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Why We Hide Emotional Pain

Strong people won't let themselves cry, right?

Key points

  • Men are often afraid that divulging wounded feelings will compromise their masculinity.
  • Women often worry that disclosing their emotional distress may lead them to be told they're "too sensitive."
  • Being able to self-soothe and self-validate in the lack of external reassurance can help a person hold their emotional ground.
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Who hasn't had the experience of asking someone whether anything is wrong—for it's blatantly obvious from their expression or tone of voice that they're upset—only to have them respond, "No, I'm fine"? In such instances, clearly they're not fine but retreating into themselves to avoid a dialogue they fear might end up making them feel worse.

Tendencies toward denial, withdrawal, and self-isolation are common in reaction to deeply felt emotional pain. In fact, one clue that a person is feeling distressed may be in their becoming unusually quiet or shut down. Such silence speaks volumes, and generally the message is, "I'm not going to risk you hurting me more than you already have ... so I'm putting a wall between us." On the contrary, it's also possible that the individual might suddenly become fidgety, restless, or hyper—attempting through activity to distract themselves from the hurt your words or behavior (however inadvertently) have caused them. Or they might unexpectedly lose their appetite, or start eating voraciously to "stuff" their feelings or numb their pain. And so on. After all, we have at our disposal all sorts of defenses to protect us from hurting.

The Many Varieties of Emotional Pain

Before going further, let's summarize all the different experiences associated with keenly felt emotional pain. Though the list below doesn't aim to be exhaustive, it probably includes most of the self-referencing assumptions or interpretations that lead to emotional wounding. All of these items relate to feeling, or somehow being made to feel:

  • Unworthy or worthless
  • Disapproved of, invalidated, or rejected
  • Not listened to or understood
  • Like a non-entity, or invisible
  • Unloved, not cared about, or wanted
  • Insulted, disparaged, disrespected, distrusted, devalued, or discounted
  • Aggressed against, taken advantage of, betrayed
  • Inadequate, defective, incompetent, behind the curve, inferior or looked down upon, unacceptable
  • Slow, stupid, foolish, or silly; contemptible
  • Dishonorable or cowardly
  • Embarrassed or humiliated
  • Weak, helpless, or defenseless
  • Undeserving of time, attention, or recognition
  • Like a failure; "loser"
  • Guilty, shameful, or a bad person generally

Why We Try to Conceal Hurt Feelings

There are many different reasons that we may endeavor to hide, or disguise, the emotional pain that comes in the wake of negative beliefs about ourselves evoked by a particular person or situation. But what they have in common is that they're all fear-induced.

Perhaps paramount among our tendencies to conceal our emotional fragility from others is the fear that exposing it would make us look weak to them—and, indeed, make us feel weak and powerless ourselves. We assume that frankly disclosing our hurt feelings would betray our susceptibility to them—and thus define ourselves as "one down" in the relationship, with all that might imply about placing them in a position to exploit us or take advantage of us. It's as though in "exhibiting" our hurt we're forfeiting our personal power, relinquishing it to them to use over us in any way they deem fit.

There are probably some sexual differences here, too. Men, for example, are especially likely to avoid divulging wounded feelings for fear that doing so will compromise their felt sense of masculinity. And in fact they may have been made fun of as children for whimpering, weeping, or wailing. I've worked with many male clients who've talked about how they were tagged "sissies," "wimps"—even (horrors!) "girlies"—when in growing up they weren't able to suppress their softer, more tender emotions. In such cases, it becomes a matter of personal pride not to let others know they have within them a "soft underbelly" quite susceptible to others' words and actions. To them, keeping a stiff upper lip, and under no circumstances exposing their tender side, attests to their fortitude, "backbone"—an essential masculine strength.

Women, on the other hand, are much more likely to worry that disclosing their emotional distress may lead them to be told (particularly by their spouse) that they're too "thin-skinned"—or, more commonly, "too sensitive" (which, literally, adds insult to injury). To examine another unfortunate aspect of this situation, men frequently react to their spouse's tears with considerable discomfort, even anger. However unconsciously, their partner's emotional outpouring makes them feel guilty, or at least responsible. And beyond this, if as children to show their more fragile emotions was to be harshly judged or ridiculed, they may experience an irresistible need to emotionally distance themselves from their wives whenever their partner exhibits the kind of behavior they can't help but identify with their own parents' disapproval and rejection.

Independent of our early experiences, most of us are concerned that revealing hurt feelings might lead others to react negatively. And we certainly don't want to risk turning anyone off by such "displays" of vulnerability. Nor do we wish to be viewed as childish—or, at worst, pathetic—because, seemingly at least, we've lost control over our emotions. (As a caveat, however, I should add that it does make sense—and at times may be imperative—to avoid exposing emotional vulnerability in various professional situations.)

If we're codependent (i.e., feeling more responsible for the feelings of others than for our own), we may also fear that freely expressing our emotions could launch some kind of emotional contagion. Afraid that openly letting out our hurt might somehow be infectious, we may hold it in, unwilling to take the chance of making anyone else upset.

And then there's the fear that fully releasing our emotional pain might make us look ridiculous, or in some way abnormal. What if others don't—or can't—understand why we're in such pain, or grasp its magnitude? Will we not look foolish to have unconstrainedly let out our feelings? At the very least we might feel awkward and embarrassed, concerned that our uninhibited "emoting" might lead others to take us less seriously than they might have otherwise. We certainly don't want to be perceived as overreactive, and so have our feelings discounted or dismissed.

The bottom line here is that we don't trust that others (or our "significant" other) will—by responding to our open-heartedness in caring, supportive ways—safeguard or validate our vulnerability. Additionally, we may not trust ourselves to successfully cope with their response, whatever it is. And, assuming we're in self-protective mode, we're certainly not going to offer them the opportunity to make us feel any worse than we may already be feeling.

Perhaps the final irony in all this is that, culturally, it's considered stoical to hold in our more tender emotions. Not to show vulnerability is typically viewed as a strength, a "demonstration" of character. But in reality, the major motives for hiding our emotions are (as I've already indicated) fear-based. We're just afraid to look weak or susceptible to others. Paradoxically, though, unashamedly disclosing our vulnerability can actually be a deliberate personal statement of both sensitivity and, yes, courage (see my three-part post "The Power to Be Vulnerable").

So What’s to Be Done?

Having explored many of the reasons why we hide our emotional pain from others, in closing I’d like to suggest the primary reason not to. In brief, if we don’t let others know that what they’ve said or done has hurt us, they’re likely to continue doing exactly what they have been. For typically the main cause of their inflicting emotional pain on us is their being insufficiently sensitive to—or aware of—our soft spots. Maybe not always, but most of the time their motives aren’t at all vindictive or malignant.

Consequently, if we truly want to make others more attuned to our vulnerable feelings, we need to manifest them physically and express them verbally. Finally, we can’t blame others much for their insensitivity toward us. Their level of sensitivity is simply where they are right now. And so, ultimately, it’s our responsibility to assist them in becoming more aware of and responsive to our feelings. Unless we’re willing to go out on an emotional limb and reveal our vulnerability, they may never be able to cultivate the empathy and support we crave from them. Undoubtedly, if we want them to make every effort to better comprehend where we’re especially raw and tender, they need our feedback and guidance far more than they do our silence and emotional withdrawal.

Still, unless we’re able to develop the ability to self-soothe and self-validate (again, see my “The Power to be Vulnerable” series) in the absence of external reassurance or comforting, it’s probably not going to be tenable for us, unabashedly, to discharge our feelings. It’s absolutely key that we not so much grow a thicker skin (though this might help!) but become determined and resolute enough to hold our emotional ground; confident that we have within us what can make it safe to express hurtful feelings. For (1) they’re an essential part of who we are, (2) letting them out really can’t victimize us unless we let ourselves be at the effect of another’s reactions, and (3) we’re now able to regard our feelings as valid, independent of anyone else’s response.

© 2011 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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