Two of my patients some time ago were men in their 40’s, married faithfully, each with a couple of adored children. Both men were coming to therapy because of panic attacks – terrifying moments of helplessness and confusion, feelings so painful that neither man could really find the words to describe what happened to them at these times.
Each of these men were up against extremely stressful circumstances: one man was facing serious financial troubles with his business; the other had learned that his wife had a difficult health issue that she would need to address. It wasn’t hard to understand their fear, their dismay. Yet at first glance, these men seemed to have all the strength they might need to face their challenges: intelligence, the love and support of significant others, considerable talents, and many previous achievements and successes. Both men were going ahead and doing what they needed to do. But neither could stop the force with which they would suddenly, with little warning, find themselves in the grip of panic episodes so intense that they feared they might be losing their mind.
What these men, and many other men and women I’ve known, had in common was that they were taught, pretty much starting in the cradle, that feelings of distress, of any kind, were not worth having. They were taught, by the way they were responded to by their parents, that to be afraid, or sad, disappointed, hurt – feelings like that were just a waste of time. Don’t feel sorry for yourself, it’s nothing, don’t be ridiculous – cheer up, forget about it; those were the more benign kinds of responses they got when they were seeking comfort and understanding. Others I’ve talked to tell me that they would get yelled at, or hit, if they were upset. One man recalled that every childhood picture showing him smiling was taken just after his father had smacked him in the face, for not smiling.
Obviously, parents want their children to learn to be strong, have a thick skin, be able to handle themselves, because parents want their children to grow up to succeed in the competitive adult world. But too often, parents want to dismiss the difficult, painful feelings their children have, because many parents are overworked, too stressed, and too tired to have the patience and take the time to calmly and sensitively tune in to what their children are feeling.
If we as parents are not dealing with our own troubles – avoiding them by drinking too much, for example, or zoning out in front of the television night after night - then we are not teaching our children how to understand and express their feelings, because we are finding it preferable to be numb. In essence, we end up telling our children that we love them when they don’t bother us with their troubles – and that they can expect withdrawal from us if they aren’t burying their feelings and making things easy for us.
When you learn to minimize your own feelings and needs, and to adopt a stance of always being “fine,” because that’s what your parents rewarded, or because it made you feel superior to your whiney sister, or because it made your anxious, depressed parent feel better, you have learned not to take care of yourself. The contempt and dismissiveness you’ve learned to feel toward your own vulnerability keeps you from tuning in to what you feel, what you really need and want. When all the suppressed and warded off feelings reach a boiling point, they break through the walls of denial, and hit the fan, wreaking panicky havoc.
Life is always going to be presenting us with problems, including some that are frightening and overwhelming. We will, every one of us, have to face painful situations, no matter how much you may think you’ve got it all under control. Contempt and impatience for your own feelings, and for those of your spouse and children, are not effective coping mechanisms. What that’s really about is fear – fear of feelings. Feelings are what make us alive – and being able to stay open to the full range of our feelings is a way toward realizing the fullness of the human potential – for growth, for health, for life.
© Daniel Shaw, LCSW 2011