Difficulties With Emotions — How Can I Open Up More?

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Reader’s Question

During my youth my father traveled a lot so I didn’t bother getting to know people for very long. I never really cried or cared much about emotions in my life; I just didn’t find them very important for what I was doing, and couldn’t see how they would help me in the long run. The few times that I did end up showing emotions just made me feel worse; I was disappointed in myself for showing them — even to myself, on my own.

Since I was 12, my family has called me cold, distant, and completely unmarriageable or even likeable. Most of my family and the few friends I have find me intimidating and scary. For about the past five or six years I have been working on opening up and becoming more friendly, following the steps I have seen in self-help books (e.g., smile, take more active interest in people, laugh, and whatnot). But opening up just seems to have made matters worse; it has left me more isolated than usual and has caused more fights between my father and me. In fact, as this opening up of mine has progressed I have found myself becoming more and more emotionally disconnected, and even less trusting of the people around me.

I know that it isn’t right to have no trust or “real” emotions towards others. But I currently can’t see a way of fixing what I have done, or knowing what steps I can take towards becoming more open, or even just mending the issues that seem to have arisen from my attempt to open up.

Psychologist’s Reply

I’m glad you’re working on opening up to others. It sounds like it has been a very frustrating process so far, probably because you have yet to get to the heart (pun intended) of the matter. Perhaps you have been mimicking the behavior of emotions (e.g., smiling, laughing) without actually feeling them and that is what people are responding to. They may perceive you as insincere or even as mocking them.

The first step in correcting this is to stop being scared of emotions. Emotions are very important. They provide us with information about ourselves and our surroundings as well as giving us ways to connect meaningfully with others. Emotions also help our bodies run smoothly. If you repress your emotions for too long, your body will let you know that something is not right. It sounds like that is where you are currently. You’ve been burying your emotions for so long that you no longer know how to access them.

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As you mentioned, emotions often cause you to feel bad because they can be painful and make you vulnerable. I imagine that protecting yourself from hurt is why you decided to shut off your feelings in the first place. While that can be self-protective in the short-term, it can also be quite damaging in the long-term because there is no balance. You might not be feeling the painful emotions, but shutting them off means that you don’t feel the good emotions either. Emotions can be wonderful. They allow you to experience passion, love and joy and they give you a way to develop satisfying relationships. However, this does come with some risk because emotions can and do cause pain. That’s why feeling emotions and even showing them doesn’t make you weak. If anything, it makes you stronger because you are willing to feel them anyway. As the saying goes, courage is not the absence of fear but rather doing what needs to be done in spite of it.

The second step is to allow yourself to feel your emotions. Take some time and space in which you can think of different memories (happy, sad and scary ones) and feel the emotions. Let yourself discover how each emotion feels in your body. Journal about how the memory or experience feels. Talk to understanding people about your emotions (a counselor would be an ideal person to help with this process). Complete these exercises as many times as it takes to have your emotions come naturally. Once you can do this, you can start imagining how other people feel and then use these new observations in conversation. Let people know how you feel about things. Ask them about their feelings and see if you can find some common ground. Solid relationships are built on the exchange of emotions. This is called emotional intimacy and it can be exhilarating.

Perhaps once you are able to be emotionally intimate, your opening up to people will be coming from the heart instead of the head.

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