Tag Archives: affect phobia

Why Saying ‘I Love You’ Can Be a Challenge

Georgetown, Washington DC, 2019

I work with clients who struggle with not being able to say I love you to their partners, friends, family members, and even their children. Many are in my office because this has been impacting their relationships.

“There is no decision without loss,” writes psychologist Dr. Stan Tatkin. In my own work with couples, families, and individuals, I have written that telling someone you love them without needing a particular response from them is key. You do it just because it’s true. You’re making a statement about yourself and your feelings, and that has been shown to have benefits purely in terms of identity, self-worth, and emotional health.

Some reasons why people struggle to say the L word:

Fear of Rejection
Of course, one of the strongest fears that keeps us from saying we love someone is the fear of being rejected or even abandoned. When we open up to another, we take away a layer of self-protection, and that allows us to be more easily hurt.

Missing Role Models
Many people haven’t seen tenderness expressed between partners, parents, families, and close friends. They could have grown up in a family where saying those three words was not part of the family culture or have a friend group that does not engage in verbal affection.

Saying those words can bring up a lot of fear that comes from a place of feeling too exposed or vulnerable. For people who have a hard time letting their guard down, “I love you” might be daunting.

Feelings of unworthiness
Giving and receiving love is ideally reciprocal. However, many individuals who suffer from depression, low self-esteem, or a history of interpersonal loss may feel unworthy of being loved.

Transactional relationships
Saying I love you can be used as currency to keep the relationship in presumed equilibrium. This is a frequent one that I hear from couples who state that when they express their love they do not receive the same verbal response. Often, this leads to a sense of feeling unloved when that may not actually be the case at all.

Communication differences
Autism spectrum disorder and language-based disorders, including aphasia and dyspraxia, can alter the way that people communicate and express their feelings. For example, individuals on the spectrum, may have a lot of difficulty getting out the words “I love you,” labeling their own feelings, and recognizing emotions in others.

Mental health issues
Someone who has trauma or an anxiety disorder may have a lot of difficulty expressing their true feelings. Read more about the fear of expressed emotions here, What Is Affect Phobia?

Verbal Acknowledgement
Some people use a substitute phrase to fill in the space after being told “I love you.” It may be “Me, too,” or “Back ‘atcha,” or “You know.” This can make some people feel less vulnerable or obligated to say I love you back.

Actions as Love Language
Others might use actions to demonstrate their love. For many folks, scraping frost off the car on a cold morning, walking the dog so a roommate or partner can sleep in, cooking a special meal, and other thoughtful gestures can demonstrate love without saying the words.

What is Affect Phobia?

To live a full and connected life in the face of difficulty and even tragedy requires the capacity to feel and make use of our emotional experience.
-Diana Fosha, The Transforming Power of Affect.

I have clients who have asked me to teach them how not to cry. It’s seen as fake or a sign of weakness. Others have walked away from those in distress, or even mocked the tears or deep feelings of others.

Affect phobia is literally a fear of feelings and their expression. If someone has internal conflicts with strong emotions in themselves and others, they are functioning in a maladaptive way. The hallmarks of affect phobia are avoidance of strong emotions in self or others, minimization of natural expression of emotions, and even taking pride in being strong or “stoic.” Similarly, they may tell someone in distress not to be vulnerable, sometimes guised as a compliment (you are stronger than that; be a warrior).

While phobias are traditionally associated with things like spiders, heights, enclosed spaces, and public speaking, it goes beyond that. For example, an individual with an aversion to grief might avoid feelings of sadness and become enraged instead. Instead of comforting someone in distress, they may sneer or tell them to stop crying. This can impact their relationships, environment, self-worth, ability to be present, experience joy, and more.

People may come to fear feelings because of early learning in their families-of-origin. They may adopt avoidant feelings, thoughts and behaviors to an extent that they are unaware that there is an underlying feeling that they are avoiding in self and others.

For example, if a child’s parents could not tolerate open expression of their anger as a child, they learn to “shut down” feelings of anger. They also may not be able to tolerate the angry feelings of another, similarly shutting them down, or avoiding them as “dramatic.” If parents said they were being a baby for crying, they may learn to view feelings of sadness as “weak.” As an adult, they pride themselves on being “strong and stoic” and dismiss feelings of sadness as “weak and pathetic.”

Affect phobia are anxiety and shame-based reactions that inhibit our natural expression of emotions. This inhibition often causes various mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression.
Some common indicators of affect phobia:
Guilt over anger
Embarassment about crying
Pain over desiring closeness
Shame about oneself
Avoidance of others who they deem to be overly emotional
Lack of ability to read and respond appropriately to feelings in others

Therapy helps to address affect phobias by identifying and helping to address blocks to feeling. It is often helpful to understand these anxiety and shame-based reactions as adaptations to the kind of childhood environment people grew up in. However, these responses are no longer needed and get in the way of healthier functioning – a tolerance for the FULL range of emotions in our lives and others.

Also see:
(Affect Phobia Therapy, an integrative model of short-term Dynamic Psychotherapy that was created by Leigh McCullough, Harvard Medical School psychologist and researcher, 1997).

Embolden Psychology

Embolden offers the ADOS-2, the gold standard assessment for kids on the spectrum.

Combined with psychoeducational testing, it helps provide comprehensive information and recommendations to help children and teens six and up.

Thank you for contacting us.