NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, March 28, 2016

Psychotherapy Can Help to Overcome the Effects of Growing Up in a Family that Doesn't Talk About Their Feelings

Over the years, I've had many clients that have said they grew up in families that didn't talk about their feelings.  Often, these individuals come to therapy because they never learned to identify their own feelings and, as adults, they struggle in their relationships because they have difficulty communicating (see my article: Allowing Yourself to Feel Your Feelings and Unresolved Childhood Issues Can Create Conflicts in Your Relationship).
The Effect of Growing Up in a Family that Doesn't Talk About Their Feelings

When you've been discouraged in your family from talking about your feelings as a child, you can have a hard time understanding your internal world.

Children learn to identify and express their feelings by being able to talk to their parents, have their parents reflect back to them what they're feeling and teach them how to cope with difficult feelings that come up.  Over time, these children learn to cope with sadness, anger, frustration and other emotions that would be hard, if not impossible, to cope with on their own.

But what happens when parents are uncomfortable with their own feelings and they discourage their children from expressing feelings?  The answer is that children are left on their own, often struggling to deal with sadness, anger or other difficult feelings.

Finding it too difficult to do this on their own, children learn to numb their feelings to protect themselves from feelings that they experience as unbearable.

Emotional numbing often has the unfortunate effect of causing people to numb themselves to all their feelings, so that they might not be able to experience happiness or joy either.

It can be very frustrating for a spouse or a romantic partner to be with someone who can't identify or express emotions (see my article: What is the Connection Between Childhood Emotional Neglect and Problems Later On in Adult Relationships?)

Some people experience partners who can't express feelings as being withholding, as if they're intentionally not communicating.  But often it's more a matter of they don't know how to do it.

The following vignette is a fictionalized story about a couple where one person had difficulty expressing emotions:

Rita and Tom:
Rita and Tom came to couples counseling because they were having problems communicating.  Specifically, whenever there was a problem between them, Rita had difficulty understanding what she felt about it and she was unable to speak to Tom about their problems.

Their first year together was a happy one. They were both caught up in their whirlwind romance.  But when they moved in together, as most couples do, they began to discover that there were issues that they had not encountered before.

Tom sensed that Rita wasn't happy about the long hours that he spent in the office.  Whenever he came home late, he saw that she looked sullen and she barely spoke to him.  But when he asked her about it, she brushed it off and refused to talk about it.

Since he could see that she was annoyed, Tom tried to get Rita to talk to him, but she continued to minimize what was obvious--that she was annoyed.

Frustrated with Rita's refusal to talk, Tom tried to talk to her about his job and the pressure that he was getting from his boss to produce more sales.  He thought if he explained, she would open up and talk about whatever was going on.  But she continued to refuse to talk about it.

The Effect of Growing Up in a Family That Doesn't Talk About Their Feelings

Tom felt that he was involved in a guessing game:  She was obviously annoyed, so if she wasn't annoyed about that, was she annoyed about something else?  But all of his efforts were in vain.

There were other things that seemed to irritate Rita, but whenever he tried to ask her about it, she told him that there was nothing wrong--except that her annoyance came out in other ways:  She would stop talking to him or she would be cool towards him.

After a while, Tom felt he couldn't bear it anymore and he told Rita that he could tell from her facial expressions, her demeanor and how she acted towards him that she was annoyed or angry, so it was no use for her to deny it.  He wanted them to be able to communicate with each other openly and honestly, and he couldn't understand why she was being so withholding.

The more Tom tried to get Rita to open up, the more uncomfortable she seemed.  The tension between them increased to the point where they were barely speaking.

At that point, Tom suggested that they seek help because he didn't think their relationship would last under these circumstances.  Rita told him that she didn't believe in therapy, but she would go if it was important to him.

When they came for their first session, Tom did most of the talking, even though the therapist encouraged Rita to talk.  She sat in a defensive posture, with her arms crossed, starring at the floor.  All she would say is that she didn't think their problems were so bad, and she came because it was important to Tom.

Asked if she wanted the relationship to work out, Rita seemed to come out of her shell to say that, of course, she wanted them to remain together.

The therapist decided to have a individual sessions with Tom and Rita.

During Tom's individual sessions, he was able to talk freely and express his frustration.  He felt that Rita was intentionally not telling him what she felt, but he didn't understand why.  He talked about his family history with parents who were loving and open.  There were no major problems in his family when he was growing up.

During Rita's individual sessions, she arrived late.  She was uncomfortable and fidgety.  She said she understood that Tom was frustrated and annoyed with her, but she wasn't trying to make him upset.  When she talked about her family history, she had a hard time giving more than just basic information.  Asked to describe the family dynamics, she seemed puzzled and didn't know how to respond.

After a few individual sessions, Rita explained, with much difficulty and hesitation, that no one ever expressed anger, sadness or any "negative feelings."

Her parents often joked around and made light of every day situations, but they never expressed any "negative" feelings.  And they discouraged Rita from expressing sadness or anger.

She remembered when she was five and her dog died, her mother told her that she had to be "a big girl" and not cry, so Rita kept her feelings to herself.  After that, she had few memories of having any strong feelings.

When she dated Tom, it was the first time that she was ever in love with anyone.  She was somewhat overwhelmed by the feelings because they were new and different.

She felt that everything was fine until Tom started "demanding" to know what was bothering her.  But she wasn't aware of anything bothering her.  She just thought she was "tired" sometimes, but she wasn't aware of being annoyed or angry.  She couldn't understand why he kept harping on this.

The therapist worked individually with Rita to help her to begin to identify her feelings.

Since the therapist recognized that Rita experience emotional numbing, she provided Rita with psychoeducation about how people learn to numb their feelings when they grow up in an environment where parents discourage the expression of feelings.

The therapist also used Somatic Experiencing, which is a mind-body connection therapy, to help Rita to become more aware of where she was experiencing feelings in her body.

Over time, Rita was able to identify when she felt angry because she felt a clinching in her stomach and a tension in her hands.  She learned to identify sadness from feeling a heaviness in her chest.

Gradually, step by step, Rita became more alive.  Initially, she was afraid to express her feelings, especially anger and sadness, because she felt like she was doing "something wrong."  But Tom was patient and he was happy that she was making progress.

After a while, Rita dealt with the longstanding buried sadness that she had suppressed since she was a child.  She realized that she had many unmet emotional needs as a child and recognized the impact that it had on her.

Rita also felt compassion for her parents, who also grew up in households where their parents didn't talk about their feelings.

By the time they completed individual and couples therapy, Rita and Tom's relationship was better than it had ever been.

Therapy Can Help to Overcome the Effects of Growing Up in a Family That Doesn't Talk About Their Feelings

Tom realized that Rita's inability to communicate her emotions in the past was not deliberate--she just didn't know how.  Rita realized that she had suppressed so many of her feelings and now that she was expressing herself, she had so much more energy.

Growing up in a family that doesn't talk about their feelings can have long lasting effects.

Children learn to identify and express their emotions in a health home environment where they are encouraged to do so and where it is safe.  In such an environment, parents not only encourage children to express their emotions, they also mirror back to these emotions so that children can understand them and develop a capacity to deal with them.

Relationships suffer when one or both people have difficulty with their emotions.  But even when someone has not learned to express emotions from a young age, it's never too late to get help from a licensed mental health professional who specializes in helping people to deal with their emotions.

Somatic Experiencing is a mind-body oriented type of therapy that, among other things, helps people to identify and express their emotions.

When a client has suppressed traumatic emotions. Somatic Experiencing can assist with the safe and healthy release and resolution of these emotions.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you grew up in a family where people where uncomfortable with their emotions, you might be numbing your emotions, especially emotions, like anger or sadness.  Since you're numb to your feelings, most likely you have a problem recognizing and expressing your emotions.

Since this has become second nature to you, you might not recognize that it's a problem until you enter into a relationship where your partner or spouse wants you to express yourself.

Somatic Experiencing and other mind-body oriented types of therapy are usually more effective in helping people who identify and express their emotions.

Once you're no longer suppressing your emotions, you will probably be surprised how much more alive you'll feel and how much more fulfilling life can be.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individuals and couples.

I have helped many people to overcome emotional numbing and other obstacles to feeling their emotions.

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

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

People often wait until their relationship is in crisis before they come to therapy.