Psychologist R.D Stolorow suggests that developmental trauma "originates within a formative intersubjective context whose central feature is malattunement to painful affect. It occurs where there is a breakdown of the child-caregiver system of mutual emotional interaction and regulation".
This breakdown can make it difficult or impossible for the child to learn to tolerate and integrate their emotional states. Negative emotional states are therefore experienced by the child as unbearable, overwhelming, disorganized states. A painful or frightening feeling becomes traumatic when the attunement that the child needs to assist in its tolerance, containment, and moderation is profoundly absent.
Fragile parents, damaged children
The pathology, history and limitations of the parents play a very important role. Parents who are vulnerable, needy or emotion-phobic themselves may put overt or covert pressure on their children to monitor and censor their feelings. Parental pressure on children, especially astute and sensitive children, can take many forms besides overt criticism and prohibition. A child who senses that his emotional expression disturbs, distresses or overwhelms their parent and causes even a subtle withdrawal of parental affection, may choose to "voluntarily" limit their emotional expression in order to keep the fragile parent calm and close.
Consequences of Developmental trauma
Within the individual, one significant consequence of developmental trauma is a severe dampening of emotional experiencing or a narrowing of its range so that whatever feels unacceptable, intolerable, or too dangerous in particular interpersonal context is excluded.
- A woman whose family expected her to restrain her feelings as a child may grow up to believe that she is incapable of feeling because she does not cry when she suffers a loss or in situations when others around her might respond more intensely.
- Many men who have been taught not to express vulnerability as children are very proud of their emotional toughness, but baffled as to why their female partners describe them as cold and distant.
Unconscious convictions drive interpersonal behavior
From recurring experiences of misattunement, punishment or neglect of a child's negative emotions, the child develops the unconscious conviction that natural emotional responses and naturally arising (painful) feeling states are signs of an unacceptable defect or of an inherent inner badness.
Creation of an "ideal self"
A defensive "ideal self" is often established which is purified of the offending feeling states that were perceived to be unwelcome or damaging to caregivers. It may become a central requirement to live up to this pure ideal in order to maintain harmonious ties with important others and to uphold self-esteem.
After the creation of this ideal self, whenever a prohibited feeling emerges, it is experienced as a failure to embody the required ideal and an exposure of the imagined underlying essential defectiveness or badness.
The experience of the prohibited emotions will usually be accompanied by feelings of self-loathing, isolation and shame which drive renewed efforts to hide or control emotions.
Repercussions in adult life: Damaged relationships
When prohibited emotions arise in daily life, ambiguous reactions or behaviors of the friend or partner that lend themselves to being interpreted as critical or disapproving may confirm the patient's semi-conscious or unconscious expectations that a display of authentic feelings will be met with disdain, disinterest, hostility, disgust, alarm, withdrawal, exploitation, and the like, or that they will damage their partner and destroy the personal connection.
In adult life developmental trauma has a powerfully destructive impact on new relationships since the defensive manoeuvering required to avoid provoking negative emotional states or the energy needed to suppress emotional displays can at best be confusing and disorganizing to their interactional partners, and at worst may drive them away or provoke exactly the rage, dismissal, criticism or punishment that they fear.
These sorts of defensive responses can even happen in the safe space of therapy. When the therapist becomes aware that this is happening the experience can be questioned and worked with while it is actually occurring... in real time and with honest conversation about what is really being felt and feared
The impulse to change
Since emotion and emotional expression is our natural human birthright, individuals who have had to suppress or denigrate their emotional natures often secretly envy others who express themselves more easily. They often recognize that they feel trapped and restricted in a cage that they can see that they are creating for themselves.
Sometimes they despair, fearing that something inside has been irreparably broken or extinguished and that they will never be able to feel as others do. Sometimes they feel so unskilled in emotional expression that they fear that if they let go even a little bit that they will collapse absolutely and forever. Neither of these fears is ever true for people who generally function well in the world.
Therapy can help
Therapists are trained to recognize emotional trauma. Therapists work to help their clients tease apart the roots and origins of their fears and unconscious beliefs. Clients are encouraged to question their automatic thoughts and habitual behaviors. They receive support and encouragement to experiment in their daily relationships. In the therapy itself, they can have the lived experience of showing emotion in the presence of another human being and being accepted. This experience is often the beginning of healing.
If you feel that you are limited in your emotional expression and if you see that this is causing problems in your relationships it may be time to courageously address the problem by speaking about it with a trusted friend or a professional counselor.