As a licensed professional counselor, I write a lot of blog posts about important concepts to understand for those of us with ADHD, Anxiety, Autism, and/or various forms of neurodivergence. This week, it’s time to discuss Emotional Permanence, and y’all, this is a big one. Understanding this concept can bring relationship-saving insight to those who suffer from it! Let’s dig in:
When babies are about 4-7 months old, they develop “object permanence”. This means that if you show them an interesting object and then immediately hide that same object, they’ll probably search for it. They understand that it still exists and that it is likely accessible to them if desired. If they want their missing pacifier, for example, they understand that it is simply out of sight and not gone forever. This knowledge brings them a sense of stability and comfort - “The thing isn’t gone away just because I can’t see it right now.”
The concept of Emotional Permanence, involves understanding that emotions still exist in ourselves and in others, even when they are not being felt or expressed. A person with a high sense of emotional permanence can easily recall emotions they previously felt and soothe themselves with happy, accepting, loving emotions through their more difficult emotions. They can easily understand that emotions come and go, ebbing and flowing within a safe limit. What they feel is important to them (and worth talking about), but their actions are not based on the whims of their emotional surges. However, when a person has a lower sense of emotional permanence, they may experience every emotional wave more fully, “forgetting” that emotions come and go in a predictable manner. Most importantly, they may forget how much someone loves them when that person is not present to actively demonstrate their love for them. In short, an emotional surge can occur when the source of comfort is removed from sight. Just as a small child might cry when their bottle is no longer visible, so an adult might experience strong anxiety when their partner is away for a few nights.
Conflicts can also be especially problematic for people who struggle with emotional permanence. Conflicts hide the ball. The comfort source of demonstrated affection is now behind a veil of negative emotions. Affection is temporarily forgotten, leaving the person feeling complete rejection with little ability to comfort themselves by remembering that they are loved. It’s a scary place! But if you feel this all applies to you, there’s hope. We have to first recognize when we are feeling low emotional permanence and then remember the truth!
Step One: Recognize the tendency to “forget” that you are loved. This often starts with recognizing your patterns. When do you feel the most anxious and lonely? Maybe it’s when you haven’t been around a certain special person for a while. Maybe it’s when your partner is out of town. Maybe it’s when you haven’t been meditating or praying or exercising or engaging in self-care. Whenever it is, it’s important to recognize that you may be a bit more volatile than usual during these times. Hopefully, you can put yourself around an affectionate, supportive person immediately. When you can’t, though, you’ll have to manage it yourself. It may help to emotionally ground yourself. Use one of the DBT Grounding techniques in the video series below: You might also need to exercise, to work out or go for a walk. This may take the edge off so you can proceed to Step Two.
Step Two: Remind yourself of the truth. The truth is that you are still loved. The person who loved you last week still loves you this week. They aren’t actively expressing it or showing it while they’re away, but they still feel love for you. You can allow yourself to self-soothe by recalling interactions with them in which you felt loved. You can imagine they were holding you, like they would if they were with you right now. You can even use this in the middle of a conflict with them. Even though you can’t access the affection behind the veil of emotional strain, you can remind yourself that it’s still there. You’re still safely loved. Healthy relationships always involve at least some conflict. You don’t have to let yourself succumb to the emotional vortex. You can remind yourself that you are still loved and secure.
If you’d like to learn more about helping yourself manage ADHD, Anxiety, Depression, Autism/Asperger’s or a host of other issues, then click here to schedule a session using my website: www.altmancounseling.com I look forward to helping you navigate life’s challenges! (Georgia Residents Only)