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Is It Difficult for You to Show Emotions and Connect? The Trouble with Over Controlling Our Reactions

serious girl in cathedral

I’ve written a lot about the overwhelming emotions of the highly sensitive and empathetic. I’ve talked about crying in the bathroom at work and suffering from emotional exhaustion. Most of the time, emotions are just below the surface or spilling out all over the place for this introvert, but some people keep their emotions totally under control.

Do you know someone who masks their feelings whenever possible?

Do you hide your feelings?

Have you been told you have a serious or flat expression?

Does your partner want you to show more emotion, but you don’t know how?

Do you wish your loved one was more expressive?

Do your true feelings and your outward expressions contradict themselves?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you or someone you know may have learned to over-control their emotions. The result of such tight control of feelings is disconnection from others.

What does excessive control look like? 

Dr. Thomas Lynch is a pioneer in the research and treatment of individuals who over-control their sensitivities and expression.  He describes them as often serious and overachieving. They may exhibit traits of avoidant personality disorder. They are great at delayed gratification and inhibiting their impulses.

Our culture often admires this type of person for their amazing attention to detail and list of accomplishments. They may know how to build a rocket or sit in a monastery for days, but do not have a clue about intimate relationships. They struggle to relax. They do not know how to connect with others and can find themselves feeling isolated. In his studies, Dr. Lynch found obsessive compulsive disorder, depression and anorexia nervosa linked to over-control.

What causes people to bury their feelings and control their impulses? 

When people are excessively controlled, even positive reactions or impulses such as enthusiasm are stymied. What causes people to squelch even positive reactions? According to Dr. Lynch, there are both biological and environmental influences.

First, a child is born with a high sensitivity to threats in the environment and a low sensitivity to rewards. In other words, their nervous systems are continuously scanning the horizon for danger (and everything feels like danger). While they are patrolling for threats they miss many of the gifts of life.

Second, this child is born into a culture or family where performance is highly valued and mistakes are intolerable. It is imperative to keep up appearances and never slip out of control. This culture sounds like what I see when I look around many neighborhoods, schools and families in the U.S.invulnerable teen boy

Coping

When the biological and environmental influences mix they can foster coping mechanisms involving high levels of self-control. People who over control tend to avoid risks so they don’t make mistakes or stand out. They control the expression of their emotions by suppressing reaction or showing a non-genuine version of how they feel.

Another sign of over control is a fixed mindset. When someone is so controlled in their thinking and actions, they are often not open to new information.

Consequences of over control 

The coping mechanisms of over control often lead to social problems. Those with OC send out poor social signals. Have you ever felt anxious or uncomfortable around someone who wears a fake smile or who exhibits a neutral or serious face all the time? Our brains are designed to find unfriendly faces and get away from them. This is a natural survival instinct.

Which one is the real smile? Answer at bottom of post.

Emotions and vulnerability serve as connectors between people. Those who withhold expression and openness have a hard time creating intimacy with others. This can lead to isolation and depression.

Radical openness

Dr. Lynch has created a therapy treatment to help those who over-control. He and his colleagues call it Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy or RO-DBT. It focuses on teaching the excessively self-controlled how to send out more connecting and friendly social signals. One theory is that activating our neurological safety systems is a way to loosen the reins of over-control.

There is a manual on RO DBT coming out February of 2018 (according to Amazon). I have already ordered it, so plan on at least one future post on how to temper the need to over control.

Are you an introvert who over controls? Do you know someone who has to stay in perfect control? How does over controlling affect your relationships? 

 

**Answer to fake smile question: The smile on the left is genuine. 

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5 Comments

  1. Chris Young October 29, 2017 at 4:35 am - Reply

    Interestingly I am an absolute Spock when it comes to emotional control but I can’t say that I come from the kind of background you describe.

    My wife and kids actually bought me one of those Spock t-shirts with the same flat facial expression linked to 6 different and quite extreme emotions on it. I am constantly baffled by my wife asking “Are you OK?” When I’m just getting on with what needs to be done without expressing any emotion about it. I see no need to express emotion and find adults who can’t contain theirs more than slightly childish.

    I am also highly sensitive to criticism and will go to enormous lengths to avoid it.

    However, I don’t come from a perfectionist family background. My mother is certainly like me, as was her father, but there was no sense during my childhood that failure was unacceptable or that there was constant pressure to achieve. Successes were certainly celebrated but failures were not occasions for judgment. There was always love and support.

    There are times, I’ll admit, when I’d like to be able to access and express my emotions more freely but it just doesn’t seem to work for me.

    Perhaps I need to pre-order the book

    • Brenda Knowles October 29, 2017 at 9:55 am - Reply

      Interesting. Thanks for commenting Chris. Nothing is ever absolute. I’m glad you shared your experience and family background. It seems like your family growing up was supportive just not particularly emotive. That probably feels comfortable to you. It sounds like you get focused and don’t see the need for emotional expression.
      If you want to get more in touch with your emotions, start by getting in touch with different bodily sensations. Pause throughout the day and see where you feel any tension or pain. Then move to sensing emotions and naming them throughout the day. Just taking time to reflect on what’s going on internally, gives you self-awareness that can lead to empathy and connecting with others.
      Of course, I still recommend you order my book. 🙂

  2. michaelrbuley September 26, 2017 at 2:08 pm - Reply

    for me, it seems I only get angry when I feel under attack. Being hypersensitive to negative, I basically avoid it at all costs. When I can’t, I get angry. Sometimes not right away. I may hear what someone is saying — I really only have these issues with my wife — and listen and take it in. A day or two later, I feel my response to it.

    Negative is my bane. Negative people my bane. I have no walls that I can detect, so I feel everything. It’s like a constant kind of onslaught of everything. Anger is like being cut. Criticism is like being cut. Sometimes it feels like death by a thousand cuts. So my defense, is anger. I can’t say I like it. I do understand it. I explain it, clearly. I am articulate about what I need and don’t. With my wife, for reasons I will likely never understand, she either doesn’t explain what I am explaining very simply, or she gets it, and too bad for me, basically. It’s all just bizarre. But I see me for who I am, and all of it much more clearly.

    things said in anger can be very hurtful. things I say, someone else says.

    to me, the key to getting past it is simply, though not always simply, acknowledging how you have hurt the one you love. and apologizing. seeing it on your own, realizing it, speaking it, apologizing. and not keep doing the same thing over and over.

    i think i can forgive anything. i have made many mistakes, hurt many people. i understand we all do. to really realize what we have done, apologize sincerely, things can heal. but if the realization isn’t there, and the apology, then it continues.

    As far as Carmen and me … I think she has given the divorce papers to the lawyer. it has been a long, hard road for each of us. She is a good and beautiful woman. I will always think of her as I did from the start: beautiful, brilliant, with a magnificent heart. we all have our stuff. it is a hard life. beautiful, and hard. it seems more now than in times past. more confusion over who we are. men confused about being a man. women confused about being a woman.

    hopefully we can keep coming back to a place of kindness toward ourselves, and others.

    and laughter in there, too!! lol …

    thanks, Brenda.

    michael

  3. michaelrbuley September 22, 2017 at 6:12 pm - Reply

    wow. what an interesting post.

    overcontrol is exactly what my wife is. it’s like i can’t reach her. i can’t find her. i can’t see her. excited? doesn’t show it. Angry? doesn’t show it. feels it, doesn’t show it.

    we talked at some length earlier about that very thing. how if you can’t express anger — i mean express it, let it out — then you cannot express joy and ecstasy and excitement. they go hand in hand. you cannot repress anger and frustration, and NOT repress joy and excitement. they are one and the same.

    we are taught to be in control, etc. etc. etc. And we are dying on the inside in the meantime. Those repressed parts of us will, eventually, destroy us if they are not heard. they destroy our spirit, if not some key aspect of our lives — like the relationships we are in, or the businesses we might run.

    Carmen grew up in a very hostile world. Very hostile and dangerous, physically and in every way. She could NOT let her emotions out. She had to be hard and firm and serious and she had to protect herself and siblings. She fails to understand how much it crippled her ability to know and feel and express joy and real tenderness and passion and excitement. And anger.

    Jung named the shadow self. We fear it. And that is a shame. Because when we invite ALL of our emotions into the light, and we are with them … when we hear them, feel them, don’t judge them … they dissipate. Just like our joy also dissipates after awhile. NOTHING stays constant. We may act like we are ‘constant’ in our ‘approach to life’ and ‘how we deal with things.’ to that I say b.s. Inside, we all churn with every emotion under the sun.

    We judge anger. It is bad. But it’s not. ‘Get hold of yourself, calm down.’ No, i say. Get upset. Get angry. Go with it. Be with it. Because I know that if you do … you’ll come soon enough to a very different place. A very beautiful place.

    And we judge excitement. ‘Calm down, calm down’ … instead of yes, get excited, this is awesome and wonderful and you are awesome and wonderful!

    We judge who WE are … and so we judge others.

    we suppress what we call ‘the negative ones,’ and appear to be oblivious to what we are doing to ourselves: we are killing ourselves. And it is not, from my view, overly dramatic, or even dramatic, to say we are killing ourselves when we deny and repress our emotions.

    I get angry. i mean pissed. And then … it passes. Always. And then i have a completely different view. I see the light, the beauty. And that, too, passes. And I see the dark and the fears and all of it. I descend into total inadequacy, and my anger is triggered easily. And it passes.

    We are, I believe, like the seasons of life itself. We are life itself. But we try not to be like life itself, which we are.

    We deny our seasons. We deny our changes in weather. We storm. We beam bright warm light. We are icy cold, like winter. We are steaming hot like summer. We are calm and blue skies like autumn days. We are all of it. And all of it passes. And comes again. And over and over and over.

    I welcome someone’s anger. Yes, let it out. Be it. Be with it. Don’t mind me if I get angry, too. Then … let’s let it pass. let’s not criticize or denigrate someone for his or her anger. Understand it is just who we are. Like the weather.

    We don’t blame the seasons. We don’t blame freezing cold weather. We don’t get angry at it. It is life. It passes.

    We don’t get angry at the hot weather in the summer. It is the weather. We work with it. We accept it. It’s NOT PERSONAL.

    But someone’s moods? omg … it’s almost always personal.

    I told Carmen, when I get angry … don’t run. Stay with me in the storm. Do not run.

    But she runs. Today, I was very angry. Her response? I’m leaving, moving away, quitting school, I can’t deal with this.

    Minutes afterwards, it had passed. We got together and talked. about all of this that you have posted about. She feels anger, and won’t show it. And she feels passion, and cannot show it. I said you cannot repress anger, and not repress other key parts of you — parts of actually being alive.

    I don’t trust people who can’t get angry. They’re stuffing a ton of stuff. It’s very, very unhealthy — body wise and spirit wise.

    I would rather have someone say, ‘I am super pissed at you because of this!’ and tell me what, and be super pissed … than go … ‘Well, I thought about what you said, and here’s what I think and feel’ in an always calm, collected place. Don’t think about what I said, don’t tell me what you THINK. tell me what you FEEL. feel it. be it. be it with me. whatever it is.

    Don’t run when someone gets angry. It’s just their weather. Don’t run when someone is cold. It’s just their weather. Don’t run, angry and hurt then, when their weather becomes warm and loving. Which it will always do. No one is angry all the time — unless .. unless no one will love them when they are angry, and not run.

    I of course am not in any way shape or form, condoning anger that becomes violence. We must have clear lines. That’s not the anger I am talking about.

    But don’t run in fear at my anger … because it passes, and then I will shift, soon after, to its opposite. Skies storm and rain and pour down and it’s cold … and they clear, and it’s blue skies and warm and soft. This isn’t just weather. It is who WE are. And in turn, I won’t run from your anger. I will be with you in it. But you must be open and naked and vulnerable — which is what we are when we are angry. Very naked. Consumed with our anger. The only time anger will stay, and grow, will be when it is unloved and unseen and rejected as ‘bad.’ Anger is not bad. Anger is its own beauty, as bitterly cold winters are their own beauty.

    I told Carmen, if you need someone who is moderate, it is not me. I feel intensely. Everything. Anger, intensely. Passion, intensely. Love and lust and kindness and supportive, intensely. But you don’t get one, without the other. Not with me. And I don’t want to be with someone who is moderate. I can’t be. I am the full range of emotions. I need someone who is, who at least wants to be, who will open and be vulnerable.

    You know, volcanoes blow up. things burn down. Fires come, things burn down. Anger is like a fire. It can burn things down. But … it doesn’t have to destroy things. Not destroy US. Not destroy a relationship. Things are burned away. And new things grow in their place. Always. Life is that way. New life comes. Always. If we don’t run and abandon everything.

    A series of tapes I listened to years ago was called ‘The Erotic Life of a woman.’ It was fascinating. She was fascinating. Her voice was soft, gentle, strong.

    she said life is a cycle of life, death, and life, and death. Of course that is life. and what we often fail to embrace, is that that is who WE are. WE are constantly being born, and living, and bursting forth … and we die … and we are born again, something new now. Something beautiful.

    But for us to be who we are, we must be in an environment, with people, who understand and embrace ALL of who they are, and we embrace all of who they are … and we embrace life and death and life and death …

    truly all so staggeringly beautiful … and we are in a world that becomes more and more muted, and drugged, and unfeeling, and closed off. To stay alive, truly alive … there is no task more important in this life. More and more people are what I call ‘the walking dead.’ Bodies alive, spirits long since dead. Emotions, honest feelings, repressed and stuffed and killed. And in killing them, we kill our joy and love and zest and passion and lust and excitement.

    Longer than usual post, Brenda … lol .. I love you for giving me this space, and others, too. I love you for being vulnerable and open and questioning and hurting and aching and being angry and crying and laughing and loving and lusting until you burst … with all of who you are.

    Thank you … from my bursting highly sensitive heart and soul and mind, to yours … thank you.

    Michael

    • Brenda Knowles September 25, 2017 at 1:56 pm - Reply

      I’ve always had an intense discomfort and fear maybe of anger in other people. I really hate it in myself. I feel so much shame if I get angry with my children. I agree, it is an emotion we all feel and should express. But when I feel it from others or express it too boldly myself, I get a very dark, heavy feeling. I want to give others the freedom to express it. Perhaps there is a way they can blow off steam and then return to calm, which I wouldn’t find so unsettling. The things said in an outburst of anger, feel like the truth to me and can be very hurtful. I even sense anger from others, without them expressing it outwardly. I can feel the seething. I’m trying to rewire my circuitry now by striving to see and feel anger as a natural reaction that blows over. I think it truly depends on how safe I feel in a relationship prior to the outburst. My boyfriend rarely gets angry. I actually want him to show some anger sometime. I know it’s not good to stuff emotions. I believe I would still feel safe with him if he raged a little, because I feel emotionally safe with him all the time now.
      We need our emotions for sure. Darwin studied them extensively. Is said somewhere emotions evolved to help us communicate. They are vital, but our culture has us squelching them all the time. Perhaps that’s why mood altering drugs are on the rise. It’s as you said, unnatural to not show emotions. They rise and fall like the weather. Thanks for your input Michael. I hope your Carmen learns to show her feelings and feel really alive.

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