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Thursday, June 28, 2018

Feeling the Need to "Be Strong" to Avoid Feeling Your Unmet Emotional Needs

People who grew up in families where their emotional needs weren't met often feel they must "be strong" in order to deny their emotional needs to themselves and to others.  This denial of their emotional needs was part of their emotional survival strategy as children and they continue to use this strategy in their adult relationships--even though it's no longer helping them (see my articles: Understanding Your Emotional NeedsWhat is the Connection Between Unmet Childhood Emotional Needs and Problems Later on in Adult Relationships?, What is Childhood Emotional Neglect? and Emotional Survival Strategies That No Longer Work: "I Don't Need Anyone").

Feeling the Need to "Be Strong" to Avoid Feeling Your Unmet Emotional Needs
Whether they received an explicit message when they were children to "be strong" or whether it was an unspoken understanding in the family, as adults, these individuals often feel ashamed of their emotional needs--shame that developed when they were children.

Denying their unmet emotional needs as children was a way of compartmentalizing those needs so that they didn't feel overwhelmed that there wasn't someone to comfort them.  In that way, the defense mechanisms of denial and compartmentalization helped them.  But, as an adult in a relationship, denying emotional needs gets in the way of having a healthy relationship.

Fictional Clinical Vignette: "Being Strong" to Avoid Feeling Unmet Emotional Needs
Growing up in a home where her parents were usually preoccupied with their own relationship and careers, Jan learned at a young age to deny her emotional needs.

Instead of her parents accommodating Jan's emotional needs, Jan learned to accommodate her parents by never asking them to comfort her or listen to her when she was scared or feeling doubtful.  She learned that she had to "be strong" on her own, and she became a pseudo "independent" child who appeared, externally, to be emotionally self reliant.

Her parents expressed their pride in having a child like Jan who never asked for anything from them and who was seemingly able to take care of her own emotional needs.

But behind this exterior of pseudo independence, Jan was a frightened, sad child who felt ashamed of having emotional needs.  At a very young age, whenever she felt the need for love or comfort, she told herself that she was  "being a baby."  In effect, she internalized her parents' attitude towards her and she shamed herself.

Years later, when she entered into her first serious relationship, she continued to deny to herself and to her boyfriend that she had any emotional needs that he needed to attend to, but she was willing to pay attention to his emotional needs.

Her boyfriend, who was an warming, affectionate, caring person, knew that Jan had lived her entire life denying her emotional needs because of her relationship with her parents, and he found it difficult to be the nurturing person that he really was in his relationship with Jan.  So, he talked to her about getting help in therapy.

Initially, Jan was offended by her boyfriend's suggestion that she get help in therapy.  She thought he was implying that she was a "weak" person (see my article: Common Myths About Psychotherapy: Going to Therapy Means You're "Weak").

As far as she was concerned, there was nothing wrong with her, and she couldn't understand why he would recommend therapy.  But she wanted to be open minded, so she made an appointment to see a psychotherapist.

During the initial psychotherapy consultation, Jan apologized for taking up the therapist's time when there was really "nothing wrong" with her.  She told the therapist that her boyfriend thought it would be a good idea for her to come to therapy, and she wanted to keep an open mind about it.

As Jan talked about her family history, she was so emotionally detached from the details about her relationship with her parents.  It was as if she was giving a news report.  It was only when the psychotherapist asked Jan to slow down that Jan heard herself and she began to feel sad and anxious about what she was saying.

After a while during the initial psychotherapy consultation, Jan told the therapist that when she slowed down and reflected on her relationship with her parents, she felt uncomfortable.  She thought about the children that she knew now that were the same age as Jan was when she was a child, and she realized that her family life "wasn't normal" (her words) because, of course, it's normal for children have emotional needs.

Over time, Jan's psychotherapist helped Jan to put words to her emotions by using Somatic Experiencing.  When Jan had difficulty identifying her emotions, her therapist asked her to sense what she felt in her body in order to put words to her emotions (see my article: Using Somatic Psychotherapy When the Client Has No Words to Express the Problem).

Initially, this was difficult and frightening for Jan because she spent her life, until now, denying her emotions.  But her therapist titrated the work so that it wasn't overwhelming for Jan.

Once Jan was able to express her emotions and accept that her emotional needs were "normal," she and her therapist used EMDR therapy to help her to resolve the trauma related to her early emotional neglect (see my article: Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR Therapy, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

This work was neither quick nor easy but, over time, Jan grieved for what she needed and didn't get as a child.

As she worked on resolving her childhood trauma, she became more emotionally engaged in her relationship with her boyfriend.  She was able to accept love and nurturance from her boyfriend, who was happy that Jan was growing emotionally and more present in their relationship.

Emotional survival strategies that were helpful during childhood often get in the way of adult relationships.

Someone who spent their childhood denying his or her emotional needs often doesn't recognize, as an adult, that this is what they are doing.  Often, their spouse or romantic partner is the one to point out that there is a problem.

Trauma therapy, like Somatic Experiencing and EMDR therapy, helps to overcome unresolved trauma.

Getting Help in Therapy
Trying to overcome these type of traumatic problems on your own is very difficult (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

A skilled trauma therapist can help you to overcome emotional survival strategies that are no longer working for you so you can replace them with healthy ways of relating and coping (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Admitting to yourself that you have a problem and contacting a trauma therapist is often the hardest part of trying to overcome trauma.

The first step is having a consultation to explore these issues further and to see if you feel comfortable enough with the therapist to continue to work with her.

Once you're free of your traumatic history, you can lead a more meaningful and fulfilling life.

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

One of my specialties is helping clients to overcome traumatic experiences.

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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