When you start attending regular therapy sessions, you would expect to be able to open up and share your intimate thoughts and feelings with your counsellor, after all, that was the plan. But trying to, or wanting to express that which is within you, can be very difficult for some people.
There can be a number of reasons for this but I have found that for many people, it comes down to this: you have never spoken to someone about your feelings in this way before - not as a child, not as an adult. And now, you don’t know how to do it, and when you try, something gets stuck.
When I meet clients who find it difficult to talk or to articulate their emotions, I ask them what their family life was like growing up. What happened when their family had conversations? What did they share with their parents and their siblings? Below are some familiar responses:
· We didn’t have family conversations, we never talked as a family.
· No one in our family talked about feelings, we talked about other stuff but not feelings.
· My parents were the ‘stiff upper lip’ kind and we all just learned to keep our personal problems to ourselves.
· I was always worried about my mum and I didn’t want to put more on her plate – she had enough to deal with.
· My parents kept their emotions under control. Even when my nan died. I heard my mum cry in her room a few times but in front of us she didn’t say anything about her sadness. She pretended she was okay and we all pretended things were okay.
· My dad used to be angry a lot, so the rest of us tried to keep the peace to stop the next angry explosion. We just learned to be quiet children.
· My mother expected me to be perfect and I think I learned to keep secrets because of that.
Taking a moment to reflect on how we learned to communicate our feelings as children can reveal a lot about how we express ourselves as adults. We can look back at our childhoods and see patterns of how we learned talk and not talk, be emotional and not be emotional.
And many of those patterns still remain active. If as a child there was no one listening, no one to hear you express your thoughts and feelings, you probably learned to communicate differently. The child who shouted and played up to get attention can become an adult doing pretty much the same. The child who was repeatedly made to feel bad for being themselves, unsurprisingly may find it difficult to be open with their feelings and desires as an adult. A man may fear being viewed as somehow less, if he reveals his emotions as he may have been belittled as a child for not being masculine enough. A woman may think showing her feelings will label her as needy or over-sensitive as that that was the message she got as a child.
Reflecting on family communication stories with clients can lead to many explorations. Why didn’t our family talk about grandma’s death? What were we avoiding by not talking about stuff that mattered? Did we not know how to talk to each other? Were we trying to avoid rows or conflicts? Were we frightened of being vulnerable in front of each other? Why did our family have so many secrets? Why did we only do happy emotions but never talked about sadness or fear? How much did culture play a part? What part did my parents’ upbringing play in this? Was my mother depressed and we didn’t realise it?
Such explorations can be difficult and even painful. As we look back, we sometimes undo history. We see what we hitherto have been blind to. But such explorations can also be liberating and impactful for our present. We understand more about what shaped us. We know why we wore masks to hide our feelings. We learn why we preferred to keep quiet or swallow our pain. We can be kinder to ourselves knowing that we can change things in the present, and that that power is within us - we are not tied to our conditioning.
Our family communication stories may have left us disadvantaged, but we all have a choice now, as we take over as the sole storyteller of our present day narrative.