When Parents and Children’s Emotional Styles Align

7 min read
Source: Agung Pandit Wiguna / Pexels

Source: Agung Pandit Wiguna / Pexels

I have seen an interesting pattern emerge over the last few years with the young (meaning typically under 25) clients I work with. On the plus side, all are thoughtful, deep, well-liked, and pleasant people.

They are accomplished students, athletes, and performing artists. These young people are driven by generally healthy values and are determined to make a meaningful contribution to the world.

In other words, on the surface, they appear to be high-functioning and well-adjusted people who seem well on their way to living purposeful and satisfying lives.

Yet, below the surface, they struggle. None reach the severity of a diagnosable psychiatric disorder, but they all seem to suffer from what I call “neuroses of the privileged.” I know that the term neurosis is no longer used in the diagnosis of mental disorders.

At the same time, as I conceive it, it captures the essence of the difficulties these young people (presumably many more like them) wrestle with in modern-day America. That is enveloped in a culture of abundance and a collective aspiration to want more.

Some of the most common challenges they face include:

  • unstable self-esteem,
  • perfectionism,
  • fear of failure,
  • need for approval and validation,
  • negative social comparison,
  • a preoccupation with results and,
  • expectations and pressure (both self-imposed and from others).

These challenges, in turn, manifest themselves in what these young people think, the emotions they experience, how they behave, the level at which they perform, and how they interact with others:

  • not feeling worthy of love or respect,
  • conditional self-love,
  • harsh self-judgment and criticism,
  • lack of confidence,
  • self-consciousness and concern about being judged,
  • overthinking, rumination, and worry,
  • feelings of guilt and shame,
  • low tolerance for stress,
  • frequent bouts of frustration and anger,
  • poor emotional regulation,
  • feelings of loneliness,
  • difficulty establishing or maintaining healthy relationships, and
  • pursuing unhealthy relationships.

One could argue that the challenges and symptoms I just described are simply a part of the human condition that all young people must navigate, and I would agree to some degree. Pretty much everyone these days carries some emotional baggage from their childhoods that handicaps some aspects of their later lives.

At the same time, for those who suffer from these neuroses, it is usually quite easy to connect the unhealthy patterns of thinking, emotions, and behavior that they exhibit in the present to unhealthy aspects of their family lives in the past.

For example, being raised by parents who are themselves perfectionistic, judgmental, or angry is likely to produce proportional patterns in their children. And that is, in fact, the case with many of my clients; we were able to see these connections and then “unpack” their emotional baggage.

Yet, some of my clients, including one recently, grew up in loving families with supportive parents. There were no signs of neuroses, much less mental illness or toxic parenting in their upbringings. So, the mystery that they and I had to solve was how these young people acquired their neuroses.

I had difficulty accepting one client’s (I’ll call her Megan) constant refusal to see any unhealthiness in her parents or family life (I initially chalked it up to her protective resistance to admitting that her parents might be responsible for her difficulties). We kept digging but failed to uncover any clues within her family that might explain her current struggles.

Then, during one of our metaphorical grappling sessions, Megan had what were for me (and her) four epiphanies that seemed to explain where her neuroses came from:

  1. Her parents didn’t meet her emotional needs because their emotional styles didn’t align with her own.
  2. This misalignment led her to feel emotionally undernourished in her childhood.
  3. This “hunger” for having her emotional needs met led her to seek out emotional nourishment from her peers and our media-mediated popular culture.
  4. Unfortunately, the nourishment she received from these outside sources was “contaminated,” leading to the emergence of the neuroses.

Let’s explore each of these realizations in greater depth.

Emotional Styles Were Out of Sync

Megan is a temperamentally very emotional young woman; she has always felt her emotions strongly. This emotional vulnerability meant that she was hyper-sensitive to cues from the outside world.

As a child, Megan sometimes felt deeply overwhelmed with her emotions and sought her parents’ support for comfort and perspective. Unfortunately, both of her parents are rather stoic people. Though they tried to comfort Megan, they never quite understood her emotional life and couldn’t offer her the solace she needed.

In turn, Megan never really felt understood by her parents. In other words, Megan’s and her parents’ emotional styles were not aligned.

Emotionally Undernourished

Because of the misalignment between her emotional style and those of her parents, Megan’s emotional development didn’t progress as thoroughly or quickly as it could have. Additionally, her emotional needs were never adequately satisfied, thus causing her to feel poorly nourished emotionally and with a heightened emotional need state.

Seeking Emotional Nourishment Elsewhere

This state of emotional deprivation led Megan to seek out nourishment anywhere she could, most notably from her peers and our popular culture, which, these days, is mediated by the internet. Unfortunately, neither are sources for healthy emotional nourishment.

Peers, though they may care about someone, are generally egocentric and more concerned with meeting their own needs than the needs of others. In turn, our popular culture and its related technology don’t care about people; instead, tech companies care about money.

Unhealthy Emotional “Diet”

Megan’s emotional deprivation, combined with a still-developing prefrontal cortex that prevented her from making deliberate choices on what she consumed emotionally, caused Megan to accept any emotional “food,” even if it was unhealthy (much as a hungry person would gorge on junk food just to sate their appetite). This diet of emotional junk food included:

  • Concerns about body image.
  • Needing to be popular.
  • Needing to be accepted.
  • Loss of authentic self.
  • Susceptibility to unhealthy influences.
  • The creation of a false self that was “fed” by her peers and popular culture ensured that Megan could maintain her steady diet of emotional support, however contaminated it was.

This diet of emotional junk food satisfied Megan’s immediate need for emotional succor. However, as is the case with real junk food that tastes good and alleviates our hunger pangs, it takes its toll psychologically and emotionally with constant consumption.

A New Clarity

As Megan and I worked through these epiphanies in our session, I saw a palatable change in her; her body language opened up, her breathing became deeper, the body tension that had been evident previously faded, and her facial expressions became more relaxed. When we concluded the session, she said, “Now I understand why I do what I do, even when it’s clear to my rational self that it is definitely not good for me.”

As I have found with most of my clients, Megan had finally come to understand what “made her tick.” The explanation for why Megan had been thinking, feeling, behaving, and interacting in unhealthy ways as she had for so long gave her a sense of control that she never felt before.

For the first time, she no longer felt like a victim of herself who kept sabotaging her efforts to become the person she wanted to be. Instead, Megan was now in a place to begin to nourish herself on only the healthiest emotional foods that would enable her to reconnect with her authentic self and become the best version of herself.

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