Sulking : The Habit of The Dark Side of The Mood

Defined as being angry or irritable about something but childishly refusing to talk about it.  The word “sullen” and “sulk,” originate from sullein , which means alone.  The silent treatment, as I like to call it, is not just an annoying habit but a personality disorder, and moreover a choice. At the heart of the problem is the inability to articulate feelings. The sufferer withdraws, and sulking becomes the preferred form of communication.  Fits of sulking are usually provoked by an immovable sense of injustice, victimization and unfairness which leads to a withdrawal and the buildup of smoldering resentment.  As Mason Cooley points out, “Sulking is silent because speaking would reveal its folly.”

This silent treatment is a passive-aggressive action where a person feels bad but is unable to express themselves. Their being ‘silent’ is never a silent act. It generates what the sulker wants. Attention and the knowledge others are hurt, including a feeling of power, because sulking gives you power when you feel disempowered and who would voluntarily want to give that up? It allows you to control and manipulate situations.  Whenever we have little self- worth we will always try to gain control of situations or people through manipulative means. Some therapists see this kind of social rejection purely as poor communication.  Others are more concerned by it, viewing it as a form of control or even abuse. “Some men use the silent treatment as a control mechanism”, says Dr Petra Boynton.

Sulking is generally thought of as something which children do rather than adults, but it is a major blight on many adult lives.  It wrecks marriages and lives, causes mental torment, violence and unhappiness, and affects millions.  Researchers have found that most people sulk at times, and it is a strategy frequently adopted by children as a non-confrontational way of getting their own way. In adults, short sulks can be regarded as attractive. But in its chronic forms, it is a problem that needs treatment.  The causes of chronic sulking are not clear. There might be a genetic component, but one of the latest theories is that it develops in childhood as a punishment for the primary care giver in a way which is least likely to trigger chastisement.

“It is a little known fact that sulking can take on a degree of severity where it becomes a clinical phenomenon, a personality disorder,” says psychotherapist and author Adam Edward Jukes.  Stating, “A sulk is a reaction to feelings of being rejected where, instead of getting openly angry or talking about the problem, the sulker retaliates with moody silences or monosyllabic replies designed as a punishment.  The object of the sulk is to force the other person to make the first attempt at patching things up so that the sulker can then reject them, thus extracting revenge. After what is considered an acceptable period of time, depending upon the gravity of the perceived misdemeanor, the sulker accepts reparation.  According to Jukes, sulking in men can also be the first, vital sign of abuse, “In my experience, a very high proportion of abusers are prone to severe attacks of sulking, and have been in a sulk for most of their lives, deriving as it does from the basic fault and desire to punish” says Jukes, author of Men Who Batter Women.  Further stating, “most abuse is incremental. It starts in a small way, maybe with sulking, and then escalates. It is very rare that a man begins with a vicious attack. They often start by feeling resentment and then withdrawing.”

We all want and expect others to be appreciate, love and understand us. When they fail to, we get angry, which creates a feeling of being alone in a place where our pain is not comprehended or even acknowledged.  Lacking the self- confidence or personal power to confront the person with whom we are angry, we emotionally withdraw ourselves becoming unresponsive thereby ensuring that others can’t relate to us. We feel helpless, abused, ineffectual and misunderstood.  Their response or lack of it, only serves to push old childhood buttons and confirm past feelings of a lack of self-worth.

Rather than experience these painful feelings, we defend our vulnerability with anger and punish them, rather than explore why we feel this way and work at fixing the problem.  It is however, a highly effective response, which is why we use it often to gain control of a situation, reclaiming the power we felt we had lost through the actions of another. It also involves making the other person feel guilty.  Guilt as I understand it cohabits in the second chakra, where finance, sex, boundaries, feelings, pleasure and fear of change lie. Usually our expectations of how another person should behave, center around these issues.

When the expectation and reality differ then, it is cause for us to feel anger, which being unable to voice, we remain in the passive state.  Even when eventually conversation is resumed, the actual incident that started the war is seldom discussed.  Left to fester it moves our relationship from one of intimacy to co-dependency. Where there is no understanding, there can be no intimacy.  Author of Why Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus , John Gray describes this deterioration in four stages: resisting, resenting, rejection and repression.

With resisting, we hold back from communicating openly for fear of being ridiculed or made to feel worthless. This leads to resentment in not being able to share ourselves completely. We then reject the other person, which we do through sulking, withholding sex and withdrawing emotionally.  Finally, we appear to get over it and make-up, yet in not expressing the cause of our initial anger, we repress our true feelings.  In time, the relationship deteriorates to the point that we repress all feelings, positive and negative and we find ourselves cohabiting with someone we barely seem to know, let alone love.

Passive aggressive behavior like this may come from past experiences, regardless of whether they have learned this in the past or present, if they repeatedly engage in this behavior as an adult, it is something they are making a deliberate choice to do. My advice, don’t take it to heart, they are only trying to make you take responsibility for their emotional immaturity.

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