Un-hooked from a feeling (posted 15/05/18)

The previous inunction was ‘Don’t think’, and so I thought it was only appropriate that this, the penultimate one should be ‘Don’t feel’. This inunction has major cultural implications, as it is formed from how parental figures handle and express their emotions. This is to a large extent embedded in our cultural heritage. I very general terms (and not wishing to perpetuate stereotypes or cause offence) different parts of the world express their emotions in different ways. For example, we think of people from South American countries as having a “Latin fire” and being passionate and unafraid to express strong emotions such as anger and lust. In many Arabic nations sadness and grief are expressed through wailing and self-flagellation, with the outpourings of their loss reaching near hysterical heights. We can probably think of nationalities who are portrayed (rather unfairly) as being emotionless, and robotic in their approach. In England, we are world renowned for our “stiff upper lip”. Not putting our emotions on display is cherished as a sign of strength and dignity. I would therefore, suggest that some nationalities are more susceptible (ours included) to the ‘don’t feel’ injunction than others.

As the name suggests, this injunction is about messages being received by a child that suggest having certain feelings or emotions is unacceptable, or makes them unworthy of love or attention. Just as the ‘don’t think’ injunction would judge certain thoughts, ideas, opinions or ways of thinking as being unacceptable, with this injunction, the same process occurs with emotions. From the caregiver’s child ego state, it is probable that some emotions are too scary or volatile for them to cope with. For example, for a caregiver that has suffered a bereavement, but they were unable to process their feelings of grief successfully, they may be unable to deal with sadness being displayed by their child. An adult that was unable to manage or come to terms with either their own anger or that of their parents, may not be able to cope if their child is angry. In this way, some emotions may be labelled as ‘good’ and others as ‘bad’. When I think of this assignment I am reminded of the Vulcan race from Star Trek. They have manged to purge from their psyches all emotions. While this might seem appealing, as it means we never have to feel things like sadness, disappointment, despair, jealousy, anger and the whole raft of unpleasant feelings, it does mean they miss out on the joy, happiness, love and wonderful emotions that living brings. Also, as the program sometimes shows, the Vulcan shave only repressed their emotions, with them sometimes boiling over into uncontrolled rage, or violent bouts of unbridled passion during their seven year mating cycle (pon farr).

A child with this injunction will learn that if they want the attention of their caregivers, they have to filter out all of the emotions that are not Ok, and only display the ones that are. Notice that I have said they can’t be displayed. That does not mean that the emotions are not being felt. They are being felt and judged internally by the child, thus making both them, and the emotion unacceptable. So messages that may be given include, “man up”, “big boys don’t cry”, “stop your bellyaching”, “stopping such an angry young lady!” and even “stop laughing so loud, you’ll disturb everyone”. You may have noticed in that list some gender links, as we have seen with previous injunctions. Again, this is generalised, but in many societies some emotions are acceptable for one gender and not the other, for example, anger is ok for boys and not girls, and sadness/crying is ok for girls and not boys. Also, no emotion is safe from exclusion. Some families find ‘excessive’ displays of happiness and joy to be intolerable. Others might find displays of love and affection to be too much. There are even some who try to deny all feelings at all. These very much follow the message of “Keep calm (emotionless) and carry on”. Of course, there will also be implicit ways of this message being delivered, either through behaviour towards the child displaying them such as ignoring them, punishing them or shaming them. It can also be learnt from the behaviour of the parent themselves. If a father for example only ever shows anger, and a mother sadness and disappointment, a child might think that these are the only emotions available. It is hard to know how to display things that we have never seen for ourselves.

So how might this injunction manifest itself as a child grows up? Well, from the defiant position, a child might become over-emotional, and appear to ‘play up’ I order to get attention from those around them that don’t appear to feel anything at all. This attention will usually be negative, but as I have mentioned before, any attention is better than none. As adult these people may seem overly dramatic or sensitive, reacting emotionally to anything and everything, perhaps appearing not to be able to regulate their emotions (which is probably true). From a despairing position, a child will label certain (or all) emotions as ‘bad’ and so therefore try hard not to display them, for fear of being rejected or punished. To express them, or even feel them will be taken as a personal sign that there is something wrong with them. This can have devastating effects on self-esteem. Repressed emotions also do not go away. Like a pressure cooker without a safety valve, they will find a way of leaking out, or be built up until they explode. As examples, anger might leak out as passive aggression, or sadness might get to a point that it leads to a breakdown.

This injunction also means that emotions which are unacceptable, might also be seen as un-survivable. What I mean by this is that a person gets stuck in immature ways of thinking about emotions, and so a bout of tears might lead to thinking that once they start crying, they may never be able to stop. Therefore, crying will be avoided at all costs. It will be seen as an insurmountable task to regulate, manage and soothe these terrible feelings. A set of covering up behaviours may also take place with one emotion being used to mask or be used instead of another. Anger is often used to cover up other feelings such as sadness, but excessive happiness can also be used (think of the cliché of the crying clown).
People with this injunction often need a lot of time and support to engage with their emotions in a healthy way. In some respects, they need time to learn how to express emotions, but also to recognise them and respond to them in a different way than fear. They will benefit from learning emotional literacy. This might involve them being able to name and then express their feelings. It could also mean being able to actually feel them, and stay with them in a safe and secure environment. Sometimes, mindfulness can be useful here, as it encourages us to be with our emotions in a non-judgemental way, but to also look at them holistically, for example linking them with bodily sensations. Counselling is a good place to try out and explore emotional literacy, and give yourself the permission to move away from a ‘don’t feel’ injunction. As before, I offer some permissions which may be useful in exploring and challenging this injunction:
  • Emotions are neither good, nor bad, it is how we respond to them that counts
  • It is ok and perfectly natural to feel different emotions
  • Feeling (happy, sad, angry, jealous, etc…) doesn’t make me a bad or flawed person, it makes me human
  • I am entitled to express how I feel, knowing I am not responsible for how another person responds
  • I am worthy of love and respect no matter how I feel at the time
  • Emotions are not permanent, and can be survived. I am capable enough to regulate and come out of an emotion safely
  • It is perfectly reasonable to ask for time to process my emotions. They can be complex and deserve time and respect (like me)
  • If I can’t name or express an emotion, that doesn’t mean I am not allowed to feel it