NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Problems With Experiencing Positive Emotions: When Good Feelings Feel Bad

Problems with experiencing positive emotions, like happiness, are often related to unresolved developmental trauma (see my article: (see my articles: Developmental Trauma: Living in the Present As If It Were the Past and Are You Afraid to Allow Yourself to Feel Happy?).

Problems With Experiencing Positive Emotions: When Good Feelings Feel Bad

Why Do People Have Problems With Positive Emotions?
Although it might seem unusual for people to feel uncomfortable with positive emotions, this often occurs with adults because they have lived most of their lives experiencing so-called negative emotions, and they are usually hypervigilant about when the next traumatic experience will occur.  So, even when things are going well, they are uncomfortable and waiting for the "next shoe to drop" (see my article: Adults Who Were Traumatized As Children Are Often Afraid to Experience Their Feelings).

In  other words, negative emotions, such as fear, anxiety, and sadness are part of their usual experience.  This has been the norm for them.  When they have experiences where they begin to feel happy, this will usually make them feel anxious or fearful which, in turn, makes it difficult for them to experience happiness.

Not only are they be suspicious of positive emotions because they're waiting for something bad to happen, but positive emotions can also make them aware on a deep level of the emotional deprivation they experienced in the past.

So, for instance, someone who is leery of positive emotions due to unresolved trauma, might feel deep sadness when s/he gets a hug from a friend.

Although this reaction might sound counterintuitive, for the person with unresolved trauma related to childhood emotional neglect, the hug is a visceral reminder of the love and affection they didn't receive as children.  This reaction is an emotional trigger as opposed to an objective response, and it happens in an instant.  It can be confusing for both the person getting the hug and the person giving the hug.

Fictional Clinical Vignette: Problems With Experiencing Positive Emotions: When Good Feelings Feel Bad
The following fictional clinical vignette illustrates how someone with unresolved trauma can experience positive emotions as uncomfortable due to unresolved trauma:

After entering into a new romantic relationship, Jane began psychotherapy to deal with emotions that confused her.

Jane, who was in her mid-30s, told her psychotherapist that she had never been in a relationship before.  Prior to this new relationship, she dated men briefly, but she longed to be with someone in a monogamous relationship. But since she and the man that she was dating, Dan, decided to be in an exclusive relationship, she felt anxious and sad.

Problems With Experiencing Positive Emotions: When Good Feelings Feel Bad

She explained to her therapist that Dan was a wonderful man, and he treated her well.  She had no complaints about him.  While they were dating casually, she and Dan had a good time together.  They had a lot in common, and sex was great.

But once the relationship became more emotionally intimate, Jane became anxious whenever she was about to see Dan.  Whereas sex had been wonderful before they were emotionally intimate, now sex was difficult for her.  She felt almost on the verge of panic when they made love.  Sometimes, she would have to tell him that she needed to stop.  Although he was very caring and considerate, Jane feared that if she didn't overcome her fear and anxiety, she would ruin the relationship (see my article: An Emotional Dilemma: Wanting and Dreading Love).

Her fear and anxiety confused her.  She didn't understand why she felt these emotions now when all along she had hoped that they would become more serious.  But now that they were more serious, her emotions felt out of control.

The part that confused her the most was that whenever she would start to feel happy when she was with Dan, she would begin to feel anxious.  She couldn't understand why feeling happy would make her anxious.  It made no sense to her.

As her psychotherapist listened to her childhood history, she realized that Jane was suffering with unresolved development trauma.  Jane described a childhood of emotional neglect.  Both parents were emotionally distant and spent little time with Jane, who was an only child, and who was often lonely.

The family lived from one emotional and financial crisis to another and life was very chaotic.  They also moved around a lot, so whenever Jane made friends at school, she would have to give them up because the family moved to another state.

Jane had never been in therapy before.  Throughout her life, she overcame many obstacles, and she obtained a college degree with no encouragement or financial help from her parents.  She was also successful in her career.

She had lots of friends, but the one thing that she had always felt she was missing in her life was a relationship.  Aside from wanting the companionship, Jane also wanted to have children, and she was very aware of her age and the possibility that if she waited much longer to have children, she might not be able to have them.

Jane's psychotherapist provided her with psychoeducation about developmental trauma.  She also recommended that they work on helping her to manage her here-and-now problems as well as working on the root of her problem, which was her childhood emotional neglect.

To help Jane manage her current anxiety related to her fear of positive feelings and emotional intimacy, they used Somatic Experiencing.  Using a current memory of a time when she became fearful when she was with Dan, her psychotherapist worked in a gentle way that felt manageable to Jane to help her to calm herself.

Her therapist helped Jane to become aware of the parts of her body that became anxious (her throat and stomach) and the parts of her body that felt calm (her legs).  Using the mind-body connection and visualization, Jane imagined a very slow transfer of energy--one molecule at a time--from her legs to her throat and stomach (see my article: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious Mind).

Over time, Jane became adept at using visualization to transfer the sense of calmness to the anxious parts of her body, and she was amazed that she could do this.

After Jane learned to do this on her own, she and her psychotherapist did Ego States therapy where Jane imagined that she was working with her "inner child" to provide love and affection to the younger part of herself that was emotionally neglected.

This was more challenging for Jane.  By doing this work, she realized that a part of her felt that she was unlovable and she didn't deserve to have love and affection.  They had to work for many months for Jane to overcome the feeling of being unlovable (see my article: Overcoming the Emotional Pain of Feeling Unlovable).

After Jane was able to feel she was deserving of love, she and her psychotherapist used EMDR therapy to work on her unresolved childhood trauma, which also involved months of therapy (see my article: How EMDR Works: EMDR Therapy and the Brain).

Although the work was difficult, Jane came regularly and she stuck with it because she wanted to have a healthy relationship with Dan.  Even though she had not completed therapy yet, along the way, Jane was making progress and she was feeling more comfortable with positive emotions and the emotional intimacy in her relationship with Dan.

By the time she completed psychotherapy, Jane felt she was a lovable person and she deserved to be happy.  She had also worked through her history of trauma, and she was also able to tolerate positive emotions in her relationship. She and Dan were also getting closer, and she had no problems with this.

Problems with positive emotions are often the result of unresolved developmental trauma.

Along with the fear of positive emotions, many people are also afraid of emotional intimacy, which makes them feel emotionally vulnerable.

Trauma therapy, like Somatic Experiencing and EMDR therapy can help to resolve developmental trauma.  Ego States therapy (also called Parts Work) is also helpful to be able to work with parts of the self that are fearful.

Getting Help in Therapy
Many people who have experienced childhood trauma have problems experiencing positive emotions.

Rather than living your entire life struggling with this fear, you owe it to yourself to get help in trauma therapy (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

A skilled trauma therapist can help you to overcome your fear so that you can live a more fulfilling life (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

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

I work with individual adults and couples.

I am a trauma therapist who has helped many clients to overcome trauma.

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.