July 29, 2002
I grew up in a house that was predominately intellectual. Issues were resolved through discussion and reason; emotions rarely ever played a part. And when emotions did present themselves they were attacked. My family had two responses to emotional expression during my childhood: anger or Band-Aids. Either my parents would get angry with me for expressing an emotion, or they would try to take away the emotion so that I wouldn’t have to deal with it. Neither of these responses allowed me the opportunity to develop normal emotional responses to situations. Either I was afraid that I would get in trouble for having the emotion, or my parents would be so over concerned that I was emotional that they would try and fix what ever and not hear that all I needed was a chance to express how I felt. I grew to be afraid to express even those narrow acceptable emotions for fear of parental teasing. Showing emotions was a weakness to be avoided at all costs.
For example, as a child I was often the target of the neighborhood bully. I was scared to walk to school because I had to pass his house. I often went blocks out of my way to avoid encounters with him and his gang of friends. When I was unsuccessful in avoiding the bully and I came home in tears, I never once was allowed to cry it out, or talk about the fear I had of this person and what he was doing to me. Instead I was told to ignore him and tell the teacher. Then my parents would call his parents and virtually ensure that I’d get a repeat visit the next day from this guy. Over time I stopped telling my parents about his attacks because the aftermath of telling was worse than the attack itself.
Another example: I had mono in the 8th grade and while I spent several weeks in bed recovering I read a lot of books. One that my mother brought home from the library for me was called “Dove.” It was the story of a man who sails around the world and meets and falls in love with his wife along the way. I was captivated by the story. My father pooh-poohed the thing because, in his words, “it was a love story.” For several years afterwards I talked of wanting to sail around the world myself. My parents always were amused and sometimes made fun of this dream. I was crushed. I learned not to expose my dreams or things that I held dear for fear of ridicule and teasing.
Recently I learned that my father hated the very idea of emotional dialog. I had tried to write some letters to my parents in hopes of resolving some of the emotional issues with which I was struggling. Instead of hearing the pain and confusion that I was confronting, my father’s response was to get angry with me for “attacking” my mother and him. After a one-side discussion with my parents, where he did almost all the talking, he summed it up by saying words to this effect: “this kind of emotional dialog tears me up and I can’t do it. I refuse to do it again.”
I understand now that my entire life I have been given this message that emotional responses are bad over and over again. To the point where I believe at a very deep level that I am somehow wrong or bad for expressing any emotions. If I am not perfectly stoic and intellectual about things then I should be ashamed. All of this has left me emotionally crippled. I am unable to allow myself expression of any but a narrow band of emotions. When events unfold that push me outside the extremely narrow range of expression I felt was safe growing up, I am helpless and frustrated. I punish myself rather than express what are perfectly normal, acceptable emotions. For years I have had a terrible fear of my anger. I refused to let myself express that emotion in the moment. And when I finally did express it I did so in inappropriate ways, usually at people who weren’t deserving of it.
I can own that I am emotionally immature. I can understand the reasons why. What is harder to own and come to terms with is the fact that I have clung to this behavior for so long. I can choose to stay with my current set of behaviors and continue to be miserable at every turn. Or, I can choose to alter my responses and give myself permission to express what I am feeling in the moment.
My emotional response system was arrested at a very early age, I believe, and consequently when I am faced with the need to express a strong emotion today I revert in some sense to my scared little-boy inner child. He doesn’t know how to express strong emotions because he was prevented from learning. This is no ones fault, it is just the truth of how I grew up. Today I abdicate my emotional responsibility to myself by letting my inner child responses dictate my expressions.
I am not trying to make my parents responsible for how I respond emotionally today. That is my responsibility and mine alone. What I need to do is recognize that I have some poor emotional coping skills and that I need to allow myself to respond differently in situations rather than continue to use the same old scripts again and again. If I don’t change my responses then I have no one to blame but myself. I can change what I do and how I act. I can take the power over my emotions back from my inner child and make them mature adult expressions of emotion. I am not going to recreate the intellectual exercises in control that I grew up knowing and hating. Rather I want to build a normal, healthy range of adult emotional responses to life’s ups and downs.