By: Aaron Mitchum, LPC
Are you ever confused at why your spouse or partner can show more emotion with their favorite sports teams than with you? Often boys and sometimes girls are subtly told to ditch their vulnerable feelings except for in the confines of sports. Leaving dullness on the inside save for sports, sex and alcohol. Let me explain.
When the raw emotions of an infant or kiddo overwhelm a care taker they can create a storm on the inside of their care taker that can't be soothed or tolerated by the care taker. When this happens kids are often reacted to as if they are a threat. This could be the parent having a temper tantrum of their own in an attempt to right their own upended internal world. Often it looks like parents only reacting to behavior and ignoring a child's unspoken, internal motivations. In doing so they focus on stiff limits that shape and modify behavior but at the cost of the healthy self-esteem, and emotion regulation abilities of the child.
Of course none of us are perfect and we all come unglued with our kids (sometimes kids are just too much in the moment, yes?). However it's important to know that an environment that consistently errors on the side of reacting as if big emotions are threatening (either by attacking them back or mentally/physically walking away from them) and falls back on behavior modification (to keep the parent safe from the overwhelming flood the child's rawness evokes in them) is one that slowly leaves a child feeling deadened in the inside. The kiddo increasingly becomes afraid of their own emotions and unconsciously develops a sense that their emotions are destructive and bring about social rejection in most cases. So, they learn to squash and/or get rid of them. Only problem is, they are a dynamic part of being human! So those vulnerable emotions don't go away, instead they roam the psyche looking for an outlet. When a person finds an outlet they often get hooked on that experience because unlike the rest of life when they do X they feel the safe integration of their usually split off feelings. This leaves them briefly feeling alive and real. Sports is a common place where normally unwanted vulnerable emotion can safely be brought in. Interestingly, emotions often come in at the maturity they were initially told to leave. Which is why a fan can react to winning or losing like a toddler or a player can look like a 3 year old. Or perhaps why we love sports radio to revel in endless analyzation of wins and losses. Or why a husband could normally have a muted range of emotion with his wife (I'm happy or I'm mad) but openly cry or show excitement or have deep connected feelings about the Royals World Series victory (especially if baseball was a place of safe connection with his own dad). Of course this personality organization gets cultivated in people at various kinds of spectrums and depths. For no one is immune to having some gaps in their development. That said, behaviors designed to engage split off emotions can range from benign to deeply problematic.
Another part of all of this is what happens when a person's emotion seeking behaviors are outside the bounds of social or religious acceptability. Especially when one fails to keep those behaviors out of normal social interactions. Like when an adult blows up in public or a scandalous affair goes public (sex, alcohol, drugs, shopping, eating, etc. are all common safe zones for split off feelings). These experiences leave the person feeling deeply humiliated and normally increase the need to keep engaging in the activities that got them in trouble in the first place, just to stay alive psychologically. This is especially true if they are reacted to in a shaming way that only focuses on their behavior, an act that re-affirms original messages.
Point here? Humans only learn to tolerate and balance their emotions holistically through empathic and supportive relationships that can identify and respond to the heart behind the behavior. So, whether it's with ourselves, our kiddos or our partners or friends, judgement is best reserved and replaced with courageous love. Of course if your relationship is abusive I do not suggest being understanding at the cost of your emotional or physical safety.
In most cases though it's helpful to understand that we only grow on the inside, in relationship. External supports like AA, mindfulness, or cognitive behavior regiments are terrific and very helpful but will only remain if continually used (it's like working out, when you stop, muscle starts to go away). In addition to those things people need, not perfect but good enough, relationships that help the person know and feel all of them is welcomed and that all of them can be understood and loved. So that they can begin to restart development that got thwarted by previous negative relationships. How that's done though is for another post on another day!