On (Emotional) Shackles & Freedom
Today, of course, is the Fourth of July, the holiday during which America remembers its adoption of the Declaration of Independence on this day in 1776. We celebrate that after declaring our independence from Great Britain, we at last gained hard-won freedom after the long years of the Revolutionary War ended in 1783. Though that war is over, Americans still battle in many conflicts throughout the world.
A different kind of conflict, however, churns within each of us, regardless of nationality: Each of us fight for our innermost desires and longings to be recognized and understood in our most intimate relationships. We fight to be heard. To be valued. To be respected. To be understood. Even as we want our deepest longings to be known and fulfilled, there’s another part of us that fights to keep these desires unknown.
The internal war is waged between different parts of what I call the fragmented self, a term that I’ve discussed elsewhere. Let’s look at the highlight reel from that post:
In even the best child-caregiver relationships . . . parents cannot possibly fulfill all of a child’s emotional needs. . . . Failures to respond attentively to the child can hurt and lead the child to conclude that his or her feelings are expressions of, for instance, an unwanted, unlovable, or inadequate self. Eventually, the child learns to hide those feelings in order to avoid being hurt, and that part of a person’s emotional self splits off. Psychological defenses are put in place to protect that self in order to spare the person pain, and thus, even in adulthood we learn to hide our deepest feelings, desires, and wants for fear that we will be hurt, rejected, shamed, or ignored.
In all of our relationships, especially in couple and marital relationships, we hope that the feelings that were ignored, dismissed, discounted, and forgotten will be seen and treasured. These relationships are what Stolorow, et al. (1995) call “the ties that free,” because when we are fully understood in our most difficult feelings, a radical shift occurs within. We begin to learn that the feelings, behaviors, and thoughts we have dared not share with anyone can be valued as an expression of our deepest pain.
At the same time, we are also absolutely petrified to expose our deepest pain for fear that we will again be rejected, shamed, or in some other way violated. We don’t talk about our pain or deepest needs because we are afraid it would hurt us or the relationship. These are “the bonds that shackle” (ibid.); our fears of repeating hurtful injuries we experienced in childhood defend the fragile parts of us that were ignored and forgotten and have long been walled off from everyone else.
Hence, our deepest fears are constantly pitted against our deepest needs in an internal struggle. The fundamental psychic conflict resolves in many different ways.
Perhaps we become ambivalent, torn between expressing our inner desires and maintaining important relationships. This is the path of indecision and noncommitment.
Perhaps we attempt to guard our deepest feelings and longings with rage and rebellion. This is the path of anger, defiance, and rebellion.
Perhaps we ourselves ignore our innermost desires in order to maintain the relationships that are most important to us. This is the path of submission and chronic depression (ibid.).
The tagline on the main page of this website once read thus: “Toward meaningful relationships, authentic dialogue, and the freedom of vulnerability.” It is my sincerest and deepest passion to help others find alternative ways of resolving their inner conflict, ways that end not with anxiety, depression, emotional isolation, or anger, but with openly sharing feelings and treasuring the feelings of others in relationships of trust and safety. On this Fourth of July, no matter what your internal conflict between your needs and fears looks like, I invite you to loosen the binding shackles and take a step toward emotional freedom by expressing your deepest needs to a treasured partner or friend in a new way.