Finding Your Emotions 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 when 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 frightened.

Realizing You Don’t Know How to Talk About Emotions

This seemed strange to me. I often explore my own emotional states. So 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. It was then that I realized that I don’t talk about emotions. With my family at all and friends seldom. I was stunned.

Growing up in my family, we never spoke about how we were feeling. Or how a situation had an affect on us. I actually only recently found out there was a difference between the words affect and effect. I should also mention that I have a degree in English and writing! So it was no surprise that I was as uncomfortable as I was. My friend was speaking another language completely. One I had no idea how to navigate.

Using Emotions as a Weapon

I’m realizing now that in my family, emotions were something to be used. Or they were manipulated to get something from someone. This bred a distrust and fear of emotions. Especially vulnerability. It was like opening a wound over and over again, to get the lifeblood of the other while 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 about us, that it was close to impossible to build trust and love in our relationships. Fear and resentment were the result of this type of connection. I also remember feeling as though I was never meet their expectations.

Covering Over the Wounded Emotions

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. Shopping was another way we chose to numb the hurt. The thought was, maybe by fitting into whatever trend was popular, we could feel the acceptance we were lacking from those that were holding it back.

Though, those methods didn’t work to ease the pain of not feeling belonging. Drinking however worked to make us mean. Something my family excelled at. Drinking was a way for us to turn off our filters, so we could let loose on the other and say how we were feeling. But in a way that would make the other feel as unloved and afraid. And how we felt was cut apart. If you’ve ever seen Bacon’s “Figure with Meat“, it was akin to feeling like this. Split wide, tender and vulnerable.

In a State of Emotional Shock, Not Being Able to Feel

And as I’ve said in previous posts, I didn’t know what feelings were until my early thirties. This has mostly to do with the traumatic events that I’ve experienced. This left me in a state of emotional shock. But add on to that a life’s time worth of critical, cutting and mean natured remarks, intended to wound on impact and you have a different type of trauma.

With the quality of our relationships, it’s no wonder that we were so afraid of our own emotions and those of others. Why would you want to explore the areas of yourself that have been so thoroughly wounded, rejected, abused and manipulated by those who were supposed to love and support you? This was how I learned to abandon and neglect my emotional self.

Learning to Leave

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

So after I realized I was leaving my emotions, my job then became learning the language of my emotions. Especially those closest related to love and care. Without knowing what they were without being entangled in fear and anxiety. 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.

Leading the Way Without a Map

But I made the journey regardless of how difficult it was. Having faith that things would work out. And I had a lot of help along the way too. 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. Meaning 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, I needed to regain some trust in myself. To do the right thing when it comes to the areas of my life I had abused for so long.

Walking Away From the Chaos

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 again felt fear or relived past traumas again. It takes time. Because healing is a process. There’s a phrase in the meditation community that goes, “sit, stay, heal,”. I love this saying because it encompasses this sentiment with such 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 emotions 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. If I could give one bit of advice to you on your own healing journey, it’s to 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

Updated: 7/29/22

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