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When You Were Taught to Believe It Isn't Safe to Have Feelings

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Growing up in my abusive and dysfunction family, I wasn’t allowed feelings. My feelings were wrong and punished. I displayed them at the wrong time or wrong place. I was being dramatic. Could I get any more embarrassing?! People might see me. What would they think? Not just of me but of my parents. I was shaming my parents. What on earth would people think of them? Their daughter was out of control, outrageous! She had feelings! Oh the shame! 

• What is PTSD?

I could see people around me. I was good at watching the differences between they way I was treated and the way others were treated. It appeared to me that other people, other families, other children were allowed feelings. Not only were they allowed feelings, they were allowed to display them. They were allowed to talk about them. “Allowed” probably doesn’t capture the nature of the situation adequately. They were encouraged to have, show and talk about feelings. Openly. Honestly. With no shame.

I couldn’t decide if this was freedom. Was it liberating? Was it therapeutic? Was it safe? Or was it embarrassing and uncomfortable? Were they afraid? Would they be punished later? Why was it OK for most people to have their feelings but not me? Was there something wrong with me? Something that made me undeserving of feelings? I had so many questions. 

I spent many years, in silence, in emotional and mental pain, trying to figure out what exactly it was about me that made me so undeserving. As I got older, I would read books or articles where people would talk about feelings, explain them and assure readers that it was safe to speak up. Tears in my eyes, I would flick past and think, “Yeah, but not me. That’s not meant for me,” and read something else.

Growing up not being able to show or talk about emotions meant that later in life, I had trouble identifying emotions. Someone would ask how I was feeling and I would say, “I don’t know.” I knew I felt something, but I had not idea what it was. It was a funny sensation. An intrusion within my body. It didn’t have a name. It was there but what it was, was a mystery to me. 

No one saved me. No one convinced me that I deserved better. No one convinced me that I had a right, that I was, in fact, deserving. With my head hung in intense shame, I had to help myself. I shamefully embarked on a path of healing. Even as an adult, I have to remind myself daily that I am safe and deserving. I am safe to talk. I am safe to have needs. I am safe to say no. I am safe to feel. I also walk around with an extensive list of emotions so when the nameless being appears, I can look through the list and see if I can name the nameless. Maybe today he is happiness. Tomorrow he may be sadness. Whatever this nameless being is, he’s mine. I’m allowed to have him. I’m allowed to keep him and I’m allowed to name him. Best of all, I’m safe. I am deserving.

Originally published: May 16, 2020
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