I have this idea this morning that because my parents were so profoundly lacking in relationship skills and used control and anger to feel safe—in place of attuned connection—it was really dangerous physical and emotionally for me to have feelings. I think basically that’s the case for many people who grew up with abuse. Children are abused because of a combination of lack of empathy and impulsiveness, and their parents are usually people who cannot maintain close, positive relationships generally.
That is thought one.
Thought two is that our moral sense is shaped via punishment. A moral sense is not exclusive to humans. We just have very complex ways of describing it, but anyone who has owned a dog knows that dogs feel remorse just like we do. They feel remorse over doing things that people don’t like.
In the case of a parent who is controlling, the child’s feelings are out of bounds. The child cannot have their own emotional worlds, because those feelings and experiences feel threatening to the parent. The parent punishes the child for having them, and that becomes something shameful to the child.
The shame and the fear of punishment are so great that, later in life, that conditioning remains and there is no safe way to have an inner world except to disown it. I have a fragmented experience of life because I have worked so hard to suppress my experience of feelings that I actually cannot process what is happening in life: feelings are part of forming narrative memories. The parts are there because without them the fear and shame about having the inner worlds they carry would activate that conditioned shut-down response. Parts short-circuit that process by claiming, incorrectly, this isn’t really me. Someone else is having feelings here.
Saying the feelings belong to the past does something of the same thing. It is a way of saying, “I don’t really have these feelings. That’s some other me. That’s the then-me. It isn’t the now-me.”
Oh, but it is now-me feeling this way. That might not be the case for everyone, but it is for me at the moment.
The other thing that happens is that having any feeling seems very dangerous. As social beings, we reach for support and protection in situations of danger and stress. I have started to notice that this is what human beings do. All of us are wound up about our performance evaluations coming up, and we all talk about it, trying to get connection over it. I don’t want to, because it doesn’t help me, but that is how everyone else copes. They cope this way in the United States too. When we feel stressed, we reach for connection to other people more. So, an automatic response for someone like me, who has learned that having feelings is very dangerous, is to reach for connection when I am having a feeling like, “Oh, no, I am having an emotion. Somebody help me please.”
But reaching for connection has not been safe, and I become very alert for indications that it is not safe in the present to do this. If I sense rejection, I feel ashamed. If I sense criticism or anger, I might feel afraid or I might feel angry. In between, I feel the sadness of wanting connection and not having it.
I have been practicing tracking how this happens, so that I can see my own mind in a sense and understand what is going on inside me. I didn’t realize I wanted connection, so I wasn’t aware of doing it, but I was reaching for connection. I looked at my phone and saw C hadn’t read my texts and I felt ashamed. Rejection. The thing is this is new for me. In the past, I would have had no idea what prompted that feeling of shame. It would have felt like lightning striking, like total WTF. Now, I can connect it. I looked at the phone, I observed rejection, and I presumed my reach for connection was unwanted. That is all this is. Somebody else might know they felt rejected by the lack of response (even reading) and spiral through catastrophizing shame, but I am not that evolved to even know what I am responding too. I have too thoroughly shut down my emotional thinking process to even know that.
Then I looked at my email and saw my therapist hadn’t responded to me and felt something similar. (I am sorry, in the process of writing, I have forgotten what emotion I felt.)
Today, I am still very emotional because of the anniversary at hand and it suddenly occurred to me, “Yes, I miss her. That’s what I am feeling.” It doesn’t feel safe to miss someone, and I am concealing that emotion from myself so that I don’t even know why I am looking at my phone—it is just creeping out in small impulsive actions. I miss Nata and I miss my daughter. I am noticing I feel an absence of connections, and it doesn’t seem safe to note that absence or to feel the sadness it prompts, because feeling sad about the absence of connections and attunement wasn’t safe in my childhood to feel that sadness. It wasn’t safe for me to have feelings. If I can help myself find safety when I am sad, this is going to be okay. It will start to feel better. Ironically, it’s the shutting down that makes connection impossible. I have realized this since “adopting” C. I cannot attune to C if I am shut down. The more shut down I am emotionally, the less I am able to sense and respond helpfully to her feelings. That is probably true of everyone. It just takes time.
I think I am not explaining this well, but something like noticing someone I want to be with isn’t here now and feeling sad about is normal. If I felt that, the emotions would eventually become smaller. They are so huge partly because they are new: I haven’t missed someone and really known I missed them before. It was always kind of some other me that missed that person: then-me or some part-y me. I am learning to ride a bike and I’m wobbly. But I think it’s also because I am fighting them so hard. The neurons won’t stop sending the message, because I won’t listen to it.