Melancholics and trauma

A reader asked how melancholics express love and affection, physically and emotionally, etc.

I feel like l need to understand why he takes forever to be close to me, doesn’t seem to like physical touch (which l think is related to past trauma) despite me providing a safe zone.

I don’t know the person in question, so this is more of an educated guess based on my own experiences and my interactions with other melancholics.

Trauma

First I would say that it most likely is related to past trauma, or the internal adaptations he’s made to the past trauma.

In a melancholic, trauma could produce adaptations like detachment/dissociation, hypervigilance, agitation, and so on.

Physical touch could be difficult because he’s basically in fight-or-flight mode, feeling in danger and ready to run or lash out at the slightest hint of a threat. His nervous system could be amped up, and every sound or sensation is magnified and feels like a violent imposition that is putting him in danger.

That’s one option anyway.

Alternatively, he could be detaching/dissociating from unpleasant emotions, trying not to feel them. If this is the case, then physical touch would be unwelcome because he’s already doing his best not to feel anything. Physical contact from a loved-one would normally have a relaxing, grounding effect, but in his case it would also bring him closer to his unwanted painful emotions.

Temperament

Dissociation and hypervigilance are pretty common responses regardless of temperament, though I suspect melancholics are more prone to internalise and hold on to past trauma than the other temperaments.

But in addition to mechanisms like dissociation and hypervigilance, melancholics will also respond to trauma in uniquely melancholic ways.

Because melancholics are idealists, they will be drawn to idealising their response. That means they will look for ultimate, perfect, and meaningful responses to their suffering.

You can tell a sanguine or phlegmatic to “learn to let go” but a melancholic will baulk at “letting go” because it implies that the problem is not as significant as it feels to them.

Letting go sounds like “forgetting” and since when has a problem ever gone away just by forgetting about it?

So a melancholic will be drawn to radical, idealised solutions to their internal suffering. Solutions like…rejecting all intimate or dependent human relationships, wishing they could live alone like a hermit on a mountaintop, somehow gaining complete control over their emotions, or simply ceasing to rely on or experience emotions in the first place.

These are the kinds of ‘solutions’ that will really just mess you up a whole lot more, but they appeal to the melancholic because they are inspiring. They hold meaning and promise a lasting solution to the problem of suffering.

What I’m getting at here is that a melancholic might have developed ideals and (unrealistic) goals that further inhibit them from accepting or expressing affection.

I’ve said before that being a melancholic is like being lost in a fog where only the biggest and brightest landmarks can be (dimly) seen. So imagine you’ve grown up in the fog, unable to respond adequately to your own suffering by altering your environment, and this predicament has left a deep and long-lasting impression on you that you never ever forget…

If you can’t change your environment (due to lack of knowledge, power, or both) then all you can do is change yourself.

Maybe the best you can do is try to stop those painful or unpleasant emotions from having control over you.

Melancholics may then choose to identify with examples of human beings who are emotionally detached and invulnerable, in the belief that this is an attainable and desirable way to live.

If this is the case with your melancholic, then he might not know how to reconcile this idealised role or imagined invulnerability with the more simple and healthy enjoyment of expressing and receiving affection.

Summary

All of this is potentially complicated.

In the first instance I would consider either the detached/dissociated or hypervigilant/fight-or-flight responses as possible explanations for avoiding accepting/expressing affection.

Both of those can run quite deep, and people do not necessarily recognise that they are in these states.

The secondary thing is the idealised role that could mean he has past or current ideals that make it hard for him to accept emotional vulnerability and intimacy. He might not even realise that these ideals are incomplete or unrealistic or not good models for a healthy human existence.

If this sounds daunting, just bear in mind that all people of different temperaments have issues and problems and faults. Melancholics are just more likely to internalise it rather than blaming it all on other people or taking it out on others.

Obviously none of this is a substitute for professional counselling etc.

So bearing in mind my non-professional status, there are a couple of ‘themes’ that might help. If possible, you could talk to him about how simple physical affection makes you feel relaxed and happy, and ask him how he feels about it.

Melancholics seem to love talking/thinking about themselves, and a spirit of genuine inquiry (as opposed to a challenge or interrogation) is usually welcome.

After all, if you start breaking love down into more basic actions and feelings, isn’t it that we feel relaxed and happy when we’re with someone we love? And physical contact tells us that the person we care about finds us lovable and attractive. Verbal affection and “reaching out” tells us that we’re important to the person we care about, and vice versa.

If you can find a way to talk about it, and discuss how he feels, I think that might prove fruitful. If he’s melancholic, he may not have a very clear sense of how he feels or why he feels that way. If there are repeated patterns like it taking him a long time to get close, then he might be able to make observations and work out what’s going on.

If you mean that each time he sees you, it takes him a while to physically get close to you, then bear in mind that it might simply be taking time for his physiological and mental state to change. That is, if his “normal” phys. and mental state is fight-or-flight, then yes it will take quite a while to cool down in your presence, to a level where he is calm enough to accept and express affection.

By becoming aware of patterns like these (if that’s what is actually going on) we can learn to adjust.

Anyhow, I hope some of this is relevant and helpful. Since I don’t know the circumstances or the individuals involved it’s quite general and may not be appropriate for your situation.

Adelaide Feng Shui

The great Jesuit missionary to China Matteo Ricci was apparently not a fan of Feng Shui:

“What could be more absurd than their imagining that the safety of a family, honors, and their entire existence must depend upon such trifles as a door being opened from one side or another, as rain falling into a courtyard from the right or from the left, a window opened here or there, or one roof being higher than another?”

I’m not much of a geomancer myself, but as a hypervigilant person I appreciate the wisdom in, say, never sitting with your back to a window, or not having the front and rear doors of your house in alignment such that anyone standing at the front could see you running out the back.

But it’s not all about finding a position of strategic advantage in anticipation of violent attack; there’s also an aesthetic quality to the arrangement of buildings, furniture, and landscapes that is hard to ignore for all but the most insensitive people.

So I don’t know if it’s just aesthetics or something more deeply wrong with the arrangement of Adelaide, but coming back from interstate the dissonance is palpable.

First, there’s the plain.  Adelaide was built in the middle of a great, flat, seemingly featureless plain running between the hills and the sea.  It’s as if someone came in with a giant steamroller and rolled it all flat before settlement – though I’m yet to find such a myth in Aboriginal Dreamtime.

As such, Adelaide was built without any real limits on its expansion, offering our forbears the kind of absolute freedom that only dampens creativity.  The Adelaide plains are like an immense blank canvas, freedom without inspiration, growth without a corresponding challenge.  As such, what you get in the bulk of Adelaide is not real development but just ‘more of the same’, suburbs replicated without end, their limited character distinguished only by minor variations in age and more significant variations in socio-economic status.

What is lacking is a sense of proportion.  The plain would ‘work’ if there were something more significant to offset it: if the hills were more like mountains, if the city centre was a hive of overbearing towers and economic activity.

Better still if the plain were not a plain at all, if the city were forced to bend and blend into a range of natural undulations and contours, if the land itself had demanded more of its inhabitants, drawn from them some creativity, some ingenuity in response to genuine limitations of space and shape.

The founders of Adelaide responded to the lack of limitations by putting aside imagination, planning the city in an immense grid of parallel and perpendicular roads, thus proving for all time that the geometric elegance of a habitation is inversely proportional to its innate human character.

As Adelaideans will attest, it’s impossible to lose yourself in Adelaide since 99% of the major roads, not to mention the smaller streets, run either North-South or East-West.  Roads that run otherwise are the exceptions that prove the rule, at least one of which having thereby earned itself the moniker ‘Diagonal Road’.

Entering Adelaide via the hills, the grid-like feel is subtle yet all-encompassing. Look North up Portrush Rd, or West down Cross Rd and its as though you can see to the farthest reaches of the city.  The front door and the back are very much in alignment.

Such flat, uniform geometry is unnatural, and if there were some other profound redemptive feature it might not matter so much. Yet in a city that struggles to find a reason for being, Adelaide could hardly afford to be so regular, so unforgiving, so clear and up-front.

This unnatural arrangement is just one of the small yet significant contributors to the strangeness of Adelaide, a strangeness I am intent on unravelling as we ponder the mysteries of my adopted home, this uncanny city with no reason for existing.