Having and expressing human emotions is not weakness | Survivor Saturday

We aren’t being “emotionally fragile” when we feel human emotions in response to trauma.

Survivors are often labeled, by ourselves or others, as being “weak” or “fragile”. I previously wrote about that here. Since then, I’ve been giving some more thought to the whole idea of emotions…feeling them…accepting them…expressing them….

Some of us are, by nature, more “feeling” type people, and may be more expressive and communicative as well. Some may see this as a weakness, but why not argue that it is a strength? We need to affirm qualities like, She is so connected to her emotions, or She is so expressive and full of life, or even, Wow, she’s so emotionally gifted! Aren’t emotions part of our very human nature? Where did we get the idea that it’s wrong to feel some of them, or that they need to be suppressed and ignored?

Some families, more than others, stifle this part of their humanity. They might have unwritten “family rules” about emotions, such as:

  • Only men and boys are allowed to get angry.
  • Only girls are allowed to cry.
  • Women and girls need to act “happy” and “nice”.
  • Certain emotions are unacceptable.
  • Only positive emotions are allowed.
  • You are not supposed to talk about feelings.
  • It’s important to act stoic all the time.
  • Emotions should not be expressed — not even happy ones — except in a subdued, quiet manner.
  • Emotions are dangerous. Don’t listen to them.
  • Emotions are scary. Try not to feel them.
  • Emotional people are inferior. Don’t be like them.
  • Emotions are divided into good ones or bad ones, and the bad ones are sinful. Don’t feel them.
  • Getting in touch with your emotions is for California hippy types or wimps. Don’t be like them.
  • It’s OK to blame others for your emotions.
  • It’s the role of women and girls to make sure men and boys are happy.
  • Mothers are responsible for all the emotions in the home.
  • You should be happy — or it will make everyone around you unhappy.

Any of those sound familiar?

Some of us were told, growing up, that we were wrong to feel a certain way — or even that we were wrong about how we were feeling: “No, you can’t possibly be angry at your father! You are really happy for him.” We may have been told we were overly sensitive, or that we needed to tone ourselves down. We may have learned to suppress our own emotions, lest we anger or upset our parents. It’s a wonder more children don’t grow up wondering if they are the only ones in their families with any emotions at all!

People raised in emotionally inhibited (that’s nicer than saying “emotionally stunted”) families tend to take this discomfort with emotions out into the world with them. After all, if our parents were kind, decent, loving people, it’s rare that we scrutinize our upbringing for flaws, or spend time and energy analyzing the nuances of our family culture. Unless we have a good reason to change our minds, we tend to think the way emotions were handled in our home is pretty much the right way, even if it was fairly stifling.

Let’s imagine that two such people marry, and that the wife is a trauma survivor. If she has been raised to believe she must “keep your chin up no matter what”, she will find the vast chaotic swirl of trauma-induced emotions to be a sign that there is something wrong with her — rather than that her emotions are a natural response to the fact that something wrong was done to her. Painful emotions are painful no matter what, but the less emotionally savvy we are, the more tempted we are to numb or escape them. Like us, our hypothetical wife will most likely tend to follow her family’s lead in numbing, escaping, and/or suppressing.

Her husband will be quite content with an emotionally numb wife, if that is familiar to him because of what he grew up with. In fact, if she isn’t “good enough” at suppressing all her “negative” emotions, he will no doubt encourage her to keep her emotional range within his comfort level. If she fails, he will see this as her being weak, overly emotional, hysterical, etc.

The irony is that when his wife begins a deeper process of healing, when her emotions become unbound, when she becomes more fully alive, when she faces the truth of what was done to her and allows herself to feel all her emotions in response to such evil — when she is finally strong enough to do that — that is when her husband, instead of applauding her courage, is most apt to tell her that she is weak and fragile.

It is all too easy to accept that assessment. We think, yet again, that there is something seriously wrong with us. I remember crying in my therapist’s office, “Why does this hurt so much more now than it did back then?”

“Because,” he said gently, “back then, just in order to survive, you had to try to pretend it away. There was no safe place for you to feel, to grieve, to get angry at the cruel injustice of it all. You had to hold it all together. It was too scary to face the truth.”

It’s still too scary! I wanted to scream. In fact, I probably did…or, more likely, whispered it in a frightened gasp. Therapy session after therapy session, I bemoaned “ever opening up this can of worms”. Why not just keep on holding it together? Even if it wasn’t better for me, wouldn’t it be better for everyone else if I just went on pretending I was mostly fine? My therapist, God bless him, kept giving me assuring, encouraging, hopeful words — even when I accused him of lying or just mouthing therapeutic bullshit. But he was right. My sister-survivors and brother-survivors — my tribe — kept telling me the journey of healing was worth it, that I was not being selfish, that it was the right thing to do…and I grew to believe them more and more as I watched them walk it out.

Healing is messy. If we are human, experiencing trauma, betrayal, violence, humiliation, hatred, and dehumanizing acts will wound us deeply. We aren’t just recovering from those events, but from the years in their aftermath when we did not adequately heal. It takes courage and strength to face all that head-on…to stare down our worst memories…to allow the most extensive surgery to be performed on our most painfully wounded parts.

Emotionally healthy people actually feel and express their emotions. We may be a bit messy while learning to do so. We have been through a cataclysmic event; naturally there be some cataclysmic emotions…and, if we have held in many or most of them for years, they will seem overwhelming, like a dam bursting. It takes a lot of strength and courage not to avoid or numb that.

It takes even more strength to go against a lifetime of conditioning, to become more alive instead of less, and to pursue healing when it is so painful. But when the people who are supposed to care for us the most keep tearing us down rather than building us up, discouraging us rather than encouraging us — when they offer us words of weakness and failure rather than strength and hope — then it takes even more strength and determination on our part.

“Strengthen me by sympathizing with my strength, not my weakness.”
— Amos Bronson Alcott

So…my words of advice to any potential allies out there, anyone who wants to walk alongside a sexual trauma survivor on her healing journey: Don’t tear her down. Don’t demean her. Don’t add to her negative self-talk. If all you see is weakness and fragility, you don’t know her well enough to be her ally. If you have no words of encouragement and hope, if you cannot see her strength and worth clearly enough to remind her of it, keep your mouth shut — except to encourage her to find real allies.

And this is for those of us who are survivors, no matter what it might be that we have survived:

“Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.”
— Eleanor Roosevelt in You Learn By Living

“Courage is like a muscle. We strengthen it with use.”
— Ruth Gordon

“The encouraging thing is that every time you meet a situation, though you may think at the time it is an impossibility and you go through the tortures of the damned, once you have met it and lived through it you find that forever after you are freer than you ever were before. If you can live through that you can live through anything. You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face.

You are able to say to yourself, `I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’

The danger lies in refusing to face the fear, in not daring to come to grips with it. If you fail anywhere along the line, it will take away your confidence. You must make yourself succeed every time. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
— Eleanor Roosevelt in You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life

Note to my fellow and sister survivors: Although I am somewhat of a loner by nature, I believe very strongly in the value of finding a “tribe”. We heal best in community. If your current “community” — be it family, friends, or church — is not truly encouraging and supportive, in a healthy way, of your healing, this doesn’t mean you have to dump them. It just means you have to look elsewhere for your “healing community”. Don’t give up.

I’d love to hear from you about your healing journey. If you found a tribe, how and where did you find them? If you grew up in an emotionally open and expressive family, how did that help you in the healing process? If not, how are you overcoming that?

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