Emotional Deprivation Schema – The Emotional Stranger

Toby* doesn’t want to be in therapy. A 42-year-old, currently unemployed, former army captain, Toby has seen people who need therapy and he’s not one. “I’ve got mates who are seriously traumatised, thinking about ending it all. These blokes need help, not me”. It’s true – Toby says that he’s not depressed or anxious, and definitely not suicidal. “I had a good childhood, never missed out on anything” says Toby. Toby was referred on the urging of his wife. Since leaving the army, Toby has been withdrawn and apathetic. He spends much time playing online poker and backgammon and has increased his drinking. Tracey, Toby’s wife, has said that he’s always been emotionally withdrawn, but at least he had a sense of purpose in the army. Toby says that “I’m just not an emotional guy” but admits that he’s in a rut and doesn’t know how to get out. He reports feeling distant from everyone, including himself.

Young children are emotionally raw. Remove a toy – they scream in agony. Give a smile – they chuckle in delight. These emotional responses are what making parenting so exhausting and rewarding. However, humans can’t stay this raw forever. Healthy development involves learning to contain and channel emotions in socially acceptable ways. The temper tantrum is turned into burning resolve, the sobbing sadness is turned into a reaching out to a close friend. Sometimes, the learned responses for containing one’s emotions can be over-learnt. Our emotions become strangers to ourselves.

Children who have had distant, self-focused or, at worst, neglectful parents learn to expect that no-one will listen to their emotions. So, they themselves stop listening to their emotions. Like a child leaving for boarding school on a train platform, the young person says goodbye to their emotional self, and leaves on the journey to adulthood without it. Life is easier without strong emotions. Many find they can fit in better in society. They are capable of doing difficult or dangerous jobs. They are less impacted by relationship break-ups, friendship loss, job loss. More independent, stoic, resilient. And, if you never remember having something, you never miss it. Most people with this life story, deny having strong emotions at all, and will remember childhood as “normal”.

But there is a catch. The emotional self “left” on the platform never actually left. It follows like a ghost causing problems. Feelings of flatness and emptiness. Brooding anger, frustration and temper outbursts. Trouble feeling anything at all, a lack of pleasure or joy. Mysterious aches and pain. Drinking or drug use in order to feel. Difficulties accepting that loved ones really do love. Difficulties empathising with spouses and children, and difficulties responding appropriately to their emotions. Relationship loss is common for these people. It’s as if the emotional stranger is trying to create problems to get noticed – “I’m here and I matter!”

In Schema Therapy, this emotional estrangement is called the Emotion Deprivation Schema. Part of therapy for people with this schema is reuniting with the ghost they left at the station – the emotional stranger. This can be an intimidating experience. They have internalised the message – “feelings hurt, and no one cares anyway”. People with this schema, like Toby, are usually familiar with anger, but less familiar with the so-called “weak emotions” like sadness, fear, shame and anxiety. Learning to feel these emotions, label them and act in a socially appropriate manner with them, is therapeutic. In this manner, the emotional stranger becomes a friend. Relationships are mended. Yes, this means being more vulnerable, which means opening up to feeling pain. But the suffering of avoiding pain diminishes. And life becomes more joyous and meaningful.


* All names and key details changed to protect anonymity

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