NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Psychotherapy: Understanding and Expressing Your Emotions in a Healthy Way

Many people begin psychotherapy because they either become aware that they're disconnected from their emotions, they can't identify or express their emotions or they are overwhelmed by feelings that they don't understand. They might know that they're "not feeling right," but they don't know what's wrong. They might be able to see the consequences of their problem in their personal or work relationships or in their difficulty with achieving their goals. They might also have problems just getting through the day. But, other than knowing that "something is wrong," they don't know where to begin. Then, on top of that, they judge themselves harshly for not knowing what to do.

An Inability to Identify, Understand and Express Certain Emotions Can Be Frustrating
It's not unusual to be aware that you're having a certain, vague emotional discomfort but not know what's happening to you. At times, this experience can feel scary because you might feel out of control. Most people like to have a sense of control in their lives, especially over their own emotions. For some people, when they feel out of control, they might feel like they're "going crazy." Or, conversely, some people feel emotionally "flat." They don't feel the highs and lows that others feel and they wonder if "something is wrong" with them.

Often, it's more about never having learned to identify feelings in the first place. This usually occurs in families where, for a variety of reasons, children are discouraged from feeling their emotions. In subtle and not so subtle ways, children in these families learn that emotions are dangerous things to be avoided, especially any type of strong emotion. These children learn to disconnect from their emotions and, if strong feelings do come to the surface despite their best efforts to tamp them down, they find other ways, usually self destructive ways, to dissociate from their emotions.

An Inability to Identify, Understand and Express Your Emotions Can Ruin Your Relationship
The following vignette, which is a composite of many psychotherapy cases with all identifying information changed to protect confidentiality, illustrates how a child in a family where emotions are discouraged grows up into an adult who is unable to identify his emotions.

When Tom began psychotherapy, he was in crisis. His girlfriend of two years, Betty, was threatening to leave their relationship because she felt that Tom was not emotionally available to her and her emotional needs weren't being met in their relationship.

On some vague level, Tom understood that Betty wasn't happy, but he was also confused about the problem. He didn't understand what the problem was, why it was happening, or how to change it. He had never participated in psychotherapy before because he thought it was for people who are "crazy." But, at the point when he started therapy, he was at a loss as to what to do. He didn't want to lose Betty and she offered to give him time to figure things out in therapy before she left the relationship.

At the start of therapy, Tom was only able to identify his fear of losing Betty, which he also did not understand. Other than that, in general, he couldn't say if he felt angry, sad, frustrated, or happy. He talked about feeling like, before his relationship with Betty, he was "just going through the motions" for most of his life. He said that he was unaware of any highs and lows most of the time. Aside from how Betty experienced Tom, now that he was faced with the possible loss of his relationship, Tom wasn't satisfied with his inability to identify, feel or express his emotions. He wanted to change, but he didn't know how.

When we explored Tom's experiences as a child, it made sense that Tom was so out of touch with his feelings. As an only child, Tom grew up with parents who provided him with everything that he needed materially, but they were emotionally distant from Tom as well as in their own relationship with each other. They never abused him physically or emotionally. He was not physically neglected in any way.

Tom's parents taught him to be an ethical, hard working person, but they didn't value relationships. They had no friends of their own, and they couldn't understand why Tom would want to spend time playing with other children or why he would even want them, as his parents, to spend time playing with him. It didn't make sense to them. They couldn't understand why he would want them to come to see him in a school play or why he would even want to participate in the play at all. They viewed most things in terms of its utilitarian value: Was it "right"? Was it "useful"? If not, why do it? So, Tom spent most of his time alone.

Tom's parents also discouraged him from having any strong emotions, whether it was happy, sad or angry. Rather than treating Tom as a child who needed emotional nurturing, they treated him like a little adult.

Tom never saw his parents being affectionate with each other. They were often preoccupied and distracted with their own individual projects and concerns in separate parts of the house. Even at dinner, his father often read the newspaper to himself and his mother read a book. Tom usually ate his dinner staring at his plate in silence.

When he got a little older,Tom became convinced that he was "a mistake," and they never intended to have children at all. Whenever his parents heard about a couple who wanted a child or someone who was happy about having just given birth, they were mystified. Without any awareness of how it might affect Tom, they often openly expressed their bewilderment about why couples would want children at all. They talked about how "expensive" it was to raise a child and how it limited people's lives because it was so "time consuming."

As a result, as a child, Tom was careful not to be "a nuisance" to his parents. He was diligent about his studies and got good grades because he knew it was expected of him. Throughout his life, he often had only one friend at any given time. Most of the time, it was someone who was outgoing and saw something about Tom that was appealing and endearing. Usually, this person made most of the effort to keep the friendship going.

Tom felt that he went through the motions in college. He neither enjoyed it nor disliked it. He didn't think in those terms. Going to college was something that was expected of him, and he knew he needed to do it to get a decent job. He dated very little in college. He was accustomed to spending most of his time on his own, so he didn't miss companionship and he didn't feel especially sexual.

After college, Tom understood that his parents expected him to move out on his own. His parents felt they had done their duty as parents to raise him to the age of 21, and now he needed to take care of himself. He obtained a good paying full time job as a technical writer, and he also worked part time in a book store to be able to afford his own apartment in Manhattan.

His parents never came to see his apartment nor did they express any curiosity about it. After he moved out, Tom only saw his parents occasionally. They always seemed surprised when he called them and he said he wanted to come over to see them. When they did get together, it was often at times when Tom could help them with some household project. So, after he moved out, this became the focus of Tom's relationship with his parents. Once again, the focus was utilitarian and not based on mutual love or affection.

When Tom met Betty, he sensed immediately that there was something very different about her. Aside from being very bright and sharing similar values, she was an affectionate, enthusiastic young woman. At first, he wasn't sure if he liked how emotionally effusive she was with him. It felt somewhat strange and unfamiliar. Although he didn't understand it, he tolerated it. But he also felt she was "a good person" and he wanted to get to know her better. Initially, she told him that she was drawn to him because he seemed so "emotionally independent." Early on, she teased him sometimes about being somewhat aloof, but she also cared about him a great deal. For his part, Tom felt himself drawn to and curious about Betty. It was the first time that he felt sexually drawn to someone. They also both cared about the environment and worked on local ecological projects together.

The problems began in the second year of their relationship. At that point, Betty wanted to take the relationship to the next level. She felt committed to their relationship, but she said she was never sure how Tom was feeling about it. She knew that she loved him and that he cared about her, but she wasn't sure if he loved her or not. They were both in their mid-20s, and she wanted to get married and have children. She told Tom that she wanted to make a life with him, but she wasn't sure how he felt. When Betty told him this, Tom was somewhat bewildered by it. He felt fine about how their relationship just the way it was. He didn't see the need to change it to get married, and he certainly didn't see the need for children.

As time went on, Betty began to express her dissatisfaction with what she described as Tom's emotional distance. What she once saw as Tom's "emotional independence" she now perceived as his being cold and too distant. She told him that she loved him, but he was not meeting her emotional needs. When Tom heard this, he realized that he had never really thought about his own emotional needs before. It wasn't until Tom was faced with the possibility of losing Betty that he even considered his emotional needs.

As Betty became increasingly aware of the extent of Tom's problems, Betty suggested that Tom seek out a psychotherapist to get help. Tom contacted his doctor, and his doctor referred Tom to me.

When Tom started therapy, Betty agreed to be patient and to give Tom a chance to change in therapy. Tom came to our psychotherapy sessions diligently once a week. Slowly, over time, Tom began to identify his feelings.

At first, Tom was most aware of the fear that he felt about losing Betty. Gradually, he began to be able to identify other feelings, including a deep sadness, which had been buried since childhood, about his parents' emotional aloofness with him. He struggled to mourn what he didn't get from them as a child and how lonely he had been.

At first, experiencing his emotions was frightening for him. We worked on Tom developing coping strategies, including daily meditation, for when he felt overwhelmed. But struggling with these emotions also heightened his appreciation for Betty's love and affection.

Over time, Betty told Tom that she noticed a difference in him that she liked. She felt that Tom was more emotionally available to her. For his part, Tom expressed feeling like he was waking up from a long, dull sleep. He was a naturally curious person, and he approached these changes with a mixture of curiosity, real excitement for the first time that he could remember, and also some fear and sadness. But, as he became more accustomed to feeling his emotions, Tom also felt that his every day world was opening up to him. He approached his relationship, his work and life in general as if he was given a new pair of eyes where he could see and sense things he never felt before.

As he developed a greater capacity to identify, feel and express his emotions, Tom's relationship with Betty became much closer. He realized what he had been missing for most of his life, and he felt a deep sense of gratitude that he had finally found it and could appreciate it. Within a couple of years of starting therapy, Tom and Betty were planning their wedding and talking about having children. For the first time in his life, Tom felt he understood that he had something to offer a wife and family on an emotional level, and he could also take in emotionally what they had to offer him.

There are so many reasons why people have difficulty identifying, feeling and expressing their emotions. In Tom's case, it was due to being raised in a household where his parents were very aloof and discouraged the expression of emotions or even the recognition of emotional needs. For other people, it might be the opposite--maybe they grew up in a family that was explosive where they learned that emotions were dangerous.

Getting Help in Therapy
The good news is that it's never too late to learn how to identify, feel and express your emotions in a healthy way. Psychotherapy offers the possibility to understand and express your emotions so that you can lead a fuller and more satisfying life. Depending upon your particular challenges with emotions, it often takes a willingness to make a commitment to therapy and work through earlier issues. But the rewards for doing this work are often life changing.

Psychotherapy Can Help You to Express Your Emotions in an Healthy Way

If you're having problems identifying, feeling and expressing your emotions, you could benefit from attending psychotherapy with a licensed psychotherapist.

Psychotherapy Can Help You to Learn to Communicate Better in Your Relationship

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

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.

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