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.
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.
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.
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.
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.