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Mental Schemas #15: Emotional Inhibition

Handling negative emotions

This post is part of a series on schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.

A person with an Emotional Inhibition schema holds back emotions in situations where it would be healthier to express them–feelings like anger, joy, affection, and vulnerability get stifled. This schema is based on trying to act rationally and impersonally at all times, regardless of what’s going on inside. Someone with this schema may feel embarrassed or ashamed to feel or express certain emotions or may fear disapproval or losing control. If you find it difficult to tell people how you feel or see yourself coming across as wooden, you may find learning about this schema useful.

Where emotional inhibition comes from
People with Emotional Inhibition schemas often grow up in families where expressing emotions is frowned upon, mocked, or punished. Often the whole family–sometimes supported by the culture the family comes from–adopts a similar pattern of keeping emotions hidden at all times. In this kind of environment, hiding emotions becomes an act of self-protection. As the child grows, the habit can be very hard to break, so that someone raised this way can grow up continuing to be unable to express emotion even in situations where it’s perfectly safe and entirely constructive to do so.

Overcoming an Emotional Inhibition schema
As with any schema or personal limitation, the first step is to be able to see the problem as a problem. A person who is used to holding back emotions may not appreciate on a gut level the value of expressing them appropriately. It can help to think through the consequences of this kind of expression. For example, what is likely to happen if you tell a friend that you’re angry that they didn’t show up to an event you’d agreed to go to together–will the friend stop associating with you, or will careful expression of these feelings help clear the air? What are the consequences of telling a family member “I love you”? Is it likely to cause trouble if you laugh out loud in a busy restaurant?

In at least one way, overcoming an Emotional Inhibition schema is more difficult than overcoming other schemas: because Emotional Inhibition encourages handling everything rationally, trying to rationally assess one’s own thoughts about feeling inhibited can drag a person deeper into the Emotional Inhibition mindset rather than showing the way out. A person who falls into this snare can benefit from emotional experiences.

Using experiences to overcome emotional inhibition
Any experience that gives a person practice in constructively expressing emotions can help break down a habit of emotional inhibition. By definition these experiences tend to be uncomfortable–after all, people who do this are pushing back against deeply ingrained habits–but realizing this in advance and recognizing the discomfort as a sign of doing the right thing can be helpful.

Some examples of experiences that help with expressing emotions include group therapy, where a highly supportive environment can make it easier and more comfortable to talk about feelings; role-playing; confrontational sports like wrestling and martial arts (Olympic-style Taekwondo has a great sparring component); and dancing or dance lessons.

Spending more time with people who are comfortable expressing their emotions and using them as role models and guides can also make a positive difference.

As with any personal concern, if a schema or other personal issues feel too large or unyielding to handle alone, working with a qualified cognitive therapist can be a way to break through. You might be interested in finding a therapist qualified to work in schema therapy or some other kind of cognitive therapist.

Photo by Mags_cat

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Communicating Emotions: Useful Words

Resources

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life offers an invaluable method for helping to resolve conflicts constructively, whether you’re directly involved or not, and even if you’re the only person there who knows anything about it.

Among the resources offered on the Nonviolent Communication Web site at http://www.cnvc.org/learn/resources is a list of words used to describe emotions. These are valuable in any kind of communication about feelings partly because of how tricky it sometimes is to convey exactly how we feel to another person and partly to help us differentiate between emotions and judgments (see the article preceding this, “The Difference Between an Emotion and a Judgment“). Here is that list, also available at http://www.cnvc.org/Training/feelings-inventory .

Feelings when your needs are satisfied

AFFECTIONATE
compassionate
friendly
loving
open hearted
sympathetic
tender
warm

ENGAGED
absorbed
alert
curious
engrossed
enchanted
entranced
fascinated
interested
intrigued
involved
spellbound
stimulated

HOPEFUL
expectant
encouraged
optimistic

CONFIDENT
empowered
open
proud
safe
secure

EXCITED
amazed
animated
ardent
aroused
astonished
dazzled
eager
energetic
enthusiastic
giddy
invigorated
lively
passionate
surprised
vibrant

GRATEFUL
appreciative
moved
thankful
touched

INSPIRED
amazed
awed
wonder

JOYFUL
amused
delighted
glad
happy
jubilant
pleased
tickled

EXHILARATED
blissful
ecstatic
elated
enthralled
exuberant
radiant
rapturous
thrilled

PEACEFUL
calm
clear headed
comfortable
centered
content
equanimous
fulfilled
mellow
quiet
relaxed
relieved
satisfied
serene
still
tranquil
trusting

REFRESHED
enlivened
rejuvenated
renewed
rested
restored
revived

Feelings when your needs are not satisfied

AFRAID
apprehensive
dread
foreboding
frightened
mistrustful
panicked
petrified
scared
suspicious
terrified
wary
worried

ANNOYED
aggravated
dismayed
disgruntled
displeased
exasperated
frustrated
impatient
irritated
irked

ANGRY
enraged
furious
incensed
indignant
irate
livid
outraged
resentful

AVERSION
animosity
appalled
contempt
disgusted
dislike
hate
horrified
hostile
repulsed

CONFUSED
ambivalent
baffled
bewildered
dazed
hesitant
lost
mystified
perplexed
puzzled
torn

DISCONNECTED
alienated
aloof
apathetic
bored
cold
detached
distant
distracted
indifferent
numb
removed
uninterested
withdrawn

DISQUIET
agitated
alarmed
discombobulated
disconcerted
disturbed
perturbed
rattled
restless
shocked
startled
surprised
troubled
turbulent
turmoil
uncomfortable
uneasy
unnerved
unsettled
upset

EMBARRASSED
ashamed
chagrined
flustered
guilty
mortified
self-conscious

FATIGUE
beat
burnt out
depleted
exhausted
lethargic
listless
sleepy
tired
weary
worn out

PAIN
agony
anguished
bereaved
devastated
grief
heartbroken
hurt
lonely
miserable
regretful
remorseful

SAD
depressed
dejected
despair
despondent
disappointed
discouraged
disheartened
forlorn
gloomy
heavy hearted
hopeless
melancholy
unhappy
wretched

(c) 2005 by Center for Nonviolent Communication
Website: www.cnvc.org Email: cnvc@cnvc.org
Phone: +1.505.244.4041

Note: If you read my previous article, you may have noticed that the list and I disagree on the word “hurt,” but regardless it seems to me that thinking about words that carefully can be a great help, whichever side of that question you would choose.

Photo by Saad Kadhi of a sculpture by Bruce Krebs

Feelings when your needs are satisfied

AFFECTIONATE
compassionate
friendly
loving
open hearted
sympathetic
tender
warm

ENGAGED
absorbed
alert
curious
engrossed
enchanted
entranced
fascinated
interested
intrigued
involved
spellbound
stimulated

HOPEFUL
expectant
encouraged
optimistic

CONFIDENT
empowered
open
proud
safe
secure

EXCITED
amazed
animated
ardent
aroused
astonished
dazzled
eager
energetic
enthusiastic
giddy
invigorated
lively
passionate
surprised
vibrant

GRATEFUL
appreciative
moved
thankful
touched

INSPIRED
amazed
awed
wonder

JOYFUL
amused
delighted
glad
happy
jubilant
pleased
tickled

EXHILARATED
blissful
ecstatic
elated
enthralled
exuberant
radiant
rapturous
thrilled

PEACEFUL
calm
clear headed
comfortable
centered
content
equanimous
fulfilled
mellow
quiet
relaxed
relieved
satisfied
serene
still
tranquil
trusting

REFRESHED
enlivened
rejuvenated
renewed
rested
restored
revived

Feelings when your needs are not satisfied

AFRAID
apprehensive
dread
foreboding
frightened
mistrustful
panicked
petrified
scared
suspicious
terrified
wary
worried

ANNOYED
aggravated
dismayed
disgruntled
displeased
exasperated
frustrated
impatient
irritated
irked

ANGRY
enraged
furious
incensed
indignant
irate
livid
outraged
resentful

AVERSION
animosity
appalled
contempt
disgusted
dislike
hate
horrified
hostile
repulsed

CONFUSED
ambivalent
baffled
bewildered
dazed
hesitant
lost
mystified
perplexed
puzzled
torn

DISCONNECTED
alienated
aloof
apathetic
bored
cold
detached
distant
distracted
indifferent
numb
removed
uninterested
withdrawn

DISQUIET
agitated
alarmed
discombobulated
disconcerted
disturbed
perturbed
rattled
restless
shocked
startled
surprised
troubled
turbulent
turmoil
uncomfortable
uneasy
unnerved
unsettled
upset

EMBARRASSED
ashamed
chagrined
flustered
guilty
mortified
self-conscious

FATIGUE
beat
burnt out
depleted
exhausted
lethargic
listless
sleepy
tired
weary
worn out

PAIN
agony
anguished
bereaved
devastated
grief
heartbroken
hurt
lonely
miserable
regretful
remorseful

SAD
depressed
dejected
despair
despondent
disappointed
discouraged
disheartened
forlorn
gloomy
heavy hearted
hopeless
melancholy
unhappy
wretched

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The Difference Between an Emotion and a Judgment

Strategies and goals

One of the hardest things to do in an emotionally heated conversation or argument is to communicate well about ourselves without encouraging the person or people we’re talking with to feel defensive. A particularly dangerous trap is trying to express an emotion and instead coming out with a judgment.

False emotional language
For example, there’s the common phrase “I feel that …” Because the word “feel” is involved, it’s easy to believe that a sentence starting this way is about an emotion–which is not the case.

For instance, if “I feel that this is unfair” is were to convey an emotion, what is that emotion supposed to be? Unfairfeelingness? Maybe there’s a word for that in German, but it’s not an emotion regardless of language. If I’m not happy with how something was done and believe it to be unfair, then I might be feeling vulnerable, resentful, disappointed, shocked, disturbed, indignant … actually, I might have any number of emotions about the situation (my next article will provide a list of emotional vocabulary, in case you’re interested). But “I feel that this is unfair” (whether or not we include the word “that”) is really a less clear way of saying “I think that this is unfair” or “It’s my judgment that this is unfair.” Not only does it portray something (unfairfeelingness) that’s not an emotion as though it is one, but it also fails to communicate the actual emotion, which could be any of the ones I listed, something else altogether, or a combination of emotions.

Here are some other examples of emotional-sounding language that isn’t actually describing the speaker’s emotions:

  • “I feel used”
  • “I’m hurt that he said that” (“hurt” means “damaged” or “wounded”: we have emotional reactions to being hurt, but saying that we’ve been hurt, emotionally speaking, is an accusation rather than a description of our own condition)
  • “What you did was upsetting” (which is closer to expressing an emotion, but can mean that what was done is likely to make people upset rather than that the speaker is necessarily upset)
  • “That’s disgraceful”

Different places for judgments and emotions
I’m not saying there’s no place in the world for judgments. If you’re in charge of something or someone, judging is an important process of clarifying whether or not things are going as you want them to go. You may judge that it was a bad idea for your child to have watched TV instead of doing homework, or that you would have been better off not going to the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. A policeman may judge that someone has violated a traffic law (although that person still gets their day in court), and a boss may judge that a worker isn’t performing well.

You may even want to judge someone else’s behavior for your own benefit to decide how to act toward them or whether or not to imitate them. Or you might express a judgment about someone else’s behavior to someone else or to the person in question in hopes of making an impression. Of course, this sometimes backfires, especially when speaking to the person being judged.

In most of our interactions with most people, we at best can only hope to influence the situation. We’re not usually in charge of our friends, acquaintances, people we see on the street, people we see in traffic, our siblings, and so on, and acting as though we are in charge tends to create problems rather than solve them. In these situations, if we want to truly communicate in hopes that the other person will understand and take our feelings into account, it becomes important to express how we actually feel rather than just what we think or judge.

Photo by Joe Gratz

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How to Become More Focused and Enthusiastic, Part III: Willingness

Strategies and goals

The first article in this series talks about the difference between distraction and lack of focus or enthusiasm as well as the problem of not believing your goal can be achieved. The second article touches on how much the goal matters and whether or not it’s possible to track progress. This article will tackle another essential of being committed to a goal: willingness.

The question of willingness came up as a side note in my article the other day about whether our willpower gets used up on a daily basis. The idea was that people seem to usually be less willing to keep doing things that require self-control the more of them they’re asked to do. Repeated demands are one reason a person might find she or he isn’t willing to exercise willpower. Others include

  • Feeling anger or resentment about having to do the thing in the first place, or being unhappy about some expected result–for instance if a person avoided cleaning an area up because they didn’t make the mess (even if they knew the mess-maker wasn’t going to clean it up), or if they were to hold off on doing certain work because they strongly suspected someone else would be getting the credit.
  • Being uncomfortable with success, for instance when a person is scared of the life changes a new job would cause.
  • Having a broken idea that someone else should be doing whatever it is, that whatever it is shouldn’t be necessary, etc.
  • Focusing on short-term discomfort or interruption of pleasure, like not wanting to pull a splinter out due to anticipating that being painful.
  • Feeling as though you don’t deserve to achieve your goal, for instance because of impostor syndrome.

Those are a few samples. The key point is that even when we have a desire to do something and recognize that it would be a good thing to do, we often still have conflicting feelings about moving ahead. To say that we simply want something or don’t want it is to imagine our minds being much simpler than they are. For instance, a person might desperately want to lose weight for reasons of both health and appearance, but also might want to feel free to indulge in eating as they like, might be worried about the discomfort of regular exercise, might feel protected in some ways by being overweight, etc.

Feeling conflicted is a natural result of being a complex human being, but when these kinds of conflicts prevent us from committing whole-heartedly to our goals, it’s time to address them and move past them. Broken ideas (including ideas about what should happen or what a person deserves) can be repaired, conflicting needs can be compared so that the highest-priority need can take precedence, discomfort can be faced in light of the greater happiness it will lead to, and so on. In the end, most barriers to willingness can be sorted out–and starting that process only takes asking ourselves this question:

“Am I really willing to succeed?”

Photo by Gavatron

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