NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, April 18, 2016

Working in Therapy to Accept Your Emotional Needs

Many people feel ashamed of their emotional needs because they grew up in families where they were made to feel ashamed for even having emotional needs (see my article: What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?)  One of the goals in therapy for many clients is to learn to recognize and accept their emotional needs (see my article: Allowing Yourself to Feel Your Feelings).

Working in Therapy to Accept Your Emotional Needs 

Having emotional needs is a natural part of being human.  But for people who learned to feel ashamed of their needs, having emotional needs is perceived as a weakness.

Many people, who were traumatized as children, are no longer even aware of their emotional needs because they have become numb to them.

What is Emotional Numbing?
Emotional numbing is a defense against the intolerable shame and pain of having unmet emotional needs, especially emotional needs that stem from unmet childhood needs.

Emotional numbing not only cuts off feelings related to emotional needs, it also cuts off feelings of love, happiness and joy.  People who are especially cut off from their feelings have little awareness of their feelings and often have a hard time discerning other people's feelings.

Fictionalized Scenario:

Let's take a look at a fictionalized vignette to understand this phenomenon and how therapy can help.

Cora came to therapy because she was aware that she felt no joy in life.  In fact, she felt very little of anything.  Life just seemed flat to her.

Working in Therapy to Accept Your Emotional Needs

It didn't matter that she had good friends, she was successful and well liked at work or that there were always men who were interested in her.  She took no pleasure in any of this.

She grew up in a home where she was taught to always put other people's needs before her own.  Her father, who was a minister, spent most of his time involved with church activities.  Her mother was involved in the same church activities, and Cora was expected to spend most of her spare time helping out in the church.

As far back as she could remember, her parents discouraged her from thinking about herself.  Whenever Cora wanted a doll or a toy, her parents scolded her for being selfish and not thinking about the many children around the world who didn't even have food to eat.

They told her, "How could you think of something so silly as having a doll when so many children are suffering?  Don't be so selfish."

As a child, whenever Cora wanted something for herself, she felt so guilty that she kept it to herself.  Even when she felt lonely and wished her parents would spend more time with her, she felt she was being selfish.

She felt that her parents' work in the church was more important than she was, and she shouldn't complain.  After a while, she learned not to feel these needs at all.

Throughout high school and college, Cora volunteered for many projects to help those who were less fortunate.  Although she won prizes for her work, she felt no joy in it.  All she felt was lonely.

Cora learned to look and act the part in her career, which brought her financial success, but she felt no inner satisfaction in her work and no sense of accomplishment.  She felt she was just continuing to do what she was supposed to do, just as she had when she was a child.  All the while, Cora felt she was an impostor (see my article: Overcoming Impostor Syndrome).

Cora learned to pretend to be happy.  It was a facade that she put on because she thought that that's what she was supposed to do, but she didn't feel it (see my article: How to Stop Pretending to Feel Happy When You Don't).

Then, Cora began dating John.  She was aware that he really liked her and she knew he was a good person but, beyond that, she was unsure what she felt. This made her uneasy.  Even sex felt flat to her and she pretended to enjoy it more than she did, so she felt like a phony.  This brought her into therapy.

Working in Therapy to Accept Your Emotional Needs

When her therapist spoke to Cora about the importance of self care, Cora was unclear what this meant.  She knew about eating healthy food and getting exercise, but she didn't know what self care meant beyond that.

Even though Cora could well afford to get a massage or do other similar things to take care of herself, she told her therapist that she would feel guilty doing these things because she was aware that there were so many people in the world who didn't have their basic needs met, so how could she pamper herself?  This felt selfish to her (see my article: Is Self Care Selfish?).

Her therapist helped Cora to begin to identify her emotions by getting Cora to develop a felt sense in her body and where she felt these emotions in her body (see my article: The Mind-Body Connection: The Body Offers a Window into the Unconscious Mind).

So, for instance, Cora came to realize that when she felt angry, she felt tense in her hands and in her shoulders.  And when she felt anxious, she felt tense in her stomach.

Cora also realized in therapy that she felt it was perfectly okay for others to do things that made them feel good, like getting a massage or indulging in other types of self care.  So, she began to question why she felt that it was selfish for her.

Gradually, over time, Cora saw that she had learned from a young age to numb her feelings so that she was no longer aware of what she felt.

Her therapist helped Cora to see that this was a protective defense mechanism that she developed as a child because it would have been too painful to continue to feel her unmet emotional needs, but that it was no longer useful for her.  In fact, this defense was now getting in the way.

As she mourned for what she didn't get as a child, she developed a greater capacity to feel her emotions without feeling guilty for having emotional needs.

Over time, Cora opened up to experiencing her genuine feelings.  She was no longer pretending to feel happy--she actually felt joy and happiness.

Working in Therapy to Accept Your Emotional Needs

In her relationship, she opened up to the emotional intimacy of the relationship. She realized that she was falling in love with this man, and she felt pleasure that she had never felt before when they had sex.

Overall, Cora felt that she was coming alive in a way that she never knew was possible.

Emotional numbing often occurs at an early age as a defense against unmet childhood emotional needs.

What starts out a protective defense mechanism against intolerable feelings becomes a major obstacle later on in life.

Emotional numbing tends to numb all feelings--not just the ones that are difficult.  It often affects all relationships and can make life feel flat.

Psychotherapy with a psychotherapist who is trained to assist clients to overcome emotional numbing can make the difference between going through life feeling little or nothing and leading a vibrant and fulfilling life.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you are aware that you have difficulty either feeling your emotions or allowing yourself to feel good, you could benefit from seeking help from a licensed mental health professional who specializes in helping clients to identify and accept their emotional needs.

Rather than going through life feeling numb, you can learn to acknowledge and accept your emotional needs and live a fuller and happier life.

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

I have helped many clients to overcome trauma and emotional numbing so that they could feel alive and happier in their lives.

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