Most people are familiar with the term anorexia. When they hear the term they think of an eating disorder. People can also suffer from emotional anorexia. I see emotional anorexia as being unable to feel or deal with emotions, ranging from day to day “normal” emotions, all the way to crisis or “major” emotions.
Emotional anorexia generally starts in childhood and carries on and gets worse as a person ages. It develops as a defense mechanism to help a child deal with rough, painful, and traumatic experiences. All children have different ways of dealing with difficult experiences growing up. Some children “shut down” their emotions. They finally decide at some point that it is easier to not feel than to continue to feel painful emotions. Sometimes this process happens slowly and more subconsciously, and some people actually remember the moment they decide to turn off feelings.
Turning off and not feeling does work to not feel pain, but it is not without side effects. You may not have to feel pain or sadness when you are in difficult periods of your life, but you also miss out on feeling good emotions. We cannot just turn off “bad” feelings and leave the rest; our brains do not work that way. When turning off emotions to try not to feel all of the emotions are turned off. You miss out on happiness and joy even in the most significant of occasions. Another side effect is not being able to be fully intimate or connected with your spouse. If you are not connected with yourself and the feelings that are inside of you, there is no way to be completely connected to another person. Your spouse will feel it! Not at first of course, but over the years it will become painful and difficult on your relationship.
So what types of situations may cause a child to shut off feelings or emotions? A man in his 40’s who when looking back at his childhood talks about the overly critical nature of his father. After each baseball game he ever played his dad would talk about what he didn’t do right on the way home. He never heard “good job” or “way to go.” He even said he remembered the day he decided he would rather not feel at all than to continue to feel sad that his dad did not believe in him. Another man grew up with an alcoholic mother. His house was always chaotic. He had no control over anything that happened around him. The one thing he could control was his emotions. A “no one is going to rattle me” type attitude developed. To successfully do that, he had to shut down all emotions.
It does make sense as to why a child’s brain may do this. Children do not have the brain capacity to deal with painful situations or traumatic events. To turn off emotions is a defense mechanism to help us get through to adulthood. The issue is the defense mechanism does not just go away as we age. It works great in childhood, but tends to hurt our relationships in adulthood.
To turn emotions back on after years of being turned off can be scary. Many feel like once they open that dam, it will be hard to stop. Although this may be true, the results are well worth it. Being connected and feeling emotions may open you up to feel pain, but it also allows you to feel joy and be connected in relationships. Well worth the work!