One pattern to watch out for in families that struggle with Substance Use Disorder is the distinctive but predictable ways some families think about emotions. Emotions are considered shameful. Usually the range of acceptable emotions is limited. Some families do not nurture the wide range of feelings available to humans; instead they are locked into a small subset of emotions that reflect the addictive family system’s limited worldview. This can happen for a variety of reasons. We are doing the best we can! But it is an issue that may need our attention.
When a child is frightened by the loud voices of angry adults, it is normal and appropriate for them to cry. But in a family where emotions are considered wrong or bad or weak, this vulnerable kid will be told, “Stop crying or I will give you something to cry about!” OR “Only babies cry. Stop being a baby!” The chaos, conflict and generalized neglect of self-care, relationships, and finances in families shaken to the core by addiction is something that is worthy of shedding tears over - for each family member, including the children. But this raw honest expression of sorrow may not be allowed. This problem is NOT limited to families with addiction issues. All sorts of families, doing their best but lacking healthy ways of being in the world, also struggle with emotional sobriety.
If we have a feeling that tries to express itself in a suffering family but we lack tools to deal with it, we might feel shame and guilt. If we haven’t been taught how to use tools to express and resolve our emotions and we have access to a limited range of emotions, is it any wonder that when we come to our Fourth Step we will struggle to process our resentments, fears, and even the joy we feel when we acknowledge our strengths? Step Four allows us to open up the can of worms and peek inside - only to find out that the rumors about emotions and their danger to the family has been greatly exaggerated. As we proceed we will learn and reinforce processing and taking responsibility for our emotions.
One of my survival skills as a kid was avoiding conflict. Conflict in my family was scary and could get out of hand. I learned to skirt around topics that might cause arguments; I preferred to lie than to tell the truth about anything that might spark my father’s anger or my mother’s criticism. This survival skill helped when I was young but it lost its usefulness as I matured. I needed to put that strategy down and pick up more effective skills for building strong and vibrant relationships.
Today my son and I walked down by the James River. It was brisk but sunny and wild with whipping waves and overflowing water covering many of the big rocks in the middle of the river that we enjoy sitting on during the summer months. We talked politics. He shared freely his political perspective and I learned a lot. I am so grateful to have a conversation with my son about a topic that would require me to process ideas that were new and sometimes even a bit strange to me. I know my boy for who he is; he does not have to hide parts of himself from me; he knows me in this same way. We have boundaries and privacy, as is appropriate, but there is no need to keep secrets for fear of rejection or raging conflict. In my family of origin, we did not have the skills to allow others the space to be themselves. This is one of the gifts that Twelve Step work can bring into our lives. Now - onto the first part of the inventory!