How suppressed emotions cut us off from loved ones and ourselves.
David Servan-Schreiber | Sept/Oct 2009 issue
Tom had a successful career… in the mafia. He’d been a millionaire, able to have any woman he wanted, and rubbed shoulders with influential people. Yet when he came to see me after a lifetime of alcohol, drugs and crime, he was like a lost child who needed direction. To “succeed” in his world, he’d had to learn to block his emotions, and didn’t know who he was any more.
Tom told me about the time he was a new recruit and he’d agreed, for a substantial sum, to cut his best friend’s ear off because his friend owed money to the Mafia. As he used all his weight to pin his friend down, Tom repeated mechanically, “It’s nothing personal, Jimmy. It’s just business.” Back home, he collapsed into bed and stayed there for two days. When he recovered, he swore to himself he’d never let himself get emotional like that again. He never did cry after that, and moved rapidly through the ranks of “the family.” But after years of that type of life, he couldn’t sleep at night unless he’d had a few drinks, and his only real pleasure came from prostitutes or cocaine, or both.
At 55, broke and alone, Tom started to recognize the Faustian pact that dominated his life. Having cut off his emotions to block out the pain he inflicted on others, he was no longer able to experience the kind of wholesome pleasures essential to growth. After a few months of trying to listen to what his heart was telling him, Tom finally rediscovered his lust for life. He described the warmth of a child’s smile, something he’d never noticed before, and the tears he shed when a young woman whom he’d protected from the Mafia said to him: “Tom, no man has ever done what you just did for me. I’ll never forget that.” Said Tom: “It’s better than winning a hundred grand at poker.”
How many of us have fallen into the same trap as Tom, without realizing it? A manager who no longer cares about the devastating effect of losing a job, who tells himself that the severance package is more than reasonable compensation. A doctor who bows to pressure from the family and forces an old lady into a retirement home, even though he knows that staying in her own home is the most important thing left in her life.
How many of us are suppressing the emotions that make us human? It may have helped us climb the corporate ladder, gain status at work or among our friends, but it has also cut us off from the consequences of our actions. Nowadays we’re discovering how our behavior toward those close to us, whether colleagues or family members, often leads us to cut ourselves off from our feelings. Yes, it’s only through contact with our emotions that we can become whole and fulfilled. That’s the lesson I learned from Tom, and I try to apply it every day of my life.
David Servan-Schreiber is a French psychiatry professor and the author of Healing without Freud or Prozac