When Someone Sets Your Flowers on Fire: Emotional Withholding



Have you ever been over the moon with good news and shared it, only to be met with stone cold silence? Or worse, derision? It’s like someone wrenches a spectacular bouquet of yellow flowers from your hands, shoves them into a furnace and you stand and watch the flowers combust. Emotional withholding hurts like that.

“In its most simple definition, withholding is just that — withdrawing or holding back communication, response, feedback (particularly positive feedback), agreement, acknowledgement, acceptance, and generally giving what’s often called the silent treatment or the cold shoulder,” writes Jamie Walters in When Withholding is a Toxic Tactic.


The Apostle Paul wrote, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15)

The latter part is easy. We bring casseroles to the homes of the grieving, attend wakes and funerals, send cards. The best among us try to take up the slack when a friend is seriously ill. We send money, help mow the lawn, listen.

But we are also called to rejoice with those who rejoice. There is mercy in that. And sometimes it’s hard.

Why do people withhold approval and praise? Sometimes envy holds us back. I remember a friend announcing her sixth pregnancy after I had lost my third, and final, child to miscarriage. Rejoice? I nearly fainted. I hope I congratulated her.  My memory is that a hot spear of pain shot through me and staked me to the ground where I stood. I hope I at least smiled.

Our own juridical disapproval may prevent us from rejoicing with those who rejoice. Upon learning of this same friend’s pregnancy, a friend close to me scoffed, “Well, I guess she doesn’t believe in over-population.”

We all have moments when we don’t know what to say, are perplexed by the circumstances, or wrestle with our own self-righteousness and we end up saying nothing or saying the wrong thing. This is normal, human frailty. But if withholding is our habit—how we engage repeatedly—that’s toxic.

Walters continues, “When withholding is used, even unconsciously (due to conditioning), as a type of punishment and/or to manipulate and control, it becomes . . .  a tactic of emotional and mental abuse, bullying, and interpersonal violence.”

How do we remedy this violence? What is the antidote to withholding our joy? I find the following words from the mystic Isaac of Syria a great catechism in love and mercy:

Let yourself be persecuted, but do not persecute others. Be crucified, but do not crucify others.

Be slandered, but do not slander others.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep: such is the sign of purity.

Suffer with the sick.

Be afflicted with sinners.

Exult with those who repent.

Be the friend of all, but in your spirit remain alone.

Be a partaker of the sufferings of all, but keep your body distant from all.

Rebuke no one, revile no one, not even those who live very wickedly.

Spread your cloak over those who fall into sin, each and every one, and shield them.

And if you cannot take the fault on yourself and accept punishment in their place, do not destroy their character.

What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. – Isaac of Syria

Despite your envy, disapproval or lack of understanding, spread a cloak of mercy.

Abortion? Spread your cloak.

Transgender? Spread your cloak.

Nit-picking fault-finders? Spread your cloak.

Other side of the political aisle? Even then.

Spread your cloak over each and every one.