Thank you to this very tenacious, brave and open hearted client for sharing some of your work with us!
My sister and I shared a bedroom and much of our social lives because of our close ages, but there was always an invisible, yet palpable wall between us. I remember many times and many ways of attempting to solicit feelings from her – anger, tenderness, love, and excitement (to name a few) – but she had nothing to give except for disdain at my attempts and occasional anger when we were fighting. There were so many times when I would provoke her for an emotional response, only to receive blank looks and disaffected disdain for what she clearly saw as my pathetic and disgusting feelings. I longed for closeness with the person who I wanted so desperately as my ally, but I can’t ever remember a time of feeling close to my sister, despite all of my attempts.
My father was a little different, in that his feelings were undergirded by his power as the family’s patriarch. Although he also had little emotion to give, anger was in no short supply when he was provoked. To this day, my mother and sisters and I tiptoe around my dad’s feelings, because once he’s angry, he bursts into terrifying fits of rage. Many times as a young child, that meant a red-faced screaming lecture, and many other times, several hits of a wooden spoon to the bottom. One angry night, I remember the humiliation and fear I felt when he became infuriated at me on a vacation we took with another family. I remember him yelling me in front of my friends and their parents and chasing me into a dark hallway in a blind red-faced rage, unbuckling his belt clumsily from its loop, and the shock of him grabbing my arm as I tried to run so that he could punish me with the hard brown leather strap. Later that night, I talked back to his angry lecture, and I can still hear the sound and the feeling of his hard slap to my face in the warm summer night, the sound of the ocean in the distance.
We were allowed (and sometimes forced) to express happiness and gratitude, but I had other, more complicated and unwieldy feelings were unwelcome guests in the house. During my terrible years, I cried all the time. I cried from anger, frustration, and disappointment with the world. I cried at movies, books, fights with my parents, fights with my sister and her indifference to me, and being teased by the mean neighborhood boys who found me endlessly amusing. I fought constantly with my father and my sister; their coldness confused and upset me.
Once I hit puberty, I did what so many girls do; I turned it all inward. I learned to hate myself instead of them and I myself became more and more distanced from the desire to extract anything from my family. Super close best friends became the sisters I wanted and never had, and I threw myself into them and school and boys in my teenage years.
Leaving my hometown for college was one of the most important things I ever did for my emotional health. I moved as far from my family as geography and money would allow and began the process of building a life and a support system outside of them. But still, throughout most of my 20s, I fought against my feelings when it came to romantic attachments. I stopped crying altogether, except for when I was angry. I had learned to love my friends deeply because they were all I ever had as a teenager, but outside of friendships, I idealized coldness and detachment as the best way to navigate difficult and unfamiliar emotional terrain. I once declared to a friend that all I needed in life to be happy were close friends and people I fucked. Intimacy was for platonic attachments, where it felt safer and was almost always reciprocated.
In my romantic life, I suppose it isn’t much of a surprise that I both sought out emotionally unavailable (and therefore unattainable) suitors. That was both familiar and safe. The feeling of heartbreak that came from putting my energy and hope into someone who wouldn’t or couldn’t return my feelings was easy. I knew how to handle that pain and to move on. The few times that that I picked people who wanted me back would end up feeling like too much, and because I couldn’t handle their reciprocation, I quickly ended those relationships.
In 2007, I made my worst relationship choice to date. I was depressed and lonely after having moved to New York, and her initial desire felt like a good enough stand in for the friendship intimacy I was used to having. It quickly devolved into something terrible that brought out the worst in both of us. We both were angry at each other all the time, and her emotional withholding enraged me. I left that relationship feeling like no one could ever love me, but I had had enough. I threw myself back into therapy and vowed to never have that kind of relationship again. And slowly, after a lot of work and a lot of missteps, I began picking better people. I dated a lot over the next several years and each person was slightly kinder and more available than the last. I fell in love for the first time with someone who helped make scars from some of the big wounds of my past, and I began to see the efforts of my hard emotional work start to pay off. I began to recognize and feel emotions again. That relationship ended, but I was able to heal from it in a way that felt good, and re-integrated that person in my life in a way that I hadn’t been able to with most of my other exes because I had finally picked someone who I truly liked and respected and wanted to be in my life, even if in a different capacity.
These days, I seem to cry a whole lot, but not just from anger. I still feel anger, but I’ve found better ways to channel it than just inwards or just at my family. Big Emotions still terrify me, and I feel deeply humiliated when I have them in front of others for fear of their disdain or indifference. These Big Emotions are almost always accompanied by tears (not the pretty made-for-tv tears that roll gently down your face, but the red-faced snotty hiccuping ones that take a long time to recover from), and many of the tears come because I feel so deeply embarrassed that I dared have a public emotion.
I struggle constantly with the intense desire to bury the feelings that I am starting to resurface, and pretend that I’m ok when I’m not, or wave away sadness with a roll of the eyes and a sarcastic joke. But as change is often catalyzed by the people in your life, I feel things starting to shift yet again. There’s this incredible new person who unexpectedly came into my life and who is kind, gentle, caring, and who really wants to know me, ugly tears included. This experience of building trust and building intimacy has helped challenge me to be vulnerable in a way that I have only experienced in small pieces over the last several years. I’ve fallen for him hard, and a big part of that was this feeling of freedom that I have because my self, Big Emotions and all, are welcomed and honored.
So here I am, stumbling along, trying (very ungracefully much of the time) to practice having emotions with and in front of another person. Sometimes it feels like jumping out of a plane, the terror of the unknown beneath me, hoping that the parachute will work, but also feeling the strong loving grip of another person holding my hand and taking that leap with me.”