A reader asks:
My 28 year old son rarely shows his emotions. I know he feels a lot of sadness and fear. My husband and I want to support him and help him. But it’s difficult when he is unwilling to express how he actually feels. Why won’t he just talk about how he feels?
I can think of at least 7 reasons:
- He’s afraid of what people will think. For about 5,000 different reasons, many people are afraid that other people will think less of them if they express their emotions—especially uncomfortable ones like sadness or shame. And this could have nothing to do with you or the way you raised him, by the way.
- He’s afraid of what people will do. Similarly, it’s common for people to harbor tremendous fear and anxiety about how other people will react if they express difficult emotions. It only takes one really bad experience—getting dumped by a girlfriend, for example, or shamed by a coach—to learn that sharing difficult emotions is not worth the risk.
- He’s afraid of feeling worse. A common fear about expressing emotions is that, in the moment, it will feel painful. This is why many people develop a habit of intellectualizing their emotions—using concepts or abstract terms rather than plain emotion words to describe how they feel. Some people have a very low tolerance for emotional discomfort, and as a result, simply avoid talking about how they feel.
- He’s afraid of losing control. Especially for people with a history of serious mental health problems (diagnosed or not), there is often an intense fear of losing control emotionally. That is, he might be afraid that if he expresses sadness, he’s more likely to spiral into depression. Or if he expresses anxiety, he’s more likely to end up having a panic attack.
- He doesn’t know how. In many ways, talking about how we feel emotionally to others is a complex skill. And just because it seems simple or easy to us, doesn’t mean it isn’t profoundly difficult for others—even people we think we know like children. If he feels inadequate to the task, it makes sense that he would avoid it.
- He doesn’t want to show them to you. It’s possible he’s more than willing to share how he feels with other people but, for whatever reason, doesn’t feel comfortable sharing them with you. Very often people with significant emotional struggles only have one or two people in their lives—and it’s not necessarily the people you might think of first like a spouse or a parent—with whom they feel comfortable disclosing their emotions.
- He doesn’t actually feel what you think. No matter how well you think you know your son, it’s very easy to misinterpret what other people are actually feeling. So it’s quite possible that you’re misreading his emotional state altogether.
At the end of the day, other people’s emotions and how they express them aren’t up to us. That can be frustrating and sad—especially when we suspect they’re hurting and want desperately to help. But, however tempting, trying to control things you can’t will always lead to more suffering.
Your challenge may well be to admit there’s very little you can do to help your son with this dilemma and be willing to tolerate all of your difficult emotions that go along with that—from fear and frustration to sadness and guilt.
So be very careful not to confuse your own emotional work—tolerating all the discomfort that comes with helplessness and uncertainty—with a problem in him.
It’s arguably the hardest part about being a parent… Accepting how little control we often have over our children.