Childhood Trauma Leading To Adult Emotional Shutdown

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How we were treated as children by our parents/primary carers will inevitably, of course, have given rise to powerful emotions. For those who experienced a stable and affectionate upbringing, most of these emotions will be positive, the most obvious being love.

However, for those of us who experienced difficult, painful and troubled childhoods, many of the emotions triggered in us as a consequence of our traumatic experience will be negative. At some point, because these emotions became so painful in their intensity, many of us may have buried them – a psychological defense mechanism also known as REPRESSION.

There are other reasons, too, why many of us who suffered significant childhood trauma may, as adults, bury/repress our feelings and emotions. For example, we may have been ridiculed, derided and belittled for demonstrating our feelings. Or we may have been punished for showing strong emotional reactions.

We may, too, have been so profoundly hurt by our parents/primary carers that we started to make a deliberate effort to NOT feel things, to protect ourselves from intolerable mental suffering. In this way, we might have adopted a kind of ‘couldn’t care less about anything, including myself’  attitude. For instance, I remember after I came downstairs on my thirteenth birthday, and was entirely ignored by both my divorced, single-parent mother and older brother; walking to school after suffering this deeply humiliating slight, I remember thinking birthdays were no big deal anyway and that I’d never care about them again.

Related to this, we may, too, bury/repress our emotions as a way of trying to communicate to our parents/primary caregivers that they no longer have power over us and that they can no longer hurt us (whether or not this is actually the case); we attempt, in this manner, to render them impotent and simultaneously empower ourselves.

If, due to our childhood experiences, we have shut our feelings and emotions down in this as a means of self-preservation, we may well find, as adults, that we are unable to ‘switch them back on’. If, indeed, we do find ourselves in this situation, we may (falsely) believe that we are now incapable of feeling anything and conclude we have simply become a ‘cold’ person and that the feelings we once had are now permanently numbed or deadened.

Worse still, we may negatively judge ourselves for this, perhaps believing we have become ‘callous’. In fact, in many ways, the opposite is true – it is likely to be because we used to be, in fact, intensely sensitive and felt things too deeply, that we now find ourselves to be unemotional. The pain of feeling emotions became too unbearably strong.

The overwhelming likelihood is, however, that we have not lost our ability to feel but, rather, have deeply buried our emotions. Indeed, we may have buried them so deeply that we would require professional therapy to help us to gently get in touch with them again.

If we do decide to seek therapy to help us to reconnect with our emotions there is, however, a significant chance that, because we may discover very painful, hitherto repressed feelings ( such as anger, despair and mourning for our lost childhood) we may well feel worse before we start to feel better.

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Above : The view of Sigmund Freud on repressed emotions.

Indeed, Sigmund Freud (pictured above) took the view that repressed emotions were potentially very dangerous and were the primary cause of many mental disturbances. However, it also should be stated that Freud is a somewhat controversial figure in the eyes of many present-day psychologists, despite his widely acknowledged genius.

This is why, when contemplating such therapy, it is important to realise it is not at all a ‘quick-fix’, requires a highly skilled and experienced therapist, may initially cause a worsening of symptoms and, as no therapy is guaranteed, may not be effective in the long-term.

It is because of this that many therapists these days prefer to make use of therapies that address ‘the here and now’ (such as cognitive behavioural therapy – click here to read my article on this) rather than those therapies that focus on the past.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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