Have you ever experienced a breakup or a divorce that was so devastating that it made you numb? Do you find yourself avoiding people and other social situations due to anxiety and fear? Are you plagued by sadness, anger, and shame? Have you lost your motivation and drive?
If so, you might be experiencing an emotional block.
Emotional blocks are defense mechanisms that our brains create to keep us safe from emotional harm. The good news is, emotional blocks keep us from feeling. The bad news is, emotional blocks keep us from feeling. And they have a bad habit of paralyzing us with self-doubt and indecision.
Many of us have been wounded and scarred by failed and traumatic relationships. Many of us mourn losses that are years and even decades old. It’s fairly common. While most people are able to endure loss, many of us find ourselves stuck and unable to move on.
For many of us, unhealthy relationships, failed marriages, and betrayals have left us hollow and numb. But the hollowness is an illusion, a cheap trick the brain uses to mask hurt and anger and fear. The numbness, like any anesthetic, eventually dies. But the emotional blocks remain.
An Example of an Emotional Block
I got married to my college sweetheart in 2000; I was 24. We had dated for three years. On our second anniversary, I proposed, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. On our third anniversary, we married, because that’s what you’re supposed to do.
During that time, we lived together and saved for a home, because that’s what you’re supposed to do, too. We got divorced in 2009. It felt a lot like drowning.
It only took two years for us to grow distant, she with her busy career as a restaurant manager and me with my drug problem and my depression. By 2005 we were avoiding one another altogether.
One day I came home from a meeting and she was sitting at the dinner table drinking tequila from a bottle. She had never done that before. She was drinking because our marriage was over.
I had done that to her. More than 10 years later, that image stays with me. It makes me ill just to think about it.
I was clean and sober by that point and had been for a few years. Masters in Education, senior staff administrator at an elite military academy, a homeowner. None of that mattered. She was drinking tequila from a bottle because I had hurt her. And that was when I knew my marriage was over.
For years that image haunted me. For years I was unable to move on. I avoided relationships. I kept people at arm’s length. All the pain and despair that comes from divorce was wrapped up in that one image. And that image, for me, was an emotional blockage.
The Consequences of Emotional Blocks
Emotional blocks keep us stuck in maladaptive behaviors. We self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. We isolate. We avoid.
Sometimes they explain why some people stay in abusive relationships when it seems so clear to others that they should leave. Fear, hurt, sadness, anger — emotional blocks come in many varieties.
For me, the block was not that dramatic. I simply never want to feel that type of pain ever again. So I avoided getting too close to potential partners because I felt like I was a monster and that nobody should have to deal with me.
Most of the time we don’t even realize that emotional blocks exist, which is a big part of the problem. Sigmund Freud has taken a lot of heat over the past few decades, but he was right about the power of the unconscious mind. “Unexpressed emotions will never die,” he once wrote. “They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”
Boy, I’ll say.
In recent years, I’ve been able to move on. But that only happened when I decided to get honest about my own emotional blocks because honesty and self-awareness are the only known antidotes to these poisons.
It took a lot of therapy. And it took a lot of time. Some of them still linger, but they have dulled with the passage of time.
Emotional Blocks and Trauma
Most people hear the word “trauma” and think about terrorist attacks, rape, or combat. Life-threatening events such as those are referred to by psychologists as “Big-T” traumas, in that they must be present for them to make a formal diagnosis of PTSD.
But there are other forms of trauma that can be just as bad. They are referred to collectively as “Little T” traumas. These traumas are not enough to meet criteria for PTSD, but there is nothing little about them.
Traumatic experiences are often the source of an emotional block. In fact, I’m not sure that emotional blocks can exist without them.
And the thing about trauma is that it’s person-specific. What is not traumatic to you may be traumatic to me. You and I don’t get to decide for one another what is and is not traumatic. Trauma is in the eye of the beholder.
Relationships are often a huge source of trauma and the emotional blocks that follow. Sexual and physical abuse are good examples, but they aren’t the only ways that relationships can be traumatic. Emotional abuse can be just as bad. Even the painful end to an otherwise normal relationship can cause profound emotional distress.
In her book Emotional Unavailability, Psychologist Bryn Collins talks extensively about what she refers to as “Post-Relationship Stress,” which is defined by the fear, mistrust, and trauma of emotionally and physically abusive relationships. The symptoms are similar to the ones associated with PTSD. Anger, shame, uneasiness, and fear are commonplace. She calls it a syndrome. I call it an emotional block. It might as well be the same thing.
Have you ever been in a relationship that shattered you? One that made you feel like a shell of your former self? If you do, then you understand post-relationship stress. If you do, you know what it’s like to have an emotional block.
How To Overcome An Emotional Block
The first step in overcoming an emotional block is to recognize you have one. Emotional blocks tend to lose their power once they have been exposed.
The second step is to identify things you are doing that are making the emotional block worse. This is easier said than done. But for the ease of simplicity, stop doing all of the following:
- Self-medicating with food, shopping, alcohol, or drugs;
- Having one-night stands;
- Isolating from friends and family;
- Repeating a pattern of abusive relationships;
- self-harming and otherwise self-injurious behaviors;
- Abusing others in relationships;
- Not allowing for proper self-care;
- Wallowing in depression and despair;
- Losing yourself in work;
- Avoiding relationships altogether.
As you might imagine, it’s difficult to change any of those behaviors on your own, so the third step is to get assistance in the form of individual psychotherapy and/or group support. These problematic behaviors did not develop overnight, and it will take time and effort to change them.
Individual psychotherapy and support groups offer similar benefits but in different ways. With individual therapy, you’ll have an opportunity to focus on your own situation and to develop an action plan that suits your needs. With group support, you’ll benefit from the accountability and sense of belonging that comes from directed peer support.
You can find a licensed therapist and even support groups in your area with the aid of directories maintained by Psychology Today and Good Therapy. You can also talk to your family doctor and ask for a referral.
Another great option to consider is online counseling. BetterHelp is one of the more popular providers of it’s kind, offering a low-cost, effective, and easy to use alternative to traditional face-to-face therapy. I use and recommend BetterHelp, which is one of the most beloved and well-reviewed platforms out there.
Online Therapy Helps.
Take this free quiz to see if you struggle with depression. Then, get matched with a licensed therapist via video, phone, or text-based chat. Plans start at $60/week. Take 10% off with our link.