Imagine a family where no one wants to be vulnerable. Everyone is constantly in fear of attack. People shore up their lack of a sense of safety through criticism and judgment.

Imagine too where people can’t regulate their emotions or use the comfort of one another’s support to help them calm down–they can’t reach out, because someone will attack them or lose it themselves.

You withdraw from the intensity of the members who can’t keep it together or who resort to the extreme expression of emotions in order to emotionally blackmail others into compliance. And then you are lonely.

Or suffocated.

It can feel like your feelings are rooms. You close the doors on your feelings only to have those doors opened later in ways you can’t control and it’s like the feeling stayed exactly where you left it, at the same degree of intensity as the last experience of that feeling.

Things do not ebb and flow.

Meanwhile, people around you act like those feelings don’t exist or that they have no reason to exist. In some cases, people do that to protect themselves from their own difficulty in regulating themselves. In other cases, they actually just do not know what you are going through or why.

I’ll give an example: not a painful one exactly. Just misattunement. So today I was watching Supernanny. It really does help me see some of the dynamics in my dysfunctional family without being in it. It helps to see these families struggling with pain, even if they aren’t struggling with the kinds of pain we were in. Even if they are just trying to get their kids to bed on time. There is something about dysfunction that is remarkably the same.

So a mother is trying to give up using aggression to discipline her child. She’s trying to stop screaming and hitting her kids, and they are using the “naughty place.” It happens to be a corner. Totally old school, but I agree it’s less violent. It isn’t coercive. It demands your child exert control over themselves.

The child–who’s maybe around 10, not a little kid anymore–is refusing to stand in the corner and is giggling the whole time.

I watched that child making her mother feel totally powerless, really pushing her to the edge, and it doesn’t seem to me to be intentional. It’s pushing against every issue the mother probably has.

Someone else might read it as manipulative. I don’t think so. It just feels so good to have her mom’s attention and to feel safe that she won’t be hit, that she keeps at it. She keeps doing this thing that gets her mom’s attention because it really just feels so good. It looks dissociated to me–not in the classic sense of spacey and out of it, but separated off from the awareness she must also have that her mom is about to flip her lid.

To her credit, the mother does not flip her lid.

That happy, giggly feeling has been shut in a box, and it has come washing out in a flood.

On or off. That’s what abusive families are like. Stifling, full of feelings shut up in boxes that rush out in terrifying waves, because no one has learned how to calm or how to be an anchor for someone else while they calm themselves.