What feelings were denied you as a child?
Did your parents or caregivers say:
Hendrix acknowledges that the rules of emotional expression differ between men and women. Early on, we realize that what’s “allowed” for boys and what’s “allowed” for girls is clear.
Hendrix recognizes that, for boys, emotional expression or the expression of empathy is perceived as weakness or fear. Girls, on the other hand, are encouraged toward these tender exchanges.
Males learn to cut off their own emotional experiences, which, in turn, impacts their ability to express themselves clearly and to develop empathy for their partners. The cutoff that I refer to here often looks like withdrawal, leaving the more emotionally expressive partner to chase after the distant one. These interactions create a negative withdraw-pursue cycle in the relationship.
In my work with both heterosexual and same-sex couples, I have seen these patterns play out repeatedly. Men and women repress their feelings based on a host of unique factors. Factors that influence emotional repression can be traced back to early childhood. These can include influential personalities in the individual's family of origin, cultural and religious background, definitions of masculinity and femininity, trauma, the political climate, and more.
Some of my most meaningful work with a person occurs when they learn how to undo their own emotional repression. Here are some of the steps we take to help them emotionally evolve.
1. Learn Emotional Language
When repressed enough, partners lose their ability to retrieve the language or emotions. Evidence of this may include responses such as “I don’t know” or “I can’t describe it” when a person is asked how they feel. In therapy, we start small, reviewing the six most basic human emotions: anger, sadness, fear, joy, love, and surprise. But knowing the feelings is not always enough to name them and experience them in the moment.
2. Work from the Outside In
We register our feelings in our bodies. We typically feel our emotions in our throats, behind our eyes, in our torsos (including back and chest), in our bellies, and sometimes in our legs, arms, hands, and feet. When you learn the sensations of the body you are then able to connect your experience to the learned emotional language. Heat in your cheeks might connect to anger, a lump in your throat might indicate sadness, loss of breath may connect to surprise, and butterflies in the belly or ice-cold palms may mean fear. Practice noticing your reactions to conversations and experiences, pay attention to your body, and begin to make the connections for yourself.
3. Verbalize the Feeling
Once you tune into the sensation and connect it to the relevant feeling word, you can verbalize the feeling by sharing with your partner. You can say, for example, “I’m aware that I have butterflies in my stomach and that I feel scared,” or, “I can feel my heart pounding right now; I know I’m angry and I need time to cool off.” Being able to verbalize your feelings gives you and your partner a chance to communicate about what’s fueling them and why they may be uncomfortable.
When you complete all three steps, you've begun to overcome emotional repression. You’re no longer detaching from your feelings. You’re no longer denying yourself the right to speak up about your experience. You’re allowing others to know you more deeply.
Of course, there are other feelings words, such as disappointment, loss, confusion, bewilderment, hope, excitement, and others. But for anyone who has a lifetime of emotional repression, the six most basic human emotions often capture enough to name the feeling adequately. As you become more habitual in sensing, naming, and verbalizing your emotions, consider expanding your emotional language to describe how you feel.
For those of you on the receiving end, check in with yourselves. Make sure you want what is offered. Anger, sadness, and fear are generally harder to receive than love, joy, and surprise. Sometimes, people tell me they want their partners to express themselves more fully, but when they do, the receivers struggle to take in what their partners say.
Healthy emotional communication requires everyone to be both a giver and a receiver. Reciprocation of emotional expression provides the best environment for intimacy between people to grow. If you are struggling with this, either individually or as a couple consider making an appointment with me or another qualified therapist.
Hendrix, H. (2008). Getting the love you want: A guide for couples. New York, NY: Holt Paperbacks.
Starting couples therapy can be scary. As a couples therapist, I’ve heard complaints from couples who’d been ready to make their relationships better, only to end up in the office of a well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful therapist.
I have the privilege to work with many brave couples who work super hard to save their relationships. As a therapist, I find couples work to be very satisfying because of the dedication required of partners. A lot of couples begin counseling in distress and crisis. While that's sad in and of itself, some of the saddest stories I’ve heard involved couples having experienced poor advice or guidance from previous therapists.
Below are a few of the potentially harmful things a therapist can do with a couple facing serious relationship challenges:
Our lives can be all over the place. Every day we face a whole new slew of people and situations that have the potential to stress us out. Since we're all unique individuals, we each have our own ways of dealing with these stressful people and times. Some of the tools that we employ are helpful...while others are not so helpful. Since we're all different from one another, the things that stress one person may not have the same effect on the person sitting right next to them. Stress is super complicated and highly personal to the individual who experiences it. Think about what makes you feel stressed out. I'm sure that you have known other people who aren’t bothered by your stressors and seem to deal with them without so much as a bat of an eye. Do you know people who stress out about things that would never occur to you be a problem? The reason people react differently to the same stressor has to do with their experiences. Stress is brought on by "triggers" or situations/people/emotions that you are particularly sensitive to because of things that have happened in your life.
Take anger, for example: A person who was raised in an unpredictable environment where anger caused yelling, intimidation, or physical violence will likely react differently to anger than someone who was taught to express anger in a healthy way. Both people may experience a partner being angry with them, but only one of them is likely to be triggered.
There is no limit to the ways individuals are triggered because there is an unlimited number of circumstances that affect human beings. In addition to the diversity of triggers that exist, there is a broad spectrum of ways people react to their triggers. People tend to develop defense mechanisms, or unconscious reactions that protect them from the pain of their triggers. It is common to be unaware of the presence of these defense mechanisms as well as when they are in use. I bet that almost all of us have heard or used the term “become defensive” when we feel that someone is trying to protect or defend themselves in an argument instead of listening to the opposing point of view. This often happens when a person is triggered by the subject matter. Even after the trigger has passed, the defense mechanism remains and may impact relationships and work.
As a therapist who works with young people and LGBTQ+ individuals and couples with a variety of anxiety, depression and personal image issues, I see my share of defense mechanisms that come out during the course of a therapy session. As a therapist, I am trained to identify and help people work through these defenses, which is critical in making progress on whatever issue brings them to counseling.
There are many different types of defense mechanisms, but the following are five common ones. Regardless of how emotionally healthy we are, we all have defense mechanisms at play every day.
A qualified therapist can help you build your self-awareness, heal past pain and/or trauma, and get you coping in a healthy way with any triggers that come your way.
What are some of the reasons that you become stuck in your ability to create? Many reasons and excuses exist for stopping ourselves from being creative. If we are able to become aware of when and how we block ourselves, we can make a conscious effort to change our habits. We can let go of the excuses and give ourselves the opportunity to enjoy the creative energy that we all possess.
Are you aware of the inner critic that seems to sit on the shoulder of each of us? It's hard for me to think of a time when I've created a picture or written an article that I didn't, at some point along the way, judge myself: "Is this good enough? Is it worth it? It's terrible, isn't it?" I know I'm not alone. I've met enough people throughout my life and work to know that most of us seem to go through this same thought process, constantly. It's funny, though, that as young children we were able to be creative without any worry about our creation's "rightness," "beauty," or "good" or "bad" qualities. We were absorbed by exploration and experimentation. But as we've grown we began to incorporate the critic for many reasons - to help us discriminate aesthetically, to help us improve the way we approach a project, or even to be useful to others in society. However, just like many tools that we develop over time, the critic becomes unhelpful when it puts shame, embarrassment, and fear into our lives. These things prevent us from being creative.
Good news! We can acquaint ourselves with our inner critic so that it does not dominate our feelings and behavior. One way to do that is to let go of that harsh judge. Simply notice it and tell it to pass by: "Oh, I'm feeling judgmental about myself. I can continue to be hard on myself or get back into the process of doing this project." This kind of meditation allows the inner critic to be a part of your experience but keeps it from blocking your ability to act. You can also say to the critic: "Mr. Critic, you may be useful later in this project, but not now."
We also have a need for approval that can block creativity. "Will anyone like my sculpture?" "What will people think of me if I try to dance and I'm clumsy?" "What if I'm off tune and someone hears me sing?" We are asking a basic question: "Will anyone love me if I'm all of me?" We all need love an approval, but the key to launching our creative power is to find the deepest sense of approval within ourselves. If we put the locus of our worth in the hands of other people...well, that ain't gonna turn out well. We damn ourselves to a life of trying to please other people.
Will anyone love me if
The use of the expressive arts in the creative process is a path to self-discovery, self-esteem, and self-empowerment. Becoming your own best source of approval might take a while. Practice paying attention to the part of you that needs approval. Accept it but don't let it dominate your behavior. You can say "I am aware that I would like someone to tell me I am doing well. I can give myself that pat on the back for now."
The need for love and approval is legitimate. But that need is tricky. The more we long for love and approval, the less we seem to get. I know from my own experiences that when I'm the neediest for love and approval, I don't get them. But when I'm in love or loving, more comes my way. Be authentic and true to your highest self. That's a straighter path to receiving genuine love and appreciation.
Fear of failure is another trip cord that gets in the way of us being fully creative. What is failure? "I did it wrong," "I'm no good," "I made a big mistake!" In the creative process—and in life generally—these are unhelpful statements. More helpful would be to say: "What can I learn from this situation?" "What would make this process or product more to my liking?" As a therapist working with artists, I see people struggling with their process and I remind them that there is no right or wrong to what they're doing. When they hear that, the tension releases.
Using expressive arts in an accepting, supportive environment such as therapy helps greatly in overcoming these blocks to creativity. If you're interested in exploring and re-discovering your creative process let me know!