(The following is an abridged version of a longer piece by Ashley North LMFT, faculty and board member of the Western PA Family Center. You can hear more from Ms. North at the WPFC Fall Conference and Symposium, where she will be a featured speaker addressing the concept of emotional cutoff.)
I’ll never forget the first time I cut off… the first time I “ran from a problem.”
To be clear, there were probably PLENTY of times I cut off before this… but the physical feelings that occurred so vividly during this time of cutoff is what keeps the memory remarkable.
I was 4 years old visiting my mom’s side of the family. This included my mother’s sister – my Aunt Geri, her husband Rick, and their three children: Jesse, age 9; Crystal, age 7; and Garrett, age 3. The children were athletic and attractive. My uncle and the children were idolized by my grandmother and therefore idolized by the rest of the family. Including me.
I desperately wanted to be like my cousins Jesse and Crystal; I could salivate at the idea of being “on the inside” with them. I would copy and mimic their ways of interacting, and if that meant making fun of young Garrett, I was doing it too.
One morning, over OJ and sticky syrup pancakes, as I joined in with my cool big-kid cousins to torment Garrett about some arbitrary thing, I caught the death stare from my aunt. The gritted teeth, raised tone of discipline, and a decision – I was the problem…
In “my shame,” I ran from the kitchen. I scrambled up the stairs of their multilevel, multiroom, midwestern home to the first bedroom I could find… AND bed, YES – the bed! My oasis. My savior! I climbed under my emotional force-field in the dark, and with eyes closed I felt it: Cutoff. Delicious.
There was a narrative of “freedom” existing for me in the moment: “I’m alone here. They’ll never find me here; I’m not in trouble here. I can wait until they forget I’m the problem; I’m removed from the threat to my survival here. I’m temporarily away from the anxiety, and from taking it personally here.”
I “loved” this feeling. Cutoff was THE MOVE for ME.
But beyond the narrative, what else was the feeling? What else was occurring bodily at the time that made the cutoff so alluring, and such a promising coping mechanism to reach for?
To put it more objectively, during cutoff, when one believes they are removed from anxiety, the parasympathetic nervous system can take charge of the body’s functioning. It is this network of nerves that can relax the body after a period of stress or danger, which can include the following:
So is it cutoff that I “love”?
Or is it the temporary lowering of anxiety and perceived threat, and all of the physical manifestations that come with it, making it possible for “better” mental and bodily functioning that I “love”?
Despite its ostensible benefits, and its universal and inevitable occurrence as a biological response in the management of anxiety however, I had questions.
In studying Bowen theory, I eventually came to see how often the family cut off from one another, and how frequently we used this move outside of the family as well. Looking back at the cutoff from my Aunt Geri and how I internalized it, isn’t that what had ME attempting cutoff from the whole household, if not the world?
I started to see the limitations of cutoff, and the real heart of the matter: while cutoff may offer relief, it does not allow “problems” to be understood at the root, or in any way solved. It merely puts them into hibernation, allowing the narrative of what we think is happening instead to take over.
In time I grew better at utilizing the respite of cutoff to allow for increased perspective on what was occurring. Rather than demanding myself to quit cold-turkey, I used cutoff to hear the narrative that was playing in my head, and coming out of the minds of others, about how the “problem,” was being framed.
Seeing cutoff as information about how the family operates emotionally has allowed me a path to bridge cutoff. The further back I walk on this bridge, the more I learn the facts and reality of the family stories and how they were (mis)interpreted over time. With this perspective, I’m more able to come up with my own options and ideas of how to manage me, and more able to move toward being in relationship with my family, with the anxiety, and with my self.
Ashley North, LMFT
WPFC Faculty and Board member