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Comfortably Numb: 6 Signs of Emotional Inhibition Schema

Emotional numbness drains life of meaning and fulfillment. But it can be undone.

Key points

  • Emotional inhibition schema is a condition of subconsciously numbing emotion, with the implied belief that emotions are a problem.
  • Growing up in a family where showing emotion led to being punished, hurt, ridiculed, exploited, or neglected is one source of this schema.
  • Even as an adult, becoming more open to feelings takes patience, curiosity, and humility.
shutterstock/vectormine
With practice and care, you can reconnect with your emotions.
Source: shutterstock/vectormine

This post is one part of the Schemas: An Introductory series of 18 posts, covering each of the 18 schemas outlined originally by Jeffrey Young. See this post for more background on the definition of schemas, which I call the "DNA” of your personality.

Emotional inhibition schema is a condition of subconsciously numbing emotion, with the implied belief that emotions are a problem, cause pain and vulnerability, and should be avoided. It often results from childhood experiences in which emotion was poorly received by caregivers. Schema therapy is one of a few types of psychotherapy that can help. Below are several self-help skills.

Has it been a long time since you can honestly say that, aside from anxiety, you felt a strong emotion in response to relationships or life events? You might feel that life is “serious” and you have things to take care of instead of dealing with feelings. Sure, you may be avoiding unpleasant feelings, but that means you miss out on love and affection, too. But you also may sense that you’re missing out on experiences most people have. You may have emotional numbness or, in schema therapy, what we call emotional inhibition schema.

6 Signs of Emotional Inhibition Schema

  1. Often feeling flat, serious, or empty.
  2. Feeling emotion “isn’t your style.”
  3. Avoiding situations where others are expressing emotion or avoiding opportunities to express emotion.
  4. Frustrating loved ones by being “uptight” or detached, “like a robot.”
  5. Hiding emotion or feeling emotion only when you are “safely” away from others.
  6. Only feeling emotion in nonpersonal ways, such as through watching TV, films, or clichéd TV commercials.

Origins of Emotional Inhibition Schema

Most neurotypical people are emotional creatures by nature, meaning emotion naturally springs from the body in reaction to needs, relationships, and events. But at an early age, you may have had to adapt to a situation in which the outward expression of emotion was ignored or punished. You may have had family members who were emotionally inhibited themselves.

For a child, this becomes an unspoken experience of learning to metabolize emotion out of your conscious experience or, at minimum, push it into a private place where feelings are only meant to happen when alone.

Origins of emotional inhibition schema include the following:

  • Growing up in a family context in which showing emotion often led to being punished, hurt, ridiculed, exploited, or neglected.
  • Having parents or families where everyone was detached.
  • Growing up with caregivers who had addiction issues or alcoholism.
  • Growing up and living with structural violence and social dehumanization.

With some practice, you can access your emotion underneath this inhibition.

But bear in mind, there are other causes of emotional numbness. You may need to do further research to be sure it’s not a symptom of a serious mental health issue such as posttraumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, depersonalization, a current situation of abuse or neglect, substance abuse, or part of other symptoms of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or depression. If in doubt, consult a mental health professional.

How to Overcome Emotional Inhibition Schema

Before getting into some self-help tips, it’s important to consider that you may have avoided emotion for good reasons at the time. And now, the prospect of becoming more open to emotion is a new process that involves patience, practice, and self-care.

  • Consider your past. Schemas form as a way of adapting. So it’s likely that you formed this schema for good reasons in your childhood. Journal about ways that your childhood experience made expressing emotion seem problematic.
  • Use third-person narrative. Start a feelings journal and work your way up to making daily entries. If you have trouble noting your feelings, try writing your day like it was the story of a character in a novel. What is the story in these events? What would a person in this situation likely feel? This will help you keep asking what you’re feeling, to build awareness and curiosity.
  • Read fiction. Fiction by nature is about empathy for characters. For this, I’m a fan of American Marriage by Tayari Jones or Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. But read what you relate to.
  • Pay attention to films and TV where character motivation is driven by emotional needs and feelings—maybe "Schitt's Creek," "Pose," and the original "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
  • Use a feelings wheel. The feelings wheel is a chart with color-coordinated names for a broad spectrum of human emotion. Just like learning language for scents or tastes, you can build a vocabulary to describe feelings. This can be easily found online.
  • Learn about boundaries. Overcoming emotional inhibition involves setting boundaries and thinking about how to be vulnerable: Numbness is a wall; healthy boundaries are a door. Boundaries help you manage vulnerability and feel secure but open.
  • Practice sharing emotions with people who care. As you develop new awareness of emotion, you’ll be able to share your needs with loved ones. Start small and trust yourself with new feelings of vulnerability.
  • Attend to your emotions with care, validation, nurturing, and security. Once you become aware of your feelings, it’s up to you to care for them!

We all learn how to feel, validate, and manage emotion as part of the process of growing up. So, even as an adult, becoming more open to feelings can have ups and downs, and takes patience, curiosity, and being humble and kind to yourself and others.

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