I think there is something wrong with me.

Have you ever thought this? Is it because you’re “too sensitive” or “emotional”? Do you walk into a room and feel the tension? When you have feelings are they intense? Does this mean you are different or is everybody like this? Gosh, what’s my problem? I’m so sick of feeling this way! What is wrong with me?! Rest assured there’s nothing wrong with you. That’s right….nothing. Before I get into the details, let me tell you about Brenda. Maybe you can relate.

 Brenda is married, has a good job, and has kids. She’s anxious, has panic attacks, and is moody. One minute she’s fine, the next she’s sad, then anxious, then fine again. She doesn’t know what she’s feeling half the time let alone why. On the outside she looks like she has it all together but, on the inside, chaos. She can’t shake that critic in her head that just won’t SHUT UP. When she gets angry, she feels horribly guilty. She feels like a fake and worries someone will find her out. She constantly feels like she’s in competition with her friends and coworkers but can’t figure out why because all she wants is to feel connected. She feels judged and criticized and ultimately fears rejection.  

Can you relate to Brenda? If you can, you’re not alone. It’s not what’s wrong with you, it’s what happened to you and what you didn’t get growing up. Your self-worth may be in the toilet. You are feeling the impact of early childhood experiences. Early childhood abuse can cause brain changes that impact the way you experience emotions. If babies experience fear often enough they may develop a larger amygdala, which can cause hyper-emotional sensitivity. You may be able to remember childhood abuse or may be thinking “I wasn’t abused”. When people think about childhood abuse, they often think of physical, verbal, or sexual abuse, but emotional abuse causes just as much distress and isn’t as obvious. Emotional abuse is when caregivers are controlling, manipulative, criticizing, blaming, or emotionally absent.

Kids need caregivers who can validate, reassure, encourage, listen well, repair breaks, comfort upsets, set good limits, delight in them, help problem solve, support individuation, teach/model self-control, give positive attention, show unconditional love, clear misunderstandings, provide loving correction, communicate respectfully, help grieve losses, teach/model important life skills. They also need caregivers who are: loving, patient, honest, attuned, empathetic, respectful, trustworthy, affectionate, understanding, emotionally stable, and calm when the child is not.

Does this sound like your caregivers? If not, then you probably didn’t get what you needed or not enough of it.  When you grow up with caregivers that are not able to meet your needs you don’t learn how to identify, understand or express your emotions in a helpful way. Instead, you learn that good feelings don’t last and avoid painful emotions because nobody’s going to help you work through them.   Understanding our emotions and other’s emotions is important and needed to develop relationships and connection, which we need for survival. Emotions are also integral to accurately storing memories. Without emotions, we don’t store memories at all. With too much emotion we store them in the wrong place, and in pieces.  

We develop our sense of self, who we are, through relationships with our caregivers. Therefore, if those relationships are less than adequate, we grow up feeling insecure, unable to trust ourselves or others, have difficulty making decisions, and feel like an imposter in our own lives.

You may have grown up in a home where the adults didn’t talk about feelings or show them. Or they were angry and scary. Either way, you learned to avoid emotions or grew up feeling shame for having them. You can’t survive without emotions. We are born with 6 core emotions: sadness, happiness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust. They help us act, survive, fight and avoid danger, make decisions, understand others, and help others to understand us. Emotions don’t just go away, they will bubble up to the surface, which creates the exhausting cycle of pushing them back down over and over again. Your emotions are valid even if they are intense. They warn you of danger or and let you know when things are good.

The good news is you are adaptive, and you don’t give up. You can learn to accept your feelings and express them in a way that assures you will feel seen, heard, and valued. This leads to connection and less loneliness. The goal isn’t to feel less but to harness your emotions and use them to navigate challenges and feel happiness. One way to do that is through developing a helpful relationship with a therapist. The second is to learn self-acceptance and self-compassion.