Jen hasn’t talked to her brother in years, but she also has friends who she has emotionally cut-off. Why? Because she gets fed up, tired of x, that’s the last straw, and I’m done, we’re done.
Anne recently and suddenly quit her new job. She tells her friends that it was just not a good fit, but truth be told, she felt overwhelmed. The learning curve seemed too steep. But she’s done the same with even more simple situations. The new bookcase was too hard to put together; she quit trying and decided she really didn’t need one after all.
Mark’s father died suddenly of a heart attack. His mother fell apart, and as the only child, he stepped up, arranged the funeral, handled the settling of the estate. He marched forward, not shedding a tear. Six months later, he finds himself suddenly charged with assault for provoking a bar fight.
What Jen, Anne, and Mark have in common is that all are cutting off their emotions as a way of coping. Cutoffs are different from what most of us do when we simply decide to quit something—a job, a relationship.
Quitting most often is more deliberate—the job really isn’t working out, the person we’re dating really doesn’t have much in common with us, or there isn’t enough chemistry after all. So, we hand in our letter of resignation; we have a chat with the person we're dating and explain that this doesn’t seem to be a good fit, but that we appreciate the opportunity to get to know him. It’s proactive, emotions combined with reflection, rationality.
Emotional cutoffs are emotionally driven, often sudden, reactive, and overkill—the never, don’t want to, can’t deal. And those emotional drivers may be different for different folks. For Jen, the trigger is her anger. Her brother makes a stupid comment at Christmas, her friend forgets her birthday, and she is enraged and fed up. She doesn’t work it through, but instead texts a five-sentence rant and tells them to go to hell and never talk to her again.
For Anne, the problem is not anger but anxiety. She easily gets flooded, and unable to manage her anxiety, she, like Jen, simply decides that the best course is no course—drop the job, forget about the bookcase.
Mark is emotionally compartmentalizing for a lot of good reasons. The normal grief process that eventually would help him heal from his father’s death goes underground. But those feelings of loss don’t go away. For him, and for those dealing with unresolved trauma, it’s all too easy for these feelings to rise to the surface in unexpected ways eventually.
The problem with cutoffs is that they work… in the short run. We push the problem away. But in the long run, they take their toll. Here are some of the common dangers:
The wound doesn’t heal
What drives Jen’s anger is the fact that she is hurt and wounded by her brother’s snarky comments, her friend’s lack of consideration. By cutting them off, she is expressing her anger and potentially avoiding being wounded again—doesn’t have to deal with her brother’s comments, her friend’s continued inconsiderateness—but, the wound remains and can continue to fester.
Healing can only come by her looking at their behaviors in a more compassionate light—something that is difficult to do with the tunnel vision of anger and the cutoff—or, better yet, by talking it through with them so that her brother and friend have an opportunity to hear her, understand why she is upset, and maybe, and hopefully apologize.
The wound and the cutoff make her more prone to further cutoffs
Just as physical injury makes you naturally protective and sensitive to anything that may cause further injury, the same is true for emotional ones. Jen's cutoffs leave her more sensitive to hurtful comments, less tolerant of inconsiderate behaviors. And by relying on cutoffs as her primary way of coping with conflict and hurt, her tendency to do so becomes more and more automatic.
Cutoffs make it difficult to repair the relationship
Once you cut off someone, it’s hard to reverse course. Face-saving sets in; both sides are engaged in some blink contest with neither party willing to blink first. And so feud goes on and on, and as it does, reconciliation seems ever more a challenge as the time grows longer, the distance wider.
Your life becomes a series of broken/superficial relationships
If Jen continues to rely on cutoffs to cope with difficult relationships, it’s not hard to imagine that her life will be a trail of broken relationships. And the relationships that she does have will likely be superficial, because any problems that naturally might arise, and often lead to a deeper understanding and connection, never have the opportunity to be worked through. Jen may understandably be lonely.
You never learn what you need to know about you
By cutting off others, by not having those conversations with her brother, her friend, she never gets to hear their side of the story, understand how they see her, feedback that can help her ultimately be the better sister, friend. Instead, she is left with only her story, one of blame, one where she feels forever like the victim.
You never get what you want
Anne may have really, really wanted that job or even the bookcase, but now she has neither. Her anxiety has blocked her from reaching her desires.
Your anxiety gets worse, not better
But her experience with the job and bookcase—handling her anxiety by escaping from the job, by giving up on the bookcase—will likely only make her overall ability to handle anxiety worse. Like Jen, she may become more and more dependent on cutoffs as a way of coping.
Your life is watered down
Just as Jen may settle for watered-down, more superficial relationships, Anne, by backing away from situations that overwhelm her, not only doesn’t get those things that she wants, but eventually creates a life of safer, but watered-down substitutes: She gets a job that is less overwhelming but not as fulfilling; she learns to live with good-enough or less furniture. Over time, this compromised life can lead to regret, to self-criticism, to depression.
Wounds don’t heal
Just as Jen's wounds stay unhealed, because she never has that deeper conversation with her brother, her friend, Mark's wound about the loss of his father never heals, because he pushes his grief away. It does finally bubble to the surface and exploded in anger (check out the movie Manchester By the Sea to vividly see how this can happen), but if he only passes it off his bar fight as some weird, isolated, stupid event, or worse, emotionally once again, sweeps that under the rug and marches ahead, his deeper grief doesn’t get touched.
The same is true for those struggling with trauma where it is actively affecting their lives—they march ahead, are numb and periodically explode, apologize, and promise not to do it again. The underlying wounds don’t heal.
The wounds affect your larger life
Just as Jen is prone to keep getting angry and cutting others off, and Anne is apt to keep cutting and running from her anxiety, Mark is prone to being sensitive to and walking around in an ever-wider circle anything that may trigger his loss and grief. Here people cling more to others, or detach from others so as not to get hurt, or overall emotionally shut down, not trusting their own feelings and blocking them, becoming rattled and detached by the strong emotions of others.
The larger problem is the disconnect between your emotions and your everyday life. You repress, live in your head, become detached.
Cutoffs are ultimately a bad solution to real problems. To break this pattern and heal these wounds requires acknowledging the cutoff and pattern, and finding better ways of dealing with relationships and strong emotions. How to start:
1. Look at your bigger pattern.
Here, Jen and Anne step back and survey the landscape of their lives. That Jen is feeling lonely, that Anne finds that she has settled into “good-enough” jobs and relationships that are not really satisfying. Here Mark uses his assault charge as a wake-up call not about his bar behavior, but about why this happened at all.
All need to move beyond their current story: that Jen’s brother and friend are jerks, that the job demanded too much, that the bar incident was just a perfect storm of stress and a biased cop. It’s about getting beyond all the blame. Stop seeing yourself as a victim, stop seeing the incident as not some weird event, but a longer trail of your life, trying to teach you what you need to learn.
Once you can do this, you’re half-way there. You’re taking ownership rather than blaming and rationalizing. With this moral of the story in hand, you need next to fix the underlying problem and your cut-and-run coping style.
2. Approach the problem.
Here, Jen reaches out to her brother, her friend. Anne admits that she really wants that type of job or the bookcase, but needs help with the learning curve, needs someone to help put together the bookcase. Here, Mark doesn’t blow off the bar fight but looks back on the way he handled his father’s death, how he has been functioning over the past months and confronts it head-on.
Make this behavioral, make it concrete. Jen emails her brother or calls her friend, in spite of the fact that she is still pissed, and doesn’t just repeat her rant but says what she didn’t say—that she was hurt, felt not important. Anne applies to another, more meaningful job or orders another bookcase. Mark writes a letter that he will never mail to his father, saying what he never had a chance to say.
3. Change the coping skill.
The bigger issue isn’t about the brother, the job, the father, but the learned way of cutting this off and compartmentalizing. This is the larger dynamic driving how they each run their lives. They need to tackle these directly. Jen resolves, in those smallest of situations—when she feels that the customer service at her local Starbucks is lousy—to not never go back, but instead to speak up and let them know what bothered her.
Similarly, Anne, knowing how she can get overwhelmed, asks for help on a new job or with a new project at the start. Mark becomes sensitive to other places in his life where he sucks it up, ignores his feelings, and instead slows it down, pays attention to what is really going on inside, rather than sweeping things under the rug.
While this always seems about the situation right in front of you, the key is focusing on you and changing you and these bigger patterns in clear behavioral ways. Cutoffs work, but they are overkill. They leave you inflexible to the stress and strains of everyday life and relationships.
Maybe it’s time to try something else.
What do you have to lose?