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.



10 thoughts on “When Someone Sets Your Flowers on Fire: Emotional Withholding

  1. Cindy

    Your writing goes hand in hand with our Lenten Program the other night on The Cross and The Beatitudes. I’m convicted now to go about ‘ spreading my cloak’. Just what I needed this morning! Thankful for you.❤️


  2. Aly

    Misty, this is a phenomenal post. I almost feel as if you wrote it with me, in mind. This is how relevant it is to my life, and what underlies so many of my difficulties. ‘Withholding’ – is the “cleverly”, cruel tactic used by my NM; after inviting me to move in with her and “step-father”, temporarily, so I had “family support to address my medical needs”. Within initial months of moving in, I was blindsided and traumatized by NM’s (and Step-F), deception and total rejection. The tactic was simple: in place of natural family support – will instead become chronic withholding of support (in every context, circumstance, emergency and opportunity, that comes). My shock, and emotional pain led to my illnesses increasing in severity, and now struggle with debilitation. I am very broken from this. And it continues to present…

    Thank you for writing about this, with such compassion.



    1. Thanks, Aly. I’m sorry you had that cold experience in your mother’s home. People from loving homes might find the scenario improbable. But I’ve been there— it’s a fearful, vulnerable place to be in good health, let alone when you’re ill. Hang in there. Keep finding healthy people. I hope you have a good support system. Peace.


  3. bl0ndine

    Love this blog!!

    There is a strange dynamic with regards to expressing words of appreciation. It might come from an orthodox place where it is expected of you to do the best you can, no compliments needed. Compliments are by some thought encourage pride and arrogance. And the giver of the compliment might find it secretly confronting because the other person does something better than they could ever do. Some people get jealous and don’t know how to enjoy the joy with somebody else. So they withhold.

    At the same time, when we raise our children, we use an ancient method of awards and punishments to show them what is the right thing to do and what is wrong. We train our children to react like that and believe we thus make them ready to live their own life in today’s society. So they will expect a kind word when they do something good.

    What we have forgotten is to give them the freedom to develop a mind of their own. Never mind if their personal ideas go against the grain of what is politically correct. Let them be original. There is only one of each of us, after all so it is futile to try and make all of us the same. Whatever somebody else does (to us), it should never eat away at the roots of our self-worth. If we are a tree with solid roots, we can take a blow without breaking. Because we know, on the inside, that we are worthy. Which is not to say that a genuine kind word does not light a special light in our soul.

    And then there is of course this modern disease of distance and detachment. It sometimes seems we can express ourselves “better” in emojis in a text online, than in a physical person-to-person encounter. I yearn for the times of (in my childhood!) normal personal tête-à-têtes, over a coffee, at the kitchen table at a friend’s house. When you could chat and chuckle with them and rejoice in their successes and commiserate with their pain.

    Pregnancy is a personal joy – I myself cannot have kids because of a medical error happening to me at a very young age. Pregnancy sometimes was painful to see happen around me. But I have come to the conclusion that it is OK to rejoice for another new mother and leave my own drama out of it. There is a time for everything and why rain on somebody else’s parade in that particular moment? If she is a good friend, she will be open to the spear it drove to your own heart, but be gentle with her first and give her joy. Then later talk about your own history and maybe there are ways to share the pregnancy experience. People seem to fear extreme emotions these days. But it is inhuman to have to be in balance the whole time. It is OK to show emotions. And there is no reason for others to wave them off. A good friend witnesses and attends your pain, and just allows it to be. No need to quench them with a quickly fetched box of tissues. Just let it me. Ultimate comfort.

    It is all about intention. Do we focus on the togetherness? Or do we isolate in our own world? Are all moments just for me? Or is it sometimes somebody else’s time?

    Just my five cents!


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