One of the biggest issues for many people with emotional difficulties is that there are people in their lives - the vast majority of whom have their own huge ‘emotional issues’ – that they just can’t talk to, in any real way.
Now, if these people are distant cousins, the paperboy, a colleague who works in the Australian office of your company, that’s not such a big deal. But when these people are very close to you – say, parents, or siblings, or your spouse, or your best friend – then it can begin to cause some enormous issues.
Because being able to honestly express your feelings, even when you disagree with someone, or don’t want to do what they’re asking you, is a fundamental part of a healthy relationship.
Open and honest discussions about right and wrong, suitable or unsuitable, what you really WANT and what you really DON’T WANT are the hallmarks of emotionally healthy connections to others.
By contrast, when you feel too scared, guilted, ashamed, criticized, disdained, blamed or mocked to be able to express your own views about things honestly, that can cause you a lot of emotional difficulties. I’ll explore this side of things more in other articles, but suffice to say that feeling that your deepest needs and desires are being ignored, steam-rollered or refused contributes a great deal to a sense of helplessness, impotence, despair, and not being ‘seen’ or cared for.
These are the hallmarks of emotional neglect, and when it’s a parent that’s doing the ignoring, disdaining, criticizing and shaming, it can be absolutely devastating to their child’s sense of self.
If the child feels they can’t stand up for themselves (because their point of view is never validated, accepted or responded to); and they can’t run away from the person who’s making them feel worthless and ‘invisible’ (which they can’t, because they’re a child) – then they respond by crumpling down emotionally into a state of emotional paralysis and despair (aka, the ‘freeze’ physiological response) which is the basis of clinical depression.
'FREEZE' = CLINICAL DEPRESSION
‘Freeze’ is what happens when you can’t fight or flight your way out of a direct threat to your sense of personhood, and personal integrity and safety. To go into psych-speak for a moment, it’s what happens when you’re faced with an inescapable shock that causes you to lose your sense of agency, aka, your feeling that you can control your life and what happens to you, and affect outcomes in a positive way.
‘Freeze’ is the last emotional stop, psychologically-speaking. It means that a person has practically shut down on a number of levels, and can lead to all sorts of symptoms and issues including dissociation, physical and emotional ‘numbness’, feeling unreal, feeling nothing, feeling despairing, down and even suicidal, feeling permanently stressed and anxious, and any number of somatic physical aches, pains and issues.
The first step out of ‘Freeze’ is to go back into the fight-or-flight response that was somehow thwarted, but this time to act on the impulse and regain your sense of agency. Flight can mean that you hang up the phone when someone starts to say horrible things to you, or walk away from the restaurant or meeting if someone starts to treat you in a cruel manner. Depending on who that is, and how it’s going to impact your life, that’s certainly one option and sometimes the best one.
However, there is another alternative: fight back.
But NOT in person, where you may be risking a hugely unpleasant altercation (especially if you’re dealing with an emotionally-unstable individual), or even physical injury or other risks to your safety, reputation and status.
The key is to have the conversation, and to say everything you need to say to the person or people in question to restore your sense of agency, but to do it in the safety of your own head.
I know it sounds strange, but visualisations work so well because the emotional part of the human brain can’t tell the difference between an imagined scene (such as a traumatic flashback or nightmare, or a moving film clip) and a real experience.
The key is to put this power of imagination to use in restoring your sense of agency, giving voice to your impulse to defend yourself and fight back, and springing you out of the ‘freeze’ physiological state of being, in the process. And I’ll tell you exactly how to do this in the next post.