Don’t talk. Don’t trust. Don’t feel.
In my last post, I wrote about the “committee” meeting inside a person’s head; the committee is composed of all of the critical voices that bring us down and make us question ourselves. The committee is at its most powerful when we don’t talk to other people about our negative thoughts. People who grew up in dysfunctional households typically have very strong committees. The committee thrives on the three main rules in a dysfunctional family, which are “Don’t talk. Don’t trust. Don’t feel.”
First let’s look at “Don’t talk.” Members of a dysfunctional family don’t usually talk about anything important because it feels dangerous. If they talk about things below the surface, they might end up talking about Dad’s alcoholism or Mom’s verbal abuse. If they don’t talk about these things, they might be able to pretend they don’t exist.
Family members don’t talk to others about what’s going on, either, because it’s all a big secret. If it’s too dangerous to talk about things in the family, it’s even more dangerous to share them outside of the family. A dysfunctional family is very invested in making things look perfect on the outside, no matter what’s really going on. This brings us to the second rule.
The second rule that dysfunctional families follow is “Don’t trust.” Let’s say the father is an alcoholic. It’s likely that no one in the family trusts him because his behaviors are erratic, based upon whether he’s been drinking. He, in turn, doesn’t trust anyone else in the family, because they’re probably critical of his drinking, making him feel attacked.
Each member of the family feels some level of responsibility for what’s going wrong, which leads to a deep sense of shame. This shame contributes to the family’s isolation from the rest of the world. Who really wants to talk about something they’re ashamed of? It’s unfortunate that this leads to distrust of others, because people outside of the family can be helpful. They aren’t part of the family dysfunction, so they can offer a different perspective and resources that family members don’t have and probably can’t even imagine.
The third rule is “Don’t feel.” If you grow up in a dysfunctional family, you learn that your feelings usually don’t matter. Sure, you’re allowed to act happy, like nothing’s wrong. But it’s not likely that you’ll be encouraged to express feelings of sadness or fear. Expressing these things might seem to your parents to be indicators of what’s wrong in the family, and they can’t have that! Plus, they’re probably too wrapped up in their own worries to be concerned about yours. It’s also unlikely that you’ll be encouraged to express feelings of anger, particularly towards your parents. And don’t forget that sharing feelings can make you vulnerable to others; this is certainly not a comfortable thing in an environment where it feels like it’s every person for him- or herself.
What happens when you stop expressing your feelings? You lose track of them entirely! I start every session of my “Discovering ‘Normal’” counseling group with a feelings check. After a lifetime of ignoring feelings, it’s hard for group members to identify what they’re feeling, so I give them a chance to practice that in group. Remember that, as uncomfortable as so-called “negative”* feelings are, we need to feel them in order to be able to feel the “positive” feelings. It’s a package deal; you can’t feel one end of the spectrum without also feeling the other.
Did you learn these three rules in childhood? Are you still following them today? If so, what can you do to change that?
*I often tell my clients that there are no “positive” or “negative” feelings. There are only feelings that are more or less comfortable. All feelings are needed, even sadness and anger, and all feelings can be put to positive, as well as negative, uses. Think, for instance, of the women whose anger at losing their children to drunk drivers led them to form MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers). They used the energy of their anger in a positive, life affirming, way.
Jennifer Beall is a psychotherapist in private practice near Annapolis, Maryland. She is the author of “Me” Time: Finding the Balance Between Taking Care of Others and Taking Care of Yourself, available on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com in print editions, and as an e-book for Kindle, Nook, and all other major e-readers.