How to support someone who struggles to open up emotionally

Communication: It’s probably one of the most important aspects of being human, and indeed any meaningful relationship.

But it’s also often one of the hardest things to navigate, because everybody approaches it differently.

When you’re a talker, or someone who feels able, willing, and perhaps even drawn to talking about how you feel, attempting to communicate with someone whose automatic response to negative emotions is to shut down can be frustrating at best and soul-destroying at worst.

However, the way we communicate is likely predicated by a string of experiences and beliefs we’ve acquired while growing up.

A reserved response from a friend doesn’t necessarily mean they’re pushing you away either. It can be down to a number of things, from struggles with verbalising feelings to childhood trauma.

That’s why it’s important not to take things too personally. It’s not you, it’s them – but you can still offer your support in a way that’s easier for your friend to digest.

Why do some people automatically shut down while going through a hard time?

According to Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, shutting down is a coping mechanism. 

‘It’s likely to be a coping mechanism that “worked” at one time,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. 

‘When going through a stressful time as a child, for example, we’re unlikely to have had the tools to cope. 

‘Shutting down is one way of helping us survive because it protects us psychologically from what’s happening.’

Love, sex, and relationship coach Julia Kotziamani seconds this, saying: ‘When we are going through a hard time we tend to respond from learnt strategies or reactions that have protected us in the past, rather than a rational response to the present.’

We all develop coping mechanisms and a huge number of people have experienced situations where it has been unsafe to be emotionally open. 

Under pressure, these coping strategies can cause people to withdraw, withhold, deflect or get defensive when they are asked to express emotions.

Whatever the reason – and there are many, from cultural reasons to gender-based and more structural reasons – it’s likely that people who struggle to share their feelings simply haven’t learned a healthy alternative.

Furthermore, as Dr Elena notes, they may even struggle identifying their emotions and needs, let alone expressing them.

How to support someone who struggles to open up

While a lack of communication can be extremely jarring – especially in a relationship where those involved have different attachment styles like anxious vs avoidant – patience and understanding are key if you want to support someone who seems reluctant to open up.

‘In a perfect world,’ says Julia, ‘we could all communicate in a calm, open and reasonable manner, even during conflict or withholding, but the reality is that this can take time to develop in a dynamic.’

She says that, while it’s important to express your need for communication in a calm and collected manner, it’s also important to ‘meet someone where they are’ rather than pressuring them or responding emotionally, which can lead to more withdrawal.

‘It can help someone if you engage in active listening, take time to let them communicate on their terms by letting them set the pace and depth, and to express your own needs,’ she adds.

Make it safe

While you can’t always control how someone responds to something, as Julia notes, you can take control of creating a ‘safe, judgement-free listening space.’

As vital as it is to listen to your partner without casting any judgement or shame, it’s equally important to do it at the right time. 

‘Make sure the timing is good and you aren’t trying to get someone to open up during a moment of high conflict or stress,’ Julia says. 

Be validating

It’s important not to invalidate your partner’s communication style or their feelings, even if they are different to your own.

‘Avoid pressuring them or blaming them and let them know you understand,’ says Dr Elena.

‘They may need some time if they are feeling dissociated or numb and “out of body”. 

‘Tell them you’re there for them whenever they are ready to speak, but also let them know how important it is for your connection that you’re able to share these kinds of things with each other.’

Give it room

Just as you can’t control how someone reacts, you also can’t control when they will be ready to open up.

‘When someone may need more time to open up than you, it’s important that we give them room to do that,’ says Julia.

Rushing can create pressure, which can then lead your partner to retreat further into their shell. 

‘It’s good to create room for the conversation, too,’ says Julia. ‘Turn off devices and distractions and give the person your full attention.’

She adds: ‘This can be hard with modern life around work, kids, and the endless stream of information, so really try to carve out an interruption-free moment for this to happen.’

Take care of your own

‘It can be difficult to take ownership of our own feelings especially when we sense someone is being withholding and we want them to open up to us,’ says Julia.

‘Even with great intentions we can create an environment where we bulldoze the conversation, don’t really listen, only hear what we like, or react with shaming or judgemental language and behaviour.’

Indeed, none of this is conducive to encouraging your partner to open up to you and it’s important to take ownership of working on your own emotional communication, says Julia. 

‘Recognising our own triggers and expectations can really help,’ she adds.

It’s also important to prepare yourself for any emotionally exhausting or challenging conversations. 

Julia says: ‘Make sure you engage in good self-care and give yourself breaks and time to recoup your energy. 

‘It is also vital to protect yourself so if someone has responded aggressively or abusively you need to hold your boundaries and keep yourself safe.’

Try therapy

If it’s within your means, therapy can be a great tool to work through communication problems within relationships as well as unhealthy coping mechanisms as an individual.

‘It can take a while to unravel where this coping mechanism stemmed from,’ says Dr Elena. 

‘And if someone has spent a lifetime bottling up their emotions, it can help to do this alongside the support of a therapist.’

Recognise our differences

Finally, the obvious problem is that people have very different ways of communicating and dealing with things, but recognising that is a big part of the solution, and so is adhering to those differences. 

Julia explains: ‘We all have our own patterns of communication, triggers, defences, and learned responses to emotions.

‘One of the most important things you can do when it comes to genuine intimacy is to learn your partner’s. 

‘If they withdraw to raised voices, try and keep your tone softer. If they are putting out a bid to communicate, try and meet them where they are. 

‘Do they need questions to get them engaged? Do they prefer to speak in a longer “monologue” style before wanting a response? 

‘Ask them what they personally need and respond well to. 

‘It sounds simple, but it can take a lot of work and care so don’t worry if it’s not perfect all the time. Each conversation of this type will get easier.’

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