I’d grown up being called ‘sensitive’ by my parents and teachers. At school other kids didn’t know how to connect with me. I was shy so they either included me or excluded me depending on their mood at the time. I learnt that when I made a friend, at any time, that friendship could end for what seemed like no reason at all. I learned how to put on a mask, one that showed ‘I’m Ok’, ‘I don’t need anyone’, ‘I know what I’m doing’, ‘I don’t need to fit in’.
I always thought that I was empathetic to everyone else’s needs and emotions, I was the best at listening to others, staying quiet and not interrupting, making sure that everyone was looked after. Seemingly simple things like making sure everyone had drinks, food, gifts.I’d keep up with current songs/movies/TV shows, all to keep the attention off of me, kept the emotions surface level and directed them to ‘things’ rather than the person providing it, Me.
When I hear of people who talk about being emotionally unavailable, I often think of someone like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, the ‘walking, talking computer’ who cannot feel emotions. There is a scale for coping with things, and every one is different. Everyone has different coping mechanisms for their life, for their emotions, for their relationships. There are patterns and a scale. Sheldon is at one end of the spectrum, but there are others along the way.
Whose parents went to school to learn how to raise children?
When we were born, no matter the family or people who we were brought up by, how many parents or guardians learned about emotions? How many went to school on how to bring up children? No many, right? I try to believe that everyone does the best they can with the resources and skills they have, and so many people are working it out as they go along. We make mistakes and keep going.
If you are a parent or knows someone with kids, you may have experienced moments of noticing that the things you say or do are being picked up by your kids. When and how you are happy, how and when you get angry or frustrated, how you are around people you know, people you don’t know and how you interact with your emotions.
As a very young child we learn by watching others, the people around us play a massive role in how we interpret, learn from and interact with different situations. My brother and I both heard the same words growing up, at Easter when we received easter eggs we were told ‘When it’s gone, it’s gone’. I would eat my chocolate eggs as quickly as possible so that the temptation was removed.
My brother saved his easter eggs and often had them still a year later when the next Easter was coming around. Same words, different interpretations. Neither was wrong or right, just different. Those interpretations then impact how we grow up, another thing we were told was ‘Don’t talk to strangers’. My brother, who is very social and connects easily with people, spent his youth with friends meeting new people through introductions and acquaintances. He will give most people a chance and once meeting them, will work out if they are someone he gets along with.
I interpreted ‘Don’t talk to strangers’ as ‘Be scared of everyone because everyone is a stranger’. I was shy growing up and didn’t talk to new people (unless I was at work where it was ‘safe’). I never learnt how to develop the skills to connect with people, work out who to continue a relationship with.
Along the way I started to protect myself from others. I shut down my emotions around new people, and around friends and family. They didn’t understand me. On my own I would cry, laugh, dance around the room, get excited and disappointed, feel shame and guilt. From time to time I would be sad and cry, I’d be happy and laugh and most of the time people thought it was too much, I was too sad, I was too happy. I started to show just enough surface level emotions, just enough to fit in, to be ‘Normal’.
My emotions were stacking up, like a wall protecting me from getting hurt
I didn’t know how to open up about what was actually happening for me. I was too scared to share with my parents, brother, partner, friends, work colleagues. I was scared that if they knew what was actually going on for me that I’d lose my job, my friends, my family would treat me differently. I didn’t understand at the time that all my experiences with different emotions were stacking up, like an emotional wall protecting me from getting hurt.
By not being real with who I was, not being real with the emotions that I was feeling, I thought that I was fitting in and that was the best way to live. I was missing out on so much though. It took time to learn how to face the uncomfortability of tough conversations about what was going on for me. Not better than it was, not worse than it was… just as it was. The more I felt in control of my emotions, the safer I felt to express myself to my friends, partner, family, work colleagues and the more I could increase and deepen the connections I felt emotionally. I didn’t realise how much I was missing out on by keeping so much to myself.
It was only years later that I learnt how to change my old belief, to be scared of strangers. Now I connect with people easily, know more about who I am, what I want and how to build amazing relationships. The positive moments are incredible and the negative moments are still there, but because I’m ok sharing them or letting people know that I have stuff going on and not hiding it. Also, the negative moments don’t last as long.
Start Small So It’s Not Scary
As I opened up to people close to me, trust developed, the connection deepened and through sharing our fears, our successes, our failures and goals, I learned to trust myself. It was only when I trusted myself that I can now open up emotionally to the people around me, even new people sometimes.
Everyone is going through their own experience of life and working it out for themselves. Sometimes it’s through hearing about how others are struggling, or where they have been, that we can work out who to learn from, who can help us make the way a little easier. It begins with one step… a baby step. Writing in a journal, reading an article, going for a walk, talking to one friend, making a phone call, realising we are doing the best we can in each moment and continuing to grow in our understanding and belief in ourselves.