A little reminder for the perfectionists in the room:
Hey. Can we talk?
You seem to avoid conflict. It looks like you're lonely - even if you have friends or are in a relationship. I notice you're more comfortable talking about logistics and details - but not so much if talk turns to feelings.
But your emotions are the most valuable part of who you are! They're like the signature of your true self.
Plus they're essential for good friendship, parenting, and love.
So what if you struggle with emotions? What if you often feel kind of ... nothing inside. Sort of empty. Distant from other people.
I'm going to say: I don't think there's something wrong with you. Other than you probably struggle with emotional neglect. That's just a basic difficulty with emotional skills - to do with feelings, and recognizing them. Knowing what they are, how they feel in your body, and being able to talk about them with others - yours and theirs.
And it usually comes from the way you were raised. Parents have to grow emotions in their kids.
Emotional neglect is a curious thing because you can't always point to something that happened to you. It's more often the case of something that didn't happen for you. But should have. What didn't happen is that you weren't raised in an environment where emotions were noticed or mattered. No one was tuned in or asked how you were doing. There were no ordinary conversations about feelings. You weren't allowed to express your needs. Or burden your parents. (They might have been great people - but they weren't fluent in the language of emotions so they didn't know how to notice yours.)
The great news is, you have noticed. When you wonder why you're not happier. Or why other people seem to be.
The best news of all? You can fix this! Emotional skills are just that: skills. Which means something you can learn. It's never too late. And everyone can learn them. We're all born with emotional intelligence.
Recovering your emotions is the key. They're what connects you to your true self, and to other people. They're the language that makes life and relationships rich and meaningful.
Having access to your emotions is energizing and inspiring. (And why therapists enjoy their work so much - we loooove talking about how you feel!)
Don't keep wondering if there's something wrong with you. There's not.
(To read more, check out Jonice Webb's book Running on Empty.)
Do you avoid conflict? Feel lonely in your relationship? Mostly talk about logistics and details, and feel uncomfortable talking about feelings?
I find so often that people who feel like this grew up in families that weren't especially emotionally attuned. That's no one's fault. (It's mostly how our parents were raised themselves.) But it teaches kids that feelings don't matter, and kids turn into adults who have trouble talking about or understanding emotions and how they work. Emotions become overwhelming, shameful, tiresome, or a problem to deal with.
The thing is, emotional skills are essential to thriving in life! People with good emotional intelligence navigate life's ups and downs feeling less lonely, more connected, more alive, and more successful.
And the great news is this: emotional intelligence is just ... skills. Skills we can learn because we're all designed for emotional intelligence, connection, and relationships.
So if your marriage feels flat, a little boring, or disconnected you hold the power to improve things. And look at it this way, there's no down-side to knowing more about yourself and how you feel.
If you didn't learn how to do this in your family growing up, if your family wasn't one to notice problems or talk openly about them, it's not too late to learn now. Your current relationship is just the place for you to start.
You can get better at feeling, understanding, and expressing your emotions in a way that will help you have more love and connection with your partner. Why not try?
How come you feel so good about yourself at work, but when you go home things are not so great? You and your spouse don't have time for each other and your marriage has lost its spark.
Throw in activities and everyday life and the kids ... and it's hard to remember how it used to be. Back when you used to enjoy the simple pleasure of just being with each other.
Esther Perel, (TedTalk speaker, and author of "Mating in Captivity," and "The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity") talks about what keeps a marriage feeling alive. She has spent her career as a therapist with modern couples and writes and speaks on the topic of marriage, and specifically about the fairly recent requirement that our spouse be absolutely everything to us: our soulmate, our best friend, our companion, our confidante, the father/mother of our children, our coach and therapist, our hiking buddy, our... everything.
But great marriages happen when people don't fall into the habit of thinking they know everything there is to know about their partner. Or taking each other for granted. Or thinking that their spouse belongs to them.
It's healthier and essential - and more alive feeling - when we learn to honor other people as being never fully knowable to us. Even our spouse. By nurturing a sense of curiosity (within the wonderfully comforting familiar) is how you prevent desire from fading or things becoming dull.
People are living, growing, evolving beings. Let your marriage mirror that awareness - and you have what it takes to nurture a marriage of connection and desire. Be interesting, and more importantly, be interested.
In marriage you don't actually need to get all your needs met from one person. Do you have a best friend who knows the real dirt on you? Do you have a sibling you trust? A mentor to talk about your career goals? A work friend to vent about job stress? Diversify where you get all your emotional needs met. It's okay to let your spouse have the unique and cherished position of "husband," or "wife," without making them be all those other people rolled up in one.
Now go plan a date together. And don't talk about the kids.
If you're beginning to fear that your life has unfolded more like someone you're not, rather than as who you are, there's always time to change course.
It's why you were given emotions as a child. They were meant to be your North Star.
The keys to the castle are to learn to feel all of it again, with the trust and acceptance you did when you were that little kid. Back before you learned to put on the mask that made other people happy.
The purpose of your feelings is to steer your life in alignment with your true self. Can you brave taking off the mask?
Perhaps you've read about Emotional Intelligence or heard that "EQ" is essential to life satisfaction, relationships, and success. (Omg you've stumbled upon my most favorite topic ever: humans and their emotions. I ask you, what could be more interesting??)
Emotional intelligence is the ability to be aware of, understand, and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. There are a lot of books out there on EQ and how to increase your own (for example Emotional Intelligence 2.0).
But why do people struggle with emotions in the first place, you might wonder. How does that happen? Along comes Jonice Webb.
Webb is a psychologist who noticed over years that even though her clients presented very differently demographically, many of them had the same pattern of symptoms:
"Here is the pattern I noticed: A deep feeling of disconnection from self and others, feelings of emptiness, extreme independence, low self-knowledge, low self-compassion, excessive self-blame and shame, low emotional awareness, and struggles with self-discipline." (Jonice Webb)
In working to understand what had happened in their childhoods to cause this similar collection of symptoms she realized: it wasn't what had happened to them. Instead, it was what had not happened to them.
The "what didn't happen" was that each of her clients had grown up in families that somehow were not attentive or responsive to their feelings enough. The reasons were many and varied, from parents with addictions, to abuse, but also included well-meaning, loving parents who provided for their children - but just didn't have the emotional skills themselves to be able to nurture and model an emotional language, or way of being, in their children.
That makes it rather invisible, doesn't it? You can begin to see how neglect, or something that didn't happen, would be pretty hard to describe ("What didn't happen to you yesterday?").
Emotional intelligence is built in the brain primarily through attunement by parents; the caregiver has to notice the child's emotions and respond to them. (Johnny walks in the door after school looking sad because something upsetting happened in school. Does anyone notice?)
The problem is that when parents themselves suffer from emotional neglect they don't know they're missing this essential skill and therefore can't teach it to their children.
Webb: "It’s hard to believe that a non-experience like this can lead to such significant effects, but believe me, I and many others have now seen that it does."
The good news is that people can absolutely recover from childhood emotional neglect. Research in neuroplasticity, books like Webb's Running on Empty: Overcoming Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, and working with a therapist who understands CEN are some of the things that create hope and healing.
What's to gain from working on your emotional intelligence? A life filled with emotions is the difference between feeling alive and connected to others - versus the feeling that you're missing out on something that you see others experience, while you just go through the motions.
You're venturing in a new direction in your life. You're making some pretty big changes.
Here's my number one tip for avoiding self-sabotage:
Start paying attention to the people you seek support from when starting a new path.
For example, you want to quit your crappy job and go back to school to become a physical therapist. It's a long program and hard work.
Watch your habit of going to the same people you know won't support you, and will confuse, cast doubt, or judge you. ("Are you sure you want to do this? You don't usually stick with things you start," etc.)
Because here's the thing: it's not really about them. It's about you.
It's natural to want their support. I do too. It's human.
But one day when you notice you're not happy and haven't been for a while and you're working hard on real change, it's really important to start building new community. Seek out people who are themselves excited about growing and evolving, and will support, challenge, and inspire you.
You don't have to sever ties with your old family or friends! Just recognize that you know what you're going to get from people who've been in your life for a long time. So focus your time with them on the things in which you are aligned instead of the things they're not going to like.
And start seeking out people to support your new growth. They're out there. Start to see them. Practice noticing them.
Be deliberate about who you share your new journey with.
Life revolves around relationships.
We're born into them. And the beauty of neurobiology illustrates how perfectly we're designed for them.
Most of our personal struggles arise out of learned behaviors and ways of coping from our earliest relationships - our families, for better or worse. Which later become our habits, and the way we move through the world as adults. Who we're attracted to, who we struggle with, who we feel safe with, and who triggers distress.
Even the way we relate to ourselves. Are we self-critical or kind? Impatient or available? Curious or shut down to our needs?
None of these things are an accident. And at the same time, they provide great mystery. A riddle to solve, a curiosity to behold.
How can we trust, feel safe, and thrive in our relationships? I think that's a beautiful conversation to have with oneself, and to build a life around answering.
One of the things I see people in pain about is "the mask" they've been wearing all their lives. It's starting to crack and they're beginning to suffer.
Most of us learned at a very early age that the external world (our parents, schools, communities) required us to wear a mask to stay safe and make other people comfortable.
But the mask is oppressive. Some children at a very early age are crushed by it and unable to cope. Or they refuse. Then they suffer symptoms of stress, loneliness, anxiety, "behavior" problems. But most people learn to adapt with the weight well into adulthood.
In truth the mask is made of many amazing human traits. But the main problem is that it's brittle and doesn't allow range. It's not flexible. And we're required to wear it as much as possible. Ideally 100% of the time.
In my family masks were traditionally gendered. Girls and women were to appear visibly happy and compliant. Look strong and competent no matter what. Always be helpful. Never be selfish. Be willing, hard-working, and other-focused. Be unobtrusive, control your emotions, and keep your voice down.
The mask of boys and men was equally restrictive: absolutely no vulnerability. No "soft" emotions. The go-to ones were anger and pride. Be strong. Preferably the strongest. Lead others. Work harder. Have the answers. Don't think about anything except what's right in front of you. Definitely: do not feel or address emotions.
But the day will come when the mask slips. Or falls off altogether under stress or from an unavoidable crisis. Without the mask we're vulnerable and weak. Who can we turn to? Who will accept us when we reject the weight of this mask? Who still loves us? What if we want to take it off forever and live our lives barefaced in the world.
On why I love helping people recover from shame and self-sabotage:
The reason I love therapy and being a therapist is because learning to understand ourselves better and why we do what we do is key to more self-love, compassion, and happiness - with ourselves and in our relationships.
Too many people are hiding from shame so old and deep they don't even know it's there. They can see the stress, depression, anxiety, harsh self-judgment, the control issues, the difficulty with relationships - but they don't understand the underlying cause.
But it shows up in so many ways, like the incessant worry about how we look, insecurity about what we've accomplished, to the preoccupation with what other people think about us.
And then there's the way we sabotage our relationships, our work goals, and the pursuit of our dreams.
Yes. You probably have shame to thank for that! (Thanks a lot Shame. You're kind of an a******!)
But shame doesn't have to be a life-long sentence. And I tell you that as a graduate from the School of Shame! (PhD level.)
Thank goodness a good therapist long ago changed the course of my life, by giving me the life-long lesson of understanding the destructive effects of shame so I could release it.
Healing and recovery started with one little act: he called it shame. And he described my early family life as abusive and traumatic. Thereby robbing the shame of the fuel it requires: secrecy and silence. He helped me see that bumping into other people's anger, resistance, minimizing, refusal to see or talk about it - these were all weapons of shame.
I had never been able to use those words. That's part of how shame works (and how it gets passed down through generations): I was raised to keep secrets. And to lie about how I was affected. And to protect others by saying "well, they were really just doing the best that they could."
Or to say, "I wasn't an easy kid."
I'm here to validate the importance of reaching out. Someone wants to know and accept you. Someone is curious about your life. Someone respects the hell out of the way you managed to cope with the pain. Someone thinks you deserve to speak the truth.
You don't have to keep secrets for anyone anymore. You deserve to be free of that now and to live in the sunlight. Commit yourself to a new life where you are happy, loved, and valued.
On imperfection and shame, according to Anne Lamott quoting her friend Tom, the Jesuit priest.
The Five Rules of Being a Grown-Up American:
1. You mustn't have anything wrong or different about you.
2. If you do, you really have to get over it. Or correct it as quickly as possible.
3. If you can't get over it or correct it, you have to pretend that you have.
4. If you can't do any of that, you should at least pretend it's no longer an issue for you. (Because showing up "like that" is an issue for everyone else.)
5. If you're going to insist on the right to show up, you should at least have the decency to be ashamed.
(Footnote: Therapy, healing, and self-compassion can help you recover your life from shame.)
Have you ever noticed that people who were raised in an environment of shame tend to shame others? It's rampant.
Not because people are mean and want to hurt each other. Just because the language your family raises you with is the language you become fluent in - and shame is the language of America.
Good/bad, right/wrong, my way/your way ... everything and everyone must be judged and categorized. Once a problem is categorized, blame can be assigned. So we shame people: including our children, our partners, and people we love. And that's the way we're taught to cope with an unpredictable world.
Because shame starts early, it's invisible. When everyone has it and it's reflected back at you from everywhere (family, school, media, politics, culture) - how can you see it? We're like fish: blind to the water we swim in.
But if your work is mostly about shame, as mine is, you do see it everywhere. It's like someone poured food coloring into the fish tank.
Just try talking about shame if you want to watch how automatic and hard people's shame talk kicks in! (Don't dismantle my binary world: someone must be Right and someone must be Wrong!)
Shame. The gift that keeps on giving.
But there's always this: you can commit yourself to seeing and speaking about it. Throw light on it. Like Brene Brown says, shame depends on secrecy, silence and judgment. It can't survive empathy. "It depends on me buying into the belief that I'm alone."
1. Have more fun. Plan things together that you know your partner loves to do. Alternate with each other.
2. Stop trying to control one other. You're allowed to be different people. In fact, it's probably why you fell in love in the first place.
3. Practice real listening. Don't be thinking instead about your defense or coming up with a rebuttal. Listen, be curious, and empathize. (You can have your turn too.)
4. Continue to compliment and value each other. Don't think you shouldn't have to do that anymore once you're past dating.
5. Be a little selfish. Make time for yourself and things you like to do.
6. Don't make your partner be all things to you. We each need other sources of support: a best friend, a mentor, a sibling, etc. It's too much to put all your needs on one person.