Finding Emotional Language in an Emotionless Family: What Happens When They are not Only Taboo, but Just Plain Feared

I was having breakfast with a friend a few days ago, and I found myself feeling very uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure why at first, but then it came to me after I had left the coffee shop to go for a walk in the woods. He was talking about vulnerability and how self compassion was different from self confidence. At the time, this seemed reasonable enough. His wife had just sent him an article about self-compassion and how it leads to success. But the language he was using was making me feel a little frightened.

This seemed strange to me. I often explore my own emotional states, why should talking about them bring up such a reaction? I tried searching my memories for other times I felt uncomfortable discussing emotionally charged topics and realized, I don’t talk about emotions, with my family at all, and friends very seldom. I was stunned.

Growing up in my family, we never spoke about how we were feeling, or how a certain situation had an affect on us. I actually only recently found out there was a difference between the words affect and effect! So it was no surprise that I was as uncomfortable as I was, my friend was speaking another language completely.

And I’m learning now looking back, that in my family emotions were something to be used, or manipulated to get something from someone. This bred distrust and fear of emotions, especially vulnerability. It was like opening a wound over and over again to get whatever was inside and leaving the person to bleed out. It was uncomfortable to say the least.

And with this type emotional practice between “loved ones”, it’s amazing that any of us were able to feel anything at all. We were all so hyper-vigilant about what the other person was going to say of or about us, that it was close to impossible to build trust and love in the relationship. Fear and resentment were bi-products of this type of environment. I also remember feeling like I was never adding up to their expectations.

So, in lieu of love and understanding, my family fell back on the old standby of drinking and other forms of distraction to numb the pain of not feeling accepted or belonging to the family as we were. Shopping was also another way we chose to numb. By fitting into whatever trend was popular, maybe we could feel the acceptance we were lacking from those closest to us.

Though neither method worked to ease the pain of not feeling belonging, drinking worked to make us mean. Something my family excelled at. Drinking was a way for us to turn off our “filters”, so we could say how we were feeling, but in a way that would make the other person feel as unloved and afraid as we had felt. And how we felt was cut apart. If you’ve ever seen a copy of Bacon’s “Man with Meat“, it was akin to feeling split wide, tender and vulnerable.

Shopping was a way to make us feel as though we had worth. As though fitting in with whatever trend was happening, and how we were seen by others, would compensate for our lack of feeling self worth, fostered by the ways we were treating each other and ourselves. It’s a wonder we were able to feel anything at all!

And as I’ve said in previous posts, I didn’t know what feelings were until my early thirties. A large part of that had to do with the traumatic events that happened to me, and there were plenty. This left me in emotional shock, but what is a life’s time worth of critical, cutting and mean natured remarks, intended to wound on impact, if not traumatic?

With this quality of relationship between family members, it’s no wonder that we were so afraid of ours, and others emotions! Why would you want to explore the areas of yourself that have been so thoroughly rejected, abused and manipulated, with so much prejudice by those who were supposed to love and support us? This is how I learned to abandon and neglect my emotional self.

Everytime I had an emotion that reminded me of the ways that I cared for my family, fear came up, front and center, and larger than life. This made it almost impossible to feel comfort or care for myself. Because anytime those feelings would come around, I would then be bowled over by fear for not feeling like I was worthy of self-care and love. But also, I had few memories of what it meant to feel loved by those who were supposed to show me how.

My job then, became learning the language of my emotions, especially those closest related to love and care, without knowing what they were. It was like trying to give shape and names to what was right in front of me, but hidden from my senses. It was maddening.

But I made the journey regardless of how difficult it seemed, having faith that things would work out. And I had a lot of help along the way, without which I don’t like to think about where I would be. But my journey began with giving up what Tara Brach calls, the false refuges. One of the biggest ones for me was drinking, because that’s when I was most self-destructive, mean spirited and critical of others.

I now have a beer with my Self-Care Sunday dinner, and once and a while when I’m out with friends. But the difference between now and then is, now I’ve set healthy boundaries with my drinking and I only have one or two. I also check in with how I’m feeling while drinking because my boundaries were so poor and self-destructive, that in a way, I need to regain some trust in myself to do the right thing when it comes to the areas of my life I had abandoned for so long, i.e. my emotional life.

And it was jarring. Reawakening to my emotional life was strange, scary, and at times just plane terrifying. And it took time. It wasn’t a one shot where I felt loving and gentle to myself and others, and never felt fear or re-lived past traumas again. It takes time. Because healing is a process. There’s a phrase in the meditation community that goes, “sit, stay, heal,” which encompasses this sentiment with accuracy.

Learning how to be patient with myself was probably the turning point for helping me to learn and give name to my emotional life. It was the one tool that helped me to allow the emotion to just be, without using something to push it away, long enough for me to give it name and know it’s presence. It was then that I was able to recognize them for the emotions they were, and not the fear provoking trauma they were attached to.

And finally, it taught me to go slow. Emotions can be overwhelming, so when in doubt, stand back and give yourself some space to see a little more clearly. So if you’re on your own healing journey, be kind and go slow. It takes time to learn to love again. Peace, and thanks for reading :]

Image Credits: “Closeup on the Linen Book/Mummy Wrappings of the Lost Etruscan Language” by Curious Expeditions is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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