Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Strong Emotions? Yuck!!

What are emotions? Why do they seem so overwhelming at times? How to we cope with strong emotions?

Emotional literacy is a concept that answers a multitude of questions for those of us in recovery. We may have journeyed through our childhood with dysfunctional family systems. Those systems taught us concepts that inhibited our growth: Don't think, don't talk, don't feel.

Thinking is a threatening activity if we are being taught to accept whatever is happening at face value. Thinking might rock the family boat. It might allow new ideas to emerge which could threaten the tight control that dysfunction has over the family system. That might be terrifying for the members of our dysfunctional family of origin. They have learned to accept the elephant in the living room. They walk around it quite comfortably. No one notices it any longer or allows themselves to think about it.

Talking about what is happening in our dysfunctional family of origin may be incredibly threatening. If thinking was scary, than talking may be terrifying. Not only are we breaking the rules by thinking about the unspeakable, but now we are talking about it too? This is intolerable to family members. It creates immense discomfort. We are asking them to acknowledge that there is a problem or issue that might need to be solved. Since they may be unwilling to see any problem, there is nothing to discuss.

Having feelings about issues is verboten. Thinking was not permitted, talking was terrifying and having feelings about any of these unspeakable problems is impossible. It may be so far out of the path of possibility that the person having feelings may be shunned until they take the path of least resistance, and obey the rules of their family of origin. They must correct their horrendous mistake of actually having feelings.

The rules are clear: It is not permitted to think about, discuss or have feelings regarding the elephant in the living room. If these rules are not obeyed at all times, corrections must be undertaken to re-indoctrinate the offending family member immediately. Further, any family member who refuses to follow the rules after re-indoctrination will be shunned until they comply.

Of course the preceding paragraph is a dramatization, but it certainly sounds like our families of origin, doesn't it? Translated into common English the rules say, don't rock the family boat or we will be angry and give change back messages until you stop. If you don't stop, we will exclude you from family activities because you make us too uncomfortable to have you around.

That is a frightening message for a child to absorb. Therefore children, who literally cannot survive without their family of origin, follow the rules. They learn not to rock the dysfunctional family boat. They learn to do whatever they must to deceive themselves, so as to be able to function within their family of origin.

These early lessons may cause children from dysfunctional families of origin to become emotionally illiterate adults. We can be partners is relationships who cannot find the words to describe how we feel when we are having a strong emotional response. We don't have the vocabulary to describe what we are experiencing. We only know how to shut down and steam.

The thinking part of the brain is where language allows the processing of raw emotion into understandable feelings. Those of us who came from dysfunctional families of origin where the rules were strictly enforced by controlling family members, may have never developed the ability to marry words to emotion. We have not had the opportunity to learn this very important skill. We need to be able to join words to emotion to be able to intellectually grasp what is happening within us and feel the ability to regulate it. When strong emotions occur without the ability to verbalize, we are thrown back to our infancy. We are a being without language available to express what is happening to us. This creates additional feelings of shame and frustration as we attempt to grapple with what is effectively, the unknown.

Through recovery and using our tools we continue to practice self care. As we tackle this very difficult challenge of teaching ourselves the lost lessons of our childhoods, we practice patience with ourselves and forgiveness when we misstep. We will learn what we need to in time and with help. The path is before us. We take one step at a time and lean on our higher power knowing that the lessons before us will lead us where we need to go. We are not alone.

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