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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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