When feelings are far away
People think the worst thing about emotions is how they can make you feel. But what do you do when you can’t feel at all?
Emotions get a bad press, on the whole - especially the negative ones. The powerful impact of an emotion like grief, the way an emotion like anxiety manipulates us, forcefully pushing our attention onto our worries, the swamp-like sadness that can be so hard to pull yourself free from. So it may be hard to understand why for some people the absence of emotions like these is a problem. But the inability to connect with emotions, or experience them in the usual way is a surprisingly common phenomenon, particularly for people who have experienced some kind of trauma - and the impact on people trying to live their everyday life is much more than you might think.
Emotions - inconvenient as they can be - do have a function, working to alert us to potentially significant things going on in the world around us, directing our attention toward what matters the most and influencing our decision making and actions. But emotions also play a vital role in the way we interact and understand one another as humans. Emotions - in particular, the facial expressions that accompany them - are remarkably consistent across cultures and countries, with a basic set of human emotions having been demonstrated even in remote cultures which have never had contact with western society. And, as such a key part of what it means to be conscious, our own experience of emotions matters too. They become part of our own communication to ourselves, helping us make sense of our experiences and mediating our response to what life throws at us. Emotions are part of how we understand other people - and they also form part of how we understand ourselves and the events we experience.
Let it out?
We know there is some natural variation in how people experience emotions. This tends to be described along two different measures: firstly, how MUCH emotion you experience - particularly negative emotion. Measures like the personality variable neuroticism measure, in basic terms, how easily emotions like anxiety and sadness are triggered for you - and recognise that some people seem to experience them a lot more frequently, and at a greater intensity than others. Other measures look at how much you EXPRESS your emotion. Some people are much more internal than others, and what they are thinking or feeling is largely something kept inside their own heads whilst others instinctively release and express their inner world - including their emotions - much more freely. Both of these variables will lead to very different experiences of the emotional world.
Meanwhile, there’s another significant factor that can influence people’s reaction to their emotions. We know that emotions are powerful - and there is strong evidence that for many people the experience of powerful emotions, particularly in early life, can dramatically change the way their response to them. Traumatic experiences inevitably trigger powerful, overwhelming emotions like anxiety and fear, and living through this - particularly if those emotions were in the context of a situation that it was not possible to escape or flee from - teaches a lesson of helplessness and vulnerability. Emotions in that context cease to be helpful but become part of the trauma, and as the brain struggles to make sense of what happened, bringing memories and flashbacks to the surface of the mind the same powerful emotions can be re-triggered increasing this sense of the danger of emotions.
Perhaps it is no surprise then that people with such histories can begin to instinctively detach from their own emotions, cutting themselves off from this source of pain. Emotions that have been experienced only as negative and frightening appear to have no value and if they are unable to be eradicated the only choice is to try to suppress or ignore them, to try to limit the impact they have on everyday life. This detachment from your own emotions and the inability it leads to recognise or label emotions is sometimes called alexithymia.
Past experience of the safety of relationships also affects our ability to share emotions with other people. Attachment theory describes our earliest experience of the most powerful relationship most of us ever have - with our main caregiver as an infant. Secure attachment describes the ideal relationship, where the caregiver is consistent, responsive and reliable - meaning the infant feels safe, secure and validated. However, many people do not have such an ideal experience. Early attachment sets the pattern for our adult relationships, and if your relationship with this main caregiver was difficult, distant or abusive or just experienced as the absence of someone consistent like this, you can carry difficulty making or engaging with other people into your adult life. Experience has taught you that the safest space or relationship is with yourself - not a shared space or the ability to engage and open yourself to others, but an independent self-reliance - retreating into your safe headspace instead of the risk of becoming vulnerable with someone else. This can be a tough habit to break - even when there is a genuine or even heartfelt desire to engage and share, for example with a spouse or good friend.
Another phenomenon often linked with past trauma, and a difficulty engaging with emotions, is that of dissociation. Dissociation describes what happens when we become detached from the present moment in some way. There's a huge variation of how powerful this is - and some dissociation is both normal and common - think of the last times you drove home, got there and realised you didn't remember the journey at all! But dissociation can also be a protective mechanism that the human mind learns to use to protect itself from trauma and/or powerful emotions - particularly if the trauma occurs repeatedly and/or in childhood when our sense of self is much more fluid, making it easier to retreat from reality. The same protective dissociation can occur then much later when we are reminded of trauma - including in intrusive memories like flashbacks - or even when we try to share or process it - for example in therapeutic contexts. Dissociation like this, protecting you from difficult and painful emotions or memories often becomes involuntary and automatic - and can become a problem in its own right. Dissociation can stop you from being able to share or experience your emotions in the places it would be most helpful to do so, distance you from people who care for you and want to share with you. It can lead to you losing awareness in the present moment - 'spacing out' or struggling to focus on what is going on. And at its most extreme people can lose whole chunks of time where they have lost contact with the present.
No emotions, no problem?
So is this kind of detachment from your emotions a problem? In some contexts, the ability to hold a strong emotional boundary can be not just beneficial but vital. Think about caring professions where people experience the emotional pain of others regularly but need to avoid it affecting them too strongly, or roles which require cool calm thinking in crisis situations - or the teacher who needs to keep their cool whilst dealing with a room full of frustrating students. But what if it is not a choice, what if the same cool separation persists in moments when actually being able to connect - being able to feel is actually really important?
Perhaps the most obvious impact of this imposed emotional distance is on relationships. Emotional engagement is a key part of intimacy - so what do you do if you cannot allow your emotions to rise anywhere near the surface? It’s all too common for people to describe their frustration at being unable to feel, unable to properly connect with their emotional world when in the presence of other people - even people they love. This places an inevitable limit on relationships, on what can be shared. That emotional ‘coldness’ is difficult for both parties - the ones who long to share but also the ones who long to be able to break into the inner world of the people they love so much.
And of course, emotions are not just negative. The problem is switching off your emotions - or more accurately distancing yourself from them, for we never manage to truly switch them off - isn’t restricted to the negative ones. The loss of positive emotions is a gut-wrenching blow and can leave people feeling like spectators on their own life. As Bessel Van der Kolk puts it in his beautifully written book on the impact of emotional trauma, The Body keeps the Score, "Feeling numb during birthday parties for your kids, or in response to the death of loved ones makes people feel like monsters. As a result, shame becomes the dominant emotion and hiding the truth the central preoccupation.”
Sometimes this distance from painful emotions comes with specific risks - particularly associated with dissociation. Watch out for warning signs - if someone is engaging in risky behaviour when 'out of it', or has long periods of time they do not recall. Dissociation can sometimes be related to impulsive behaviours, and these are obviously riskier if someone is not entirely aware or conscious of what they are doing. Watch out also for a link with self-harm - part of the pay off of self-harm can be that it triggers a dissociative state or helps people gain a distance from their emotions and feel more in control. But for some people, self-harm is something they do to try to regain conscious control and come out of a dissociative state - and here there can be a risk of more serious episodes of self-harm as they attempt to do that. Finally, some addictive behaviours and patterns are strongly linked to this need to escape - or conversely engage with - emotions. Watch out for patterns like drinking to try to break the control that stops someone sharing or expressing emotion - emotions that are only seen or revealed when someone is intoxicated for example, or the use of drugs or addictive substances whilst in a dissociative state.
But to many people, the worst thing about living life at arm's length is how it leaves you: alone. Not literally alone, but with a limit on your ability to connect, a significant part of life - the most powerful, most emotional parts, are lived in isolation no matter how many other people are around.
If you have learned your safe world is about being alone, your emotions can become restricted to times you are isolated. Perhaps the cruellest irony is the way the same emotions that refused to show their face when people were around to share them emerge so powerfully, so viciously, when people are alone.
How to respond?
So - whether this is your own struggle or you are supporting someone else, how can you manage this all too painful emotional isolation?
1 - Firstly, if you are a friend or family member of someone in this position, remember it is often not a choice. They may appear cool, distant, even uncaring, but the detachment they experience from their emotions may well be unconscious or even contrary to what they would long for. Hard as it is, try not to take it personally. You can still connect with them - but it may take a bit of ingenuity. Try nonverbal expressions like letters, cards or even messaging - particularly if it enables them to express themselves to you whilst on their own so more able to connect with what they are feeling. Watch out for emotionally intense situations which may push them further into their safe space. Avoid confrontation or trying to force a reaction from them. Give them time and space and be there for them in whatever that looks like, recognising it may not be the face to face frank conversation you would prefer right now.
2 - Remember that emotional patterns are set gradually over a period of time are not fixed. It may be that your past has led you to struggle to connect with your emotions but that does not mean your future has to be the same way. It is possible to improve emotional connection and to practice this in a safe therapeutic space like counselling. Give yourself time to allow this new skill to develop - like starting a new sport it won’t happen automatically. Keep practising and try not to become too frustrated or hard on yourself.
3 - Where there is a traumatic history linked to present-day challenges with emotion, it may well help to find a safe and defined space to process that. Facing the monsters of your past is the most difficult thing to do - and can feel like the worse decision, releasing something unsafe into your present-day when you have worked so hard to get it fenced in somewhere deep in your mind. But when you have to keep up such powerful control to keep something like that held back, you cannot release yourself fully into your emotional present. Often this requires a therapeutic space and a good counsellor or psychologist to help you find our safe ways to release and process what happened to you and release you fully into your future. Recognise the value of this: these are not friendships, but are about giving you the keys to in future be better able to share with friends and loved ones.
4 - Be intentional with your friendships. One of the most useful resources to help someone become better at connecting with their emotions and sharing them is a consistent and safe relationship in which to practice. This can be a therapeutic one (and this may be important where traumatic or powerful memories are involved) - but do not underestimate the power of a great mate as well! Building friendships where it is possible to take risks and be vulnerable does not happen automatically - so think about where there might be potential for this kind of space and what it would take to make it happen. But don't overshare straight away! John Townsend, psychologist and author of 'People Fuel' recommends taking a step of sharing 1 vulnerable thing with someone first of all - and watching how they react. Three things are possible: they may change the subject quickly - this person is clearly not comfortable with that kind of information - enjoy the friendship but recognise maybe it isn't one to build up to this level. Or, they may start to offer a battery of advice, or share their own experiences - this person may be more of a coach - someone who can give good advice but perhaps not the friend you can truly connect with. The third response - someone who listens, hears you, wants to hear more and is glad you shared - this is someone you can perhaps build a deeper friendship with and gradually step up your vulnerability with.
5 - If you know this is something you find hard, do not despair - instead why not explore tools and tricks that can help you to share or connect better. Many people find that non-verbal or more distant forms of communication are easier. Try writing a letter, or exchanging messages with someone when you are on your own, but more able to process your thoughts. Remember you can always talk about those feelings another time so the actual moment of sharing is detached from the conversation. Think too about the environment: often people find that being intentional about the space they are in can help how able they are to share or tune into their own feelings. Anything that helps you feel safe is likely to be positive - whether that is about a safe room or venue, or about getting outdoors so you are not feeling trapped or hemmed in. Experiment with mood, ambience and even music - sometimes these things can help tremendously. Take the pressure off yourself - remember that finding out something DOESN'T help is not a failure - it is useful to know the things that make sharing harder as well as the things that help.
And finally - as with so many emotional health and wellbeing challenges, the trick is so often about holding things without anxiety or pressure, and giving it time without being too hard on yourself or the person you are supporting. Over time practising, trying new things and using tricks and tools can help bridge the gap between your own mind and someone else's - and help improve the ability to share and connect, but it won't happen overnight. So, in the meantime, you may need to think about how you manage frustration or anxiety around this so that you can create the space to allow things to change. Try not to be overwhelmed with things that have not gone well and instead celebrate every little step forward.