Intimacy: When Your Strength Overshadows You

by Jennifer Newton Martin, LPC

I once took a Group Counseling course in grad school in order to learn how to be an effective group leader for counseling groups. Although the class did have a teaching component, much of the class was aimed at allowing us to experience being a part of a counseling group and allowing us to utilize the group for our own personal growth. The class also intended to help us understand group dynamics in counseling groups. One exercise that we were required to do during one of the final groups of the semester involved disclosing to the group the person in the group who we most disliked or were afraid of in the very first sessions. If you are from a family background like mine where you did not disclose things like this – things that could potentially hurt someone’s feelings or make someone angry – but rather were trained to bury such things, you would understand just how nerve-racking this exercise was for me. I struggled to decide who I would name and what I would say. I tried to think of the single most nice way I could put it, the way that showed the most ownership of my reaction and pointed fingers the very least at the other person. Much to my dismay, at some point during the session that night I was named by someone as the person whom they felt most uncomfortable around. I was mortified. I knew myself to be nice, kind, empathetic, and sincere. “How could someone possibly be uncomfortable around me?” I wondered.

Incongruence and Emotional Fraud

Fortunately for me, part of the exercise was to disclose why we felt the way that we did, so this other student began describing his reasons for choosing me. The student explained that when he was growing up his parents did not share vulnerably with each other, or him. He went on to describe family dynamics that I knew very well, such as a family tendency to sweep everything under the rug, to ignore conflict, and to stuff feelings. He went on to describe that there were, as a result of this, angry, random blowups that left him reeling because he didn’t see them coming. There were no warnings, he said. Then he went on to describe how when I shared my struggles and pain, I did so without tears, without apparent sadness, without normal, expected, spontaneous expressions of emotion. Instead, I told my devastating stories with a straight face, with expressions that didn’t mirror the pain I was describing. In this way, I reminded him of his parents. He was afraid that there would be no sign of trouble, no warning, and that I would blow. He essentially felt that I wasn’t safe, or that I wasn’t sincere.

Interestingly, I already had a lot of opportunities during grad school to challenge myself and to own my own emotional brokenness and I had already discovered this about myself early on in my program. This incongruence that I was demonstrating was actually an improvement from my first semester when I was confronted with my tendency to tell painful stories and not only not cry, but to actually laugh about them. During one particular group, I was called out for my failure to be vulnerable with other students and teachers. I had been laughing as a means of hiding my pain, or at a minimum to suppress my tears. This was a coping skill I had picked up early in my life. It made my painful experiences smaller and more palatable, a way to not be overwhelmed. However, my coping skill was now impacting the ability of others to know me and connect with me on an emotional level. In many ways I was being an emotional fraud, though at the time that behavior just seemed natural.

Minimizing Pain and Avoidance of Weakness

I have never forgotten the hard lessons I learned during those times of confrontation. I have often reflected on my own journey towards authenticity as I have witnessed my clients cope in the same way with their pain. I’ve come to a lot of conclusions about the impact of these sorts of behaviors on relationships, but most importantly I’ve come to the conclusion that we must take ownership of our unhealthy coping skills. There is a pattern that emerges in individuals who come into my office struggling with feelings of being unseen, unvalued, taken advantage of, and taken for granted. Often these individuals are frustrated and lonely, feeling like everyone in their life takes from them and never returns the favor. At some point, when I was feeling just like that myself, I recall having a revelation about my anger. I realized that I would often become so angry at my friends and loved ones for minimizing my pain and not seeing how much emotional turmoil I was in, and yet, I was not showing them how much I was in pain. I often laughed about the things I shared, or I choked back tears because I didn’t want to seem needy or weak. I worked hard to not expose the vulnerable parts of myself, even to myself. However, as a result, those around me often didn’t know how much pain I was in. I was accusing people of doing to me the very thing that I was doing to myself. I was preventing them from knowing me by being incongruent.

Very often, if you grew up in a home where you were given the message that your spontaneous feelings like anger, sadness, or even joy, were immature or undesirable, you quickly learned to hide them. If you hid them long enough, you quite likely became so good at it and so ashamed of those feelings that by adulthood you believed that they were no longer a part of you. If this was your experience, you probably became emotionally monotone: never up, never down, you became strong. If you are anything like me, this strength became a huge part of your identity, almost a virtue in your eyes. You became the strong one in relationships, always able to care for others because you never needed anything yourself. You likely prided yourself on this ability to not need others, to never be weak. Yet, at some point, perhaps like me, you realized that you felt chronically lonely and unseen, that everyone in your life seemed to be letting you take care of them, while never offering the same in return. Not only does it seem that strength prevents vulnerability and connection, but it also gives off the impression of superficiality. Being nice, kind, and un-needy may make us feel more likable and more acceptable, however, it also attracts individuals who are seeking superficial relationships and who simply want to use us for our strength and/or because we don’t require anything of them.

“Being nice, kind, and un-needy may make us feel more likable and more acceptable, however, it also attracts individuals who are seeking superficial relationships and who simply want to use us for our strength and/or because we don’t require anything of them.”

Self-Sacrifice and Emotional Inhibition Schemas

In Schema therapy, a person with this sort of background would likely score very highly on the schemas of Self-Sacrifice and of Emotional Inhibition. Schemas are thought to be long-lasting and consistent patterns of thoughts and beliefs by which we organize categories of information. Self-Sacrifice is very much a core schema of someone who is a caregiver or codependent type person. Self-Sacrifice is about being outwardly focused, caring for others and meeting other’s needs at the expense of oneself. Emotional Inhibition is the schema that results when we have been programmed not to feel those normal, spontaneous feelings that we did as children. Because intimacy requires us to expose ourselves and be seen by others, individuals with schemas of Self-Sacrifice and Emotional Inhibition struggle to find it. Self-Sacrificers rarely spend enough time inwardly focused and, even when they do, they struggle to demonstrate congruent and spontaneous emotion because they have suppressed or denied it for so long. Working with these clients involves fostering opportunities to practice congruence and to reconnect with spontaneous feelings on both ends of the spectrum: joy and sadness. As a counselor, I must gently confront a client’s tendency to stuff down their tears or laugh through their pain. I must remind them that lack of emotions make one appear superficial and subsequently draw in superficial others. I often remind them that if they want to be seen by others, they have to show themselves to others and that if they want to repel Narcissistic others, they must appear needy sometimes and ask for things, they must say “no”, make boundaries, and be willing to let selfishly motivated others walk away, which is the hardest part of all.

If you relate to the schemas of Self-Sacrifice and Emotional Inhibition, you are in good company. Too many of us have been groomed our whole lives to put others first, to grow up, to suppress our feelings, ignore our needs, and take up as little emotional space as possible in our homes and lives. As a result of this training, we have unfortunately often lost touch with ourselves and lost touch with others.

Steps Towards Change

It is never too late, however, to make the shift towards emotional wholeness. Make an intentional effort to work on:

  • Improving your emotional vocabulary.
  • Getting in touch with your feelings.
  • Communicating your feelings to others.
  • Practicing being congruent.
  • Letting go of seeing yourself as “the strong one”.
  • Being willing to let go of people who don’t embrace your authenticity and growth.

These are all steps that you can take to change the direction you’ve been headed. With some honest evaluation of yourself, ownership of the ways in which you have encouraged others to minimize your feelings, and changed behavior, you can find a whole new brand of relationships and you can experience being seen for the first time. As soon as you are ready, you can stop being overshadowed by your strength and start to experience intimacy and connection with healthy others.

To read more about the concepts of cognitive consistency and schema, see Cognitive Consistency and Schema.

To read more about schema and how schema impacts future relationships, see Schema: Don’t Be a Puppet at the Mercy of Your Past.

To read more about narcissism and caregiving relationships, see Narcissism and Caregiving: Dancing Around the Truth.

Published by thinkagainjenn

Jennifer Newton Martin is a Licensed Professional Counselor and writer in Libertyville, Illinois.

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