The Mighty Logo

How Criticizing My Emotions in Childhood Created an 'Emotional Storm' Inside Me

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Editor's Note

If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

When I was growing up, I was labeled as a “shy” and “sensitive” child. I would cry often, and I would be criticized for it, which contributed to my quiet demeanor. Whenever I would express anger, I was told I wasn’t allowed to be mad, or that being angry was wrong. I learned that sadness and anger were “bad” emotions, and whenever I experienced either emotion, I felt ashamed as though something was wrong with me for feeling them. Throughout my life, I learned to internalize my sadness and anger, which has led to chronic self-harm and digestion issues. Soon into adolescence, the inability to express sadness or anger led me to lose the ability to express any emotion properly — even feelings such as happiness. In my life, I have also experienced relationships where my feelings were invalidated and gaslighting was a factor, which only contributed to my internalization of emotions and my distrust of my emotional experience.

By suppressing my feelings, I have found there is an emotional storm inside of me that is constantly brewing. I struggle with chronic irritation that feels like I am being burned from the inside out. Sometimes, this emotion turns into outbursts that affect those whom I love most, but most of the time, I don’t know how to express the emotions I am feeling and I come off with a flat affect. I am seen by others as a “calm” individual, and it is hard to find people who will take me seriously when I say I am angry because I don’t outwardly express my anger. I struggle with translating my inner emotional experience, and this has been a constant issue throughout my mental health recovery because I am labeled as “high functioning” simply because I hide my inner feelings from the world. I was also able to handle a high-stress lifestyle until I reached the point of mental breakdown. Because I present so well on the outside, I am often overlooked by my treatment team and the people in my life. Since they cannot see the storm inside of me until I reach the point of mental breakdown, I find I am often alone and misunderstood. My knee-jerk reaction when someone asks me how I am is to say “I’m fine” or “I’m good” because I have internalized those as the appropriate responses based on my childhood experiences, but also because I don’t know how to put words to what I am experiencing. This makes me feel like I am screaming on the inside, and there is no one who can save me.

When I was younger, I was made fun of for being “shy” and “sensitive,” but both labels have followed me into adulthood. Being criticized for being quiet and sensitive just adds to my subconscious process of internalizing my emotions and hiding my inner experience from the world due to my fear of criticism and accompanying feelings of shame. I am frequently working through this in therapy, but each day is exhausting because of the storm of emotions I have to work through.

It is important to understand how we respond to children can impact their development and their adult lives, as my childhood did. Telling a child they are “too sensitive” can cause them to begin to internalize their emotions because they equate being told they are “too sensitive” with “emotions are bad.” Even when I don’t outwardly express my sadness or anger, I immediately feel intense shame whenever I have those feelings in my inner experience. It took me a long time to start to be able to identify the emotions I feel on the inside, and sometimes they become so strong I don’t know how to label them or handle them, which has contributed to my self-harm and substance abuse. Words can deeply impact a person, especially a child, and if we change the way we perceive and talk to children, we can help them learn to process and translate their emotions and create more productive and positive relationships with others. All emotions are valid, and while the experience of some emotions may be unpleasant for those involved, no one has the right to discredit how anyone is feeling.

Getty Images photo via IvanBastien.

Originally published: March 6, 2020
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home