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Thursday, April 5, 2018

Seeing Yourself as Being "Rational" vs. Experiencing Shame For Not Being Able to Feel

As I discussed in my prior article, people often use defense mechanisms as emotional survival strategies when dealing with the underlying issues that would be too overwhelming for them.  These defense mechanisms usually develop early in life when they helped with emotional survival.  But, as adults, these defense mechanisms get in the way of personal development as well as developing healthy relationships.  Suppressing emotions to be "rational," as opposed to feeling ashamed of not being able to feel emotions, is the defense mechanism that I will focus on in this article (see my article: Overcoming Your Fear of So-Called "Negative" Emotions).

Seeing Yourself as Being "Rational" vs. Experiencing Shame For Not Being Able to Feel

People who tend to be rational most of the time, to the exclusion of feeling their emotions, usually pride themselves on their rationality.  They don't realize that they're being rational in order to avoid feeling uncomfortable feelings because this defense mechanism is unconscious.

Sooner or later, being rational in order to avoid feelings causes problems, especially in relationships.  The other partner, who has access to all or most of his or her emotions, gets frustrated with the partner who uses being rational as a defense--while the partner who uses being rational feels comfortable with this and can't understand what all the fuss is about.

A Fictional Clinical Vignette:  Seeing Yourself as "Rational" vs. Feeling Shame for Not Being Able to Feel
The following clinical vignette, although fictional, represents many different real cases and illustrates what often happens when someone uses being rational rather than feeling ashamed for not being able to feel a full range of emotions:

Ed began psychotherapy after his girlfriend, Meg, complained that she was frustrated with him because he tended to be rational and logical rather than allowing himself to feel his emotions.  She told him that if he didn't get help, she would end the relationship because she felt alone and lonely when emotional issues came up.

A recent incident lead to Meg giving Ed an ultimatum: Meg had a miscarriage and she couldn't understand Ed's lack of emotion.  Both Ed and Meg wanted to have a baby for the last few years.  When she got pregnant, they were both happy.  Then, several weeks into the pregnancy, Meg had a miscarriage while she was at home, and Ed took her to the hospital.

When they got home later that night, Meg felt devastated.  She couldn't stop crying, and when she turned to Ed, she felt angry and frustrated that he was so unemotional.  She knew that Ed loved her and really wanted to have the baby, so she couldn't understand how he could be so emotionally detached.

When Meg confronted Ed about it, he told her that, while he understood that she was upset, he thought it didn't make sense for him to get emotional about it, "It won't change anything." He thought it would be best for him to stay calm and recognize that they could try again to have a baby.

Meg knew that Ed loved her.  But she also knew that when it came to dealing with emotions that he felt were unpleasant, he would ward off these feelings by being rational in a way that made her feel like she was alone.  She was so upset by his lack of emotional support about the miscarriage that she left for a few of weeks to stay with a friend.  She said she found it too upsetting to be around him.

Seeing Yourself as Being "Rational" vs. Experiencing Shame For Not Being Able to Feel

Before she left, Ed pleaded with Meg to stay.  He tried to tell her that he loved her and he wanted to have a child.  He just couldn't understand how it would help to get upset about it.  But Meg left anyway and told him to get help in therapy.

As Ed sat in the psychotherapist's office, he told her that he didn't understand why Meg was so upset with him.  He didn't know why she didn't understand how much better it was in this situation to remain rational and not "lose my head" with emotion.  He felt badly that Meg thought he didn't care when, in fact, he really did care a lot.  He said that it was because he cared that he thought it was better to be rational than to be emotional.

As Ed and his psychotherapist explored his family history, he revealed that both of his parents prided themselves on being rational people.  They had each gone through traumatic experiences as children and they believed that they got through those difficult times by being rational and unemotional, which is what they taught Ed and his younger brother, Jack (see my article: Psychotherapy and Intergenerational Trauma).

As he described his family history, his psychotherapist could see that Ed used being rational to ward off feelings that were difficult for him--like sadness and anger.  She understood that this was a long-standing problem for him, and he wouldn't respond well if she proceeded too quickly to explore the feelings that he was warding off.

His psychotherapist asked Ed to give her examples from his childhood when he remained rational under difficult circumstances.  He told her that one of his earliest memories was when he was five losing his beloved dog, who had been part of the family from before Ed was born.

He remembered crying when his parents told him that the dog died.  Then, both of his parents told him to dry his eyes and stop crying because crying wouldn't change anything.  His father told him that it was always better to remain rational and unemotional under these types of circumstances.  So, Ed stopped crying and dried his eyes.

As he reflected on this experience in his psychotherapist's office, he said he agreed with his parents and he thought they taught him a valuable lesson about remaining rational during difficult times.  He knew that when each of them escaped their country of origin as children with their parents, it helped them to remain rational and unemotional, and he was glad he learned this lesson at an early age.

He thought the same idea applied to Meg's miscarriage.  Rather than being upset about it, he thought, they should focus on the positive things in their lives and try to have a baby again (see my article: Are You Using Your Idea of "Positive Thinking" As a Form of Denial).

A few weeks later, Meg called Ed and told him that she decided to take a break from the relationship. She wanted time to think about what she really wanted, and she would get back to him.

Seeing Yourself as Being "Rational" vs. Experiencing Shame For Not Being Able to Feel

By the time Ed came to his next psychotherapy session, he said he felt like he was "going crazy."  Ever since he received the call from Meg, he felt completely overwhelmed.  He couldn't sleep, eat or concentrate at work.

He kept trying to tell him that being upset wouldn't help him, but it made no difference--he continued to feel upset.  This made no sense to him at all, which is why he felt like he was "going crazy." He said he felt like he desperately needed help or "I'll lose my mind."

Ed's psychotherapist understood that Ed's usual defense mechanism of being rational wasn't working for him now.  In the past, he was able to suppress his feelings by being rational, but his feelings for Meg were so strong that his defense mechanism wasn't working.  Since Ed wasn't accustomed to dealing with strong unpleasant emotions, he felt like he was losing his mind.

His psychotherapist assured Ed that he wasn't losing his mind--he was having a normal reaction to the possible loss of his relationship.  Then, sensing that he was now open because he was in an emotional crisis, she provided him with psychoeducation about defense mechanisms (see my article: How a Crisis Open You Up to Positive Changes).

His psychotherapist normalized Ed's reaction to Meg wanting to take time away and helped him to deal with his emotions.  Over time, Ed discovered in therapy how he learned to suppress uncomfortable emotions by using the defense mechanism of being rational.

He also learned that deep down he felt ashamed for not being able to feel all of his emotions, and being rational suppressed his shame.  In addition, he learned that it was healthier for him to be able to experience the full range of all his emotions rather than suppressing them.

His psychotherapist helped Ed to strengthen his tolerance for experiencing the emotions that he had been avoiding (see my article: Expanding Your Window of Tolerance in Psychotherapy).

Over time, he became more comfortable with unpleasant emotions like sadness, grief, and anger, and he also dealt with the losses that he never dealt with as a child.  Although he had to get accustomed to  feeling the full range of his emotions, he told his psychotherapist that he felt relieved to experience these emotions rather than suppress them.

After several months, Meg came back and they dealt with the loss related to the miscarriage together.  Although he was relieved to feel all his emotions, there were still times when Ed thought it was easier, in some ways, not to deal with the unpleasant emotions.  But he also knew that it was healthier for him to experience all of his feelings.

Conclusion
Just like any other defense mechanism, being rational without dealing with uncomfortable emotions, serves to ward off uncomfortable emotions. People who are adamant about being rational and logical, rather than experiencing their emotions, usually don't realize that they're defending against their emotions.

Most of the time, it's a defense mechanism that they learned at an early age, and they really believe that it's a healthy coping strategy.  But being rational and suppressing feelings doesn't work, as in the vignette above.

When a defense mechanism doesn't work, this can create an emotional crisis, which might enable the person in crisis to be more open to looking at his or her emotional survival strategy and to consider change.

With tact and sensitivity for a client's vulnerable state, a skilled psychotherapist can help a client to explore this emotional survival strategy and how s/he can change.

The psychotherapist can also help the client to gradually strengthen his or her window of tolerance to be able to experience emotions that are being defended against.

Getting Help in Therapy
Longstanding emotional survival strategies can be very difficult for you to change on your own (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

If your emotional survival strategies aren't working for you, you owe it to yourself to get help in therapy.

Learning healthier coping strategies can help you to experience your full range of emotions so you can feel more alive.

Rather than struggling on your own, get help from a licensed mental health professional (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article:  The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to overcome trauma and develop healthy coping strategies so they could go on to live more fulfilling lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.




















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