“Snap out of it!”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Don’t you dare try to tell us that we don’t love you!”
The commentary from family members never seems to end. In fact, it only adds fuel to the fire, bound to create an explosion. You often wear your pain and trauma on your sleeve, and your cries for help are frequently met with anger, disappointment, and looks of confusion.
Your face is flushed. Your eyes begin to well up. You’ve basically reached your breaking point, and all that you want to do in this very moment is scream from the top of your lungs, run, and disappear. In reality, all that you want is to feel heard, accepted, and supported unconditionally.
During the aftermath, feelings of shame float to the surface. Your thoughts begin to race. You want to turn on yourself, and everything seems to spiral out of control as you crouch next to the edge of your bed—with your tearstained face hidden in between your folded arms.
Does the above scenario sound all too familiar? Do similar responses from supports or loved ones cut like a knife—and seem to be permanently etched into your memory?
If so, you may be dealing with the effects of negative expressed emotion. Imagine expressed emotion on a continuum. On one end, you’ll find positive, low levels of expressed emotion— which looks a lot like empathy, compassion, and genuine concern displayed by family members. On the other end, you’ll witness high levels of negative expressed emotion, such as rage and constant criticism. Regardless of the challenges that you experience—from panic attacks to depressive episodes—you may be at risk for encountering this added layer of stress that can potentially disrupt how you cope with and manage your symptoms.
Despite this risk, there are ways to dodge it or recover. Although you can’t dictate how loved ones respond to your residual trauma, you can learn how to grasp the reins of your thoughts and emotions. You can boost your confidence and capacity to control automatic reactions to negative expressed emotion.
Consider the following tips:
- Prioritize self-care: Engage in healthy behaviors and apply coping skills that serve as distractions, as well as work to restore your inner peace. You can always walk away (calmly) and savor the temporary alone time by writing down your thoughts, listening to music, or meditating.
- Talk it out: Seek specific family members or extra supports who can give you what you need in these moments—positive expressed emotion. If you’re able (and comfortable), try a 24/7 crisis text or call hotline if you feel like you have nowhere else to turn. Trained professionals will offer validation and hear you out without judgment. Sometimes you just need a listening ear to help you bounce back, and listening often entails responding with acceptance in a way that doesn’t minimize or condemn trauma responses.
- Search for similarities: Universality is therapeutic. You can find comfort in knowing that you aren’t alone in your suffering. Another person may not walk in your exact pair of shoes, but their pair may resemble yours—in term of style, wear, etc. Consider finding an online or virtual forum. Feel free to remain anonymous and safely participate in discussions or simply hang by the sidelines, search through resonating topics, and see that others are going through it as well.
- Give what you’d like to receive: It’s hard to fathom feeling your loved ones’ feelings and identifying with their experiences as supports when you’re overwhelmed by your own emotions and experiences. However, during the aftermath of negative expressed emotion conflict, you can train yourself to quietly reflect, as well as offer empathy and acceptance to your family members—instead of staying stuck in shame and resentment. It may be easier to realize that your loved ones aren’t perfect either. They deal with their own ‘stuff’ and may simply lack the skills needed to support you through your symptoms.
The sheer thought of taking the reins can be intimidating and evoke discomfort as you begin to overcome high levels of negative expressed emotion. You may feel shaky and uncertain at the start. However, you don’t have to face this hurdle alone as you seek long-term relief.
Please feel free to reach out! We can overcome these challenges together.