Hearts can grow cold and become hardened – something poets, artists, and musicians have always claimed. From children to adults, emotional numbing is part of the human condition and reveals the inherent vulnerability in a system that was built to feel deeply. As Hank Williams lamented, “Why can’t I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart?” The loss to human functioning is tragic, as it is our caring that makes us fully human and most humane.
Today we have neuroscience mapping out how emotional inhibition occurs within the limbic system. At last, Freud’s theory of how we can be driven by unconscious emotions has gained its neuroscientific footing. Every brain comes equipped with the capacity to tune out what distresses, repress bad memories, dull the pain, suppress alarming feelings, and be divested of caring and responsibility (1). The anthem of the emotionally defended is, “I don’t care,” “doesn’t matter,” “that doesn’t bother me,” or “whatever,” and resounds loudly among our kids (and many adults) today.
Being defended against vulnerable feelings is an equal-opportunity problem not confined by geography, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or education level. It is a quintessential human issue, given our unique capacity to reflect on our emotions and assign feelings names, unlike other mammal species. The three- or four-year-old who suddenly bursts out with their words instead of their hits, “I frustrated! I need HELP!” reveals the developmental sophistication in this system. We were meant to develop a language of the heart, one that takes us towards civilized relating around emotional content.
When Caring Goes Missing
Caring feelings are a luxury in a world that feels like it is coming undone. There are sometimes too many acts of uncaring for a human heart to bear in today’s ‘connected world’ when self-centered actions dominate – combined with an absence of shame or fear, and no tears in the face of all that should make us weep. As T.S. Eliot pens in his poem, “The Hollow Men,” vulnerable feelings often go missing – not with a bang but with a whimper. We were meant to care deeply – and not just about ourselves but about others, too. The hunger for connection is what should hold us together, but there are times we seem so intent on tearing these relationships apart. The vulnerable feelings that make us most vital and human go missing for the sake of survival.
When the emotional system flatlines, not only does fear disappear, but also joy, delight, and enjoyment. Some of my counselling clients would tell me, “I don’t need anybody, I don’t really care I am on my own,” with little emotion. It created problems attaching to others and prevented the love that was there for them in getting through the wall of defenses their brain had erected. They could not feel their emotions, despite being aware, on some level, that they really should be feeling something. As one teen said to me, I know I should be happy but I just don’t feel anything right now. When the emotional system operates in a defensive mode, the caring feelings go missing – along with their tempering effect on frustration, upset, alarm, and impatience.
How to Revive Hardened Hearts
What is critical to remember is that when a heart becomes hardened, the brain has its own reasons for pressing down upon vulnerable feelings. To feel sets the person up to get hurt, and the brain is geared towards survival at all costs. To bring emotional defenses down, the heart must be softened. The question is, how can this be done? The heart won’t be resuscitated through logic, cognitive manipulation, or behavioural interventions. When our kids (or adults) lose their caring, it is the warmth and caring of others that offers the best chance of melting emotional defenses.
According to Gordon Neufeld, a heart can only be softened with the cultivation of safe and caring attachments with others. It is relationship that offers someone the promise of safety, warmth, and dependence. It is attachment that is the antidote to facing too much separation and wounding. The human heart will spontaneously recover and experience vulnerable feelings again when emotional defenses are no longer needed. It cannot get there with a pill, prodding, pushing, cajoling, rewarding, or punishing – but only through the warmth of another human being.
What every person needs most of all is a guardian for their heart. As one ten-year-old said to her mother, “I don’t what it is about you, Mama, but when I talk to you I feel such comfort.” One of my clients said her sixteen-year-old son said, “Mom, you always seem to know what to say to help me when I am really scared.” This is the job of parenting – to hold on to our kids’ hearts and shield them. As adults, the hope would be that we can rest in the care of another.
Three Keys to Melting Emotional Defenses
1. Lead into Vulnerable Territory.
If we are going to soften emotional defenses and increase vulnerability, we will need to lead someone there … but this can’t be done without cultivating a strong relationship first. When I trained new counselors they would often ask me for the ‘techniques’ to elicit emotional responses in clients. I would lecture them on how they were asking me the wrong question. The most important part of their role was not a diagnosis or a technique, but about showing up as a human being. Psychology does not own suffering. Humans do. We cannot expect someone to share their heart with us if we have not earned a place in their life first.
When we have built a strong relationship with someone, we can lead then lead them towards vulnerable territory, ever so gently. It might be reading picture books about characters with big feelings with a young child, taking an older child to see a movie such as Inside Out, or having chats with teens about the songs they are listening to or the ‘heroes’ they admire. It is our job to use our relationship to come to their side and invite them to share their world with us. When appropriate, we can reflect back what we have heard in increasingly vulnerable ways such as, “Sadness saves the day – who ever thought that would happen!” It is the slow, but consistent, message that all of a child’s feelings are welcome, and that the relationship can handle what needs to be said, that will slowly bring the defenses down.
To lead someone to their vulnerable feelings, we will need to be caring ourselves and model an openness to vulnerability. This doesn’t mean we tell our children our feelings about them, but rather reflect on vulnerability as a strength and as being valued. We can then increasingly touch emotional bruises in their life in a gentle way as needed.
2. Shield with a Safe Attachment.
When a child has a caring attachment that they can take for granted, their heart will be shielded by that relationship. What we forget with our kids is that just because we are their guardian, it doesn’t mean they have given us their heart for safe-keeping. If a child is truly at home with someone, the hurts in their life can be experienced and made sense of with this person. We cannot protect our children from being hurt all the time, but we can make sure they are not sent out into the world to deal with it on their own. It is our love and care-taking that buffers them against rejection, betrayal, and heartache.
The beautiful design in attachment is that our hearts can shield another’s from injury – it is the ultimate cure and protection. As my children lament about their school day and harsh words from friends, I collect their tears and remind them that they are never too far from home. As I listen to their emotional injuries, my balm is to tell them not to take it into their heart, and to look at me, the one who knows them best. When we feel overwhelmed and lost, it is about who we look to that will help ground us, to center us, and to bring us back to ourselves. It is caring that is meant to tie us together and make us caretakers for each other’s hearts.
3. Protect from Emotional Wounding and Facing Separation.
If the brain has erected emotional defenses, then we can try to reduce the need for them by creating shame-free zones. Typically these would be protected spaces against peer and sibling interactions that are wounding. It would mean minimizing involvement in places where there was a lack of invitation for connection, e.g. a family member who is unkind to a child, or a classroom full of kids who bully.
If the child’s world is too much for them emotionally, then we will need to consider how we change their world to reduce the need for defenses. While this may lead to some hard choices, until the heart is back online there will be problems with behaviour and development can be at a standstill. When the heart is flatlining, resuscitating it become the first order of business.
In reducing wounding we would want to scan the child’s world to see where they face too much separation. This can include forms of discipline that are separation-based, including time-outs and the overuse of consequences. Moving to more attachment-based and developmentally friendly forms of discipline can help to reduce wounding. When problems occur, finding a way to hold on to the relationship in the middle of the storm is the best way through. For example, “This isn’t working. We will talk about this later,” or “I can’t let you do this. I see you are frustrated, and I will help you figure it out.” When there are emotional defenses that are stuck, it will be common to have behaviour problems to have to work around until more vulnerable feelings come back online. It will involve protecting others, including the dignity of the parent and child involved.
What is clear is we cannot ‘will’ emotional defenses to rise or fall. This is not for us to say. However, it is within our capacity to move into relationship with someone, to take up a relationship with their feelings, and to convey that despite everything, it is our relationship that is most secure in their life. If hurting too much is the problem, then surely love is the answer. It is a solution as old as time but one that needs to keep being retold in a world that continues to come undone.
If you are interested in more on the topic of attachment and emotions, you might be interested in Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s upcoming webinar, Attachment Roots: Back to Basics (September 20, 2016) or Dr. Deborah MacNamara’s online course, Heart Matters: The Science of Emotion (starting October 26, 2016).
(1) Gordon Neufeld, Level I Intensive: Making Sense of Kids, 2013, Neufeld Institute, Vancouver, BC. www.neufeldinstitute.org