Sometimes painful emotions feel like they may kill you. You don’t want to pull up memories that might bring pain.
Why feel the emotions that those memories bring? What’s the point?
“Those things are in the past. And they need to stay there.”
What you’re missing is this. When you realize that you haven’t worked through past trauma or pain, it can be affecting you in ways you don’t realize in the present.
Roger’s story — a man who couldn’t emotionally connect…
Roger came into therapy because he was trying to decide whether to divorce. He’d been married many years, with no children, to a woman with whom he’d been relatively happy. He felt tremendous guilt over hurting her now. They’d both focused on their careers, traveled. He’d been extremely successful as an engineer. But now in middle age, he was restless.
“I’d like to quit my job. I’ve always wanted to do something to help other people — go to a much poorer country and volunteer my time and expertise.”
“What would keep you from doing that?”
“To be honest? I can still hear my dad screaming at me that I would never amount to anything.”
“And how do you feel about that now? In 2018?”
Again, another pause. His words showed no emotion.
“I don’t know how rich I’ve got to be to feel successful. All I know is that it’s not enough now.”
“What amount would ever be enough?”
“I don’t know.”
I switched gears a bit, hoping that he might be able to connect with that little boy who had been so severely ridiculed.
“What do you feel when you remember being screamed at like that?”
He avoided my question, instead focusing on how he’d tried to fix things.
“I don’t talk to my dad.”
“But what do you feel? What would you want to say to that child — the child who was you?”
“I don’t know. Go be successful. Prove your dad wrong.”
That’s exactly what he was doing. Yet it wasn’t leading to true fulfillment.
Roger stayed in therapy for a couple more sessions. He never allowed himself to feel. He couldn’t let go and express his sadness and rejection that had long been stashed away. Instead, he made choices that he impulsively hoped would make him happier in the present. He divorced his wife, and quickly got into another relationship. He paid for his ex-wife to be in therapy, and told her he’d always take care of her, but was mystified why she remained so hurt. He continued working as an engineer. And he continued making a lot of money.
Many of us are like Roger. We’re emotionally paralyzed. That’s what a lack of emotional connection can do. It keeps you stuck.
I’m not sure what would’ve happened if he’d been able to feel his emotions left over from his past — if he’d been more willing to explore those very painful feelings and how they might still be governing his actions.
What I suspect is that his decisions would’ve been less chaotic and more clear.
There are distinct steps in the development of emotional connection and the compassion for self it brings.
Five steps to emotional connection and self-compassion
1) See yourself as you might view others.
If you saw an adult throwing rocks at two children, would you ever tell one of those children that their fear wasn’t important?
No, you wouldn’t.
You’re as important as every other human being.
2) Recognize the defense mechanisms or strategies you used to cope with/detach from pain or trauma.
When there was no one to help — when no one stopped your parent from screaming at you, no one noticed that you were bullied by your brother, your mother didn’t believe that you were raped — you survived. You began detaching from the pain of what had happened.
Maybe you’ve become so good at it that you rarely feel or actively hide sadness — and have developed what I term Perfectly Hidden Depression. You may not be comfortable at all with even present-day vulnerability.
You can begin to see that there’s a down side, a price to pay a detachment from darker emotions. They’re not gone, and they’re having a silent effect on your choices, and your life.
3) Actively challenge the habits and beliefs that fuel that detachment – get unstuck.
If you tend to escape, sit down and write about what you’re afraid to feel. “What am I trying to avoid feeling by eating? By drinking? By working too much?”
If you desperately need to stay in control, look for opportunities to allow others to be in charge, to take a back seat. to let go of all the responsibility. When you’re not hiding behind being busy, what do you feel?
If you worry, and thus stay “in your head” for most of the day, begin a worry journal. Begin noticing the patterns in your worry. Write about them all, and begin to notice how you feel as you write, and after you write.
If you deny the importance of whatever trauma you experienced, try telling it — all of it — to one person you trust — who you know has the capacity for empathy. Watch for their reaction. You’re going to see compassion. You’re going to see how important it was — how important you are.
You have to undo that detachment, that dissociation, in order to feel — in order to have compassion for yourself.
4) Realize the value of a rich emotional life. Confront your own fear of feeling pain.
When an artist paints, they often have a color palette they’re working from. Different artists use color, shading or brush strokes in diverse ways. It’s often how we identify their work.
“That looks like a Monet.”
We’re the same way. We color our lives by expressing diverse, unique emotions.
Enjoying a wide range of emotions, from a good old belly laugh to mild irritation, from a peaceful contentment to an indignant anger, gives you many options, many choices of how to feel.
Emotional connection and self-compassion makes all feelings more available — it grows your own emotional palette. You can claim and express emotions that were first recognized as a child, and can be greatly healed by understanding and empathy as an adult.
Grief may feel like it’s going to kill you. Yet recognizing pain, working through grief, challenging your own denial and avoidance, owning your own vulnerability?
It can truly free you.
If someone has been hanging in there with you for years, and loving you well, click here for “Marriage Is Not For Chickens,” the new gift book by Dr. Margaret!
You can hear more about depression and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to this website and receive her weekly posts as well as her podcasts, plus Dr. Margaret’s eBook, “Seven Commandments of Good Therapy.”