Understanding emotional unavailability

Asking or expecting some one who is not able to relate to themselves or others at an emotional level to see us, recognise us and get us is bound to end in tears.  It may be at the root of narcissistic personality disorders, as well as other so called personality disorders.

I am currently reading a book by therapist Bryn Collins on the subject and its a very enlightening read.  He explains in depth the four primary emotions which emotionally healthy people can express, unfortunately those who were not related to emotionally in childhood in a healthy way never get to experience these four primary emotions, mad, sad, scared and glad.  They exist instead in what Collins calls an emotional grey zone in which they can feel numb or disconnected.  They can also experience low, lows and high highs with no moderation in feeling in between.  They learn to be externally rather than internally referenced due to the fact they look outside for what they never got to develop inwardly in childhood and then often end up emotionally abandoning others or hurting them in some way with their emotional numbness, confusion, aggression or disconnection.

Trying to connect to such a person, asking of them to recognise us as individuals or show empathy, compassion and true respect is doomed to failure unless and until the person decides to do some therapy or inner work.

The hall mark features that go along with emotional unavailability are as follows:

  1. Difficulty forming attachments with others due to attachment wounds from the past.
  2. Very low self esteem or trying to find esteem through externals such as appearance, possessions, careers etc.
  3. Poor boundaries.  They lack a sense of where you begin and end and will often invade your boundaries by not showing the necessary empathy, respect or privacy.  Lack of boundaries means the person lacks a sense of Self and therefore cannot respect the Self of others.  Self can get a bad wrap in the consciousness of some so called ‘spiritually’ based people.  But without a sense of Self we don’t really get to live healthy lives.  Its only when an over focus on Self hurts others that it becomes problematic.
  4. The need to control.  Emotionally shut down or unavailable person never got to trust that they were worthy or could be loved, so they try to control those they love out of fear. obligation or guilt.  They are not able to clearly articulate their fear in a healthy way but act it out with others in negative ways.
  5. Carrying around Toxic Balloon inside.   The emotionally unavailable person never got to really address any of the composite of painful feelings inside that they developed over the course of a childhood in which they were either abused or not responded to in a healthy connected way by caregivers.    The result is a build up of emotions that get stuffed inside and jumbled up and then come out sideways that they often act out unconsciously and end up confusing and hurting those they are in relationship with.

I must say I could relate to some of these characteristics before I started my own therapy.  Collin’s explanation of how emotions work separate from negative emotional mindsets which become chronic such as anger, anxiety, depression each of which are substitute states in which the failure to connect with mad, fear, or sadness becomes chronic is particularly enlightening.  As he explains it depression is not sadness it is a mindset in which everything becomes tinged with negativity due to the failure to be able to process in a healthy way sad or painful things that happened to us.  Anxiety is not fear, it is a mindset in which we come to chronically expect things to fail or go wrong due to past painful experiences of this happening.

If you want to get a handle on emotional unavailability I cannot recommend this book highly enough, its a clearly expressed, practical and understandable take on a difficult subject.  One which will help you to become more aware of the signs of emotional unavailability that can cause such pain. It will help you to address signs of emotional unavailability within yourself and help you to stop blaming yourself for something or someone else’s barriers to intimacy that you didn’t create in the first place.

It pays to bear in mind that we can all show emotional unavailability at times.  There are times we cannot be there for others in that way they need due to our own issues.  We may be someone who needs a certain amount of alone time or time out from critical relationships.  But in a healthy relationship this is communicated and boundaries are addressed in a healthy way with mutual respect and empathy for each other’s style of and needs in relating.  This is something you will never receive if you are with an emotionally unavailable person.

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