he again wants to get rid of the feeling: he vomits it out and feels better afterward. The challenge is to find a middle ground where he can have his emotions but not feel overwhelmed by them.
Discussing it in those terms made me think of Sharon, all those years ago, and the way she used her bulimia in just this way — to regulate emotion and get rid of it whenever it threatened to overwhelm her. Neil doesn’t have an eating disorder but he gets rid of emotion in a similar fashion.
Like Sharon, he either feels too little emotion — when he’s empty and deadened — or too much, when he feels overwhelmed and wants to get rid of it. The work ahead is to help him integrate emotion, slowly, and develop the capacity to bear with it.
It didn’t occur to me until after session was over, but I think the fact that he dreamed in color symbolizes the prospect of his marriage coming to emotional life. He seems to feel ambivalent about that prospect. Coming to emotional life doesn’t necessarily mean getting closer. As I’ve seen in recent sessions, Neil is sitting on an awful lot of anger toward Ellen and the ways she has “used” him.
Jungle photo available from Shutterstock.
Burgo PhD, J. (2012). Emotion — Too Little or Too Much. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 10, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/case-notes/2012/05/emotion/