I came across my elementary school diary the other day. Leafing through it, I found one entry that’s both funny and sad. It reads:
Dumb old Mom! She’s so idiotic! She hit me on the leg and told my brother not to come near me for calling her a meanie! Because she took me away from my book and I’m a bookworm! Meanie, meanie, meanie, stupid, dumb!
P.S. I’m ugly!
I have to laugh a little at my younger self’s temper tantrum (and my mom, by the way, wasn’t abusive. She spanked us from time to time when we were misbehaving, but it was never vicious or cruel), but the postscript is what makes me sad. At ten-years-old I had clearly learned that negative emotions are unattractive.
And I took that quite literally: Negative emotions make me physically unattractive. No matter what I look like, if I can’t control my thoughts and emotions, I won’t be pretty, or happy, or liked.
No wonder I spent my teenage years depressed, lonely, and obsessed with my weight. I had a lot of feelings. And I had no safe place to let them out.
In a recent post titled “Why Bad Girls Get All the Best Lines,” Justine Musk writes about some research cited in THE CURSE OF THE GOOD GIRL by Rachel Simmons:
In her research, Simmons asked largely middle-class groups of girls to “describe how society expected a Good Girl to look and act.” A sample response indicated that a “Good Girl” gets good grades and has lots of friends. She’s pretty and kind (and generally blonde and blue-eyed).
She also aims to please (“people pleaser”), toes the line (“no opinions on things”) and doesn’t take risks (“follows the rules”). She denies certain negative emotions, especially anger (“doesn’t get mad”) and fears mistakes and failure (“has to do everything right”).
I tried hard to be a good girl, but I was brown-haired and brown-eyed, and I was terrified those negative emotions I experienced would somehow spill out.
I grew up in a household where emotions were, to a large part, discredited. (As Deborah Klinger writes in an excellent post on why eating disorders develop, it was “an emotionally invalidating environment.”) I saw this clearly a couple months ago when I was home for my grandmother’s funeral.
My father was sad—I know he was, I saw it in his face when he held her hand the day before she died—but as soon as she passed away, he moved on. When my sixteen-year-old cousin cried and had a hard time leaving my grandmother’s casket at the end of the viewing, my dad kept shaking his head and saying things like, “Wow, she’s having a hard with this,” as though it wasn’t okay for her to be sad. It wasn’t okay for her to dwell on it. It wasn’t okay for her to not immediately box up those feelings and get on with her life.
As a teenager, if I said I was sad, angry, or upset about something, the message I got was, “You shouldn’t feel like that. Get over it.” But I didn’t have the tools to do that, so I binged on food to stuff my feelings down.
But the more I ate, the heavier—and more unattractive—I got. I was damned to be ugly if I expressed my feelings, and damned to be ugly if I tried to stuff them down. It was a vicious circle, and one that very much had me in its wheel.
My husband learned to keep his feelings to himself in a different manner. Typically, men are taught to be stoic, but John had this message reinforced by his mother’s alcoholism. Her drinking got bad around the time he was in middle school, and no matter how many times his family begged her to get help, she denied she had a problem. For John, expressing his feelings about what was going on at home was fruitless. No matter what he said, nothing ever changed. So why bother?
He moved far away from home to avoid dealing with his family situation. He spoke with his mother when she called him, but he would quickly get off the phone. When terrible things happened (like her week-long stay in the ICU after falling down drunk and landing face-first in a pool), he’d dissociate from them. He never wanted to talk about his family for very long.
Of course, this too was a sort of “stuffing down” of emotion. And in the end, he couldn’t keep it all contained.
Trying to deal with the stress of his mother’s rapidly deteriorating health on top of stress at work and stress at home (I was pushing for us to buy a house and have a baby, but I was also constantly upset and tired because I hated my job) was a big contributing factor to his psychotic breakdown. When he was in the hospital and his defenses were down, John talked about the pain of his mother’s alcoholism a lot.
One extremely helpful step we took as a couple after John came home from the hospital was to start seeing a couples counselor.
Even though I had taken big strides forward in my ability to express emotion through my Twelve Step program, when it came to my husband—the person with whom I had the most to lose—I still had a lot to learn. Expressing anger doesn’t mean I’m going to be abandoned. It’s okay to be annoyed, sad, or hurt from time to time; I don’t have to worry that these negative feelings will cost me his love.
For John, one of the lessons was that talking about things doesn’t have to be pointless. As his wife, I want us to work things out together, and I won’t dismiss his views or opinions just because they don’t match up mine. Another important things he’s learned is that simply talking about something hurtful—even if there’s no solution to be had—can actually provide a measure of relief.
We’ve been going to our marriage therapist for about a year and a half now. Although the frequency of our visits has decreased over time, I don’t foresee us stopping altogether anytime soon. Counseling has absolutely improved our communication. I’m sorry that it took a psychotic episode to bring us there, but it’s one of the big gifts that came out of the whole ordeal.
Sometimes, in order to save a drowning victim, the rescuer has to knock the victim out to get him to stop fighting rescue. I feel like that’s what had to happen to us to get us to stop clinging to our old ways of processing emotion, and to move beyond the myths that angry = ugly and talking = pointless.