Emotional Cutoff: Avoiding Emotional Pain

by Yvonne Fernandez

Most of us learned in our childhood homes the consequences of touching a hot kitchen stove or putting fingers in the path of a closing door (ouch!). Besides appliances, doors and other potential physical dangers, home is also were we first felt good or bad about ourselves and others. Unlike physical injuries, hurt feelings are invisible; we cannot bandage or apply ointments to soothe away the pain. So what happens to the hurt feelings that occur in family relationships? Can’t we just try to forget and hope the passage of time will make it all better? My observation is that over time we become adept at avoiding more hurt feelings by steering clear of people (and places) that stir up painful feelings or memories.

Murray Bowen was a psychiatrist and pioneer of family systems therapy whose studies of family relationships revealed a phenomenon in adult children he labeled emotional cutoff. Bowen explained emotional cutoff involves “separation, isolation, withdrawal, running away, or denying the importance of the parental family” (Bowen, 1978, p. 382). An adult may use emotional cutoff to separate from the past or from the family of origin by running away (literally or figuratively). For example, moving across country, or having no contact while living in the same city. The person who moves away may blame the family for long ago slights while impulsively “running” to and from short-term relationships hoping to satisfy the natural need for emotional closeness (p. 383). They may seek relationships with coworkers or friends that become too emotionally intense or toxic to sustain (p. 462). These behaviors are strong indicators of a core human need for emotional closeness with others, starting with parents and family members.

A variation of emotional cutoff is staying emotionally close to the family of origin while internalizing anxiety (about the family) and developing symptoms of physical illness and depression. An emotionally cutoff person could be running away from relationships he or she actually wants and needs, but has not yet found a way to either make meaning of long held emotional pain or to heal it. The recent pandemic might have provided an acceptable excuse to avoid family gatherings too painful to attend. While emotionally cutting off contact with physical distance could avert the threat of more pain in the short term, the possible long term consequence is chronic sadness and/or anger that may undermine attempts to reconnect with family or to sustain new relationships.

Therapy provides a safe space offering opportunities to learn how to manage symptoms of anxiety or depression while making meaning of relevant hurtful events. A therapeutic setting could also activate inner protective resources that would in effect insulate, much like oven mitts for fingers, and shield one’s vulnerable emotions from a “hot” family environment.

Bowen, M., 1978. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. Aronson; Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.: Lanham, MD;

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