Emotional blocks in adults can be traced to childhood rejection
Nathan, a 27-year-old lawyer, is considered the rising star of his firm. 'People assume I must be extremely happy because I'm successful.' But Jasmine, his long-term girlfriend, is increasingly unhappy with him, he says. She complains that he is distant and doesn't show his emotions except when drunk.
'Frankly, I don't feel much inside. I don't love my work, nor do I hate it,' Nathan says. 'At least being a lawyer, I feel certain that I can look after myself financially. I don't really know what happiness means, either. Well, my dad's version of happiness is that you have enough money to enjoy things you want in life. Perhaps I have subscribed to this.'
Nathan has been in a mild depressive state for a long time. His emotional numbness today is a result of rejection and insecurity during childhood. He recalled being very attached to his mother, but his father taught him that expressing emotions was a sign of weakness and immaturity in a boy. So, to be accepted by his father, he learned to contain his feelings.
'My father used to get angry and ridiculed me whenever I cried. He believed boarding school would help me become more independent, so I was sent to Britain at age 11. I was miserable at the start, and later I just learned to get on,' he says. 'The first two months in boarding school, I was desperately homesick. I was promised I could go home at the first term break. Instead, my father dropped by to see me briefly. When I mentioned going home, I was told off for being stubborn and too clingy towards Mum.'
Nathan's way of acting independent as he got older was to become self-sufficient, to never ask for help and not need anyone. This coping mechanism has become second nature to him.
'Since boarding school, I've been groomed to pursue law. I thought this would pave my way to independence,' Nathan says.
All parents want to see their children grow up and become independent, but prematurely forcing a child to be independent can do more harm than good. Genuine independence is rooted in security and self-confidence. A sense of security is built from an early age, with a child feeling at ease to form attachments and depend on parents who offer acceptance and guidance without demands.
Being able to seek reassurance from parents in times of crisis or fear helps children regain stability and feel secure. Nathan was reluctant to seek support from his parents, and felt he had only himself to count on. His frequent crying as a child was his only outlet for pent-up emotions.
Since Nathan's security and confidence were not firmly built upon the trust and reliance of his parents, he tries to control himself and his environment to ensure some form of certainty in his life. His boarding school training reinforced such self-inhibiting behaviour.
Nathan put a great deal of his energy into his schooling and, later, in his career. However, his success has not decreased his insecurity as he expected. Ironically, as he becomes more successful and involved in his relationship, he fears that he has progressively more to lose, and his need to be in control is perpetuated. When he senses any problems in the relationship, he shuts down.
Nathan needs to recognise that his numbness, insecurity and depressive mood are intertwined. The tight control over his emotions keeps him isolated. He must stop hiding behind success and disguising his fear of rejection and insecurity. He has to be less critical of himself. He should begin by acknowledging his fear and opening up to his girlfriend. Since Nathan has been suffering from mild depression for some time, he needs to avoid using alcohol to cope with his mood swings.
Parents need to understand their children to be able to relate to them effectively. Avoid labelling children as weak, slow and so on. Patience and encouragement will help build trust and security. When children are not fearful of being rejected, judged or punished for mistakes or asking seemingly naive questions, they are more likely to reach out to communicate with parents.
(Note: This is a reconstruction based on actual cases.)
Cathy Tsang-Feign is an American licensed psychotherapist practising in Hong Kong. For more information, visit www.cathyfeign.com