Why do people continue to go to family for support when all they get is pain? When it hurts and hurts some more, what keeps us going back? Is it masochism? Ignorance? Some subconscious form of self-punishment or self-destructiveness? No. Almost never.
People go back for more because they’ve long ago become numb to the experience of familial invalidation; they are literally unable to process what is happening or how they feel about it. Instead, there is a flatness, a drained feeling, often edginess, and sometimes confusion, but no capacity to trace any of it to its source. This is not bad or wrong or requiring of any value judgment whatsoever. It is just a coping skill children learn to deal with an emotionally invalidating environment. They turn themselves off so the bad sensory input can’t get in. But if they don’t figure this out in adulthood, then the pattern can continue, and it can be highly detrimental to a person’s sense of well being, resulting in addiction, a wide spectrum of emotionally distant relationships, and an ever-present, gut-level sense of not knowing who you are or your place in the world.
I had an experience in early–very early–sobriety that resulted in a great epiphany about how numb I’d been all my life. It was my first family get-together since I’d gotten sober. I remember that it was at my grandmother’s house, but I don’t remember the occasion, and I don’t remember the details, and I don’t remember who was there other than my parents. (Some interesting story, huh?) All I remember is that when I left, I had the strongest urge to get high that I’d ever had, before or since. Of course I had no pot (and even if I had, I’d like to think I could have resisted), so all I could do was sit with the urge while I drove home. I remembered my treatment counselor calling pot “The Great Numb-er.” I put the two thoughts together, and I realized that the urge to get high was a direct result of spending time with my family! I was feeling bad and wanted it to stop. The significance of this struck me in a very visceral way. I not only saw, with tremendous clarity, why I’d been using drugs and alcohol as I had been, but I felt some of the feelings I’d been avoiding. When I got home, I cried, loud and long; it was the first of many such cries I would have in the process of reconnecting with all that grief and anguish I’d numbed away. It wasn’t a fun process, but I knew it was necessary, like scraping out a wound so it can heal instead of letting it fester.
Numbness protected us as children by allowing us to tune out our parents fighting, or not question their shame and ridicule, or feel nothing but the physical pain when we were backhanded, slapped, or worse. Numbness allowed us to pretend the experiences didn’t happen or that they happened for reasons that were valid, but beyond us. These are the only choices a child has. She is not capable of the complex thought required to sort out, and emotionally separate from, abuse and cruelty at the hands of the people who are supposed to be nurturing her and protecting her from such things. Numbness offered a much-needed escape. In an environment where a child’s emotional needs are not being met, numbness is necessary.
According to every definition I’ve read of post-traumatic stress disorder, emotional numbing is a key factor in dealing with stress and trauma. But other than as a way to function during traumatic events, numbness is not necessary for adults, and if it fits certain patterns, it can be indicative of disowned feelings. Often, precisely because of the numbness, people can have trouble determining if this applies to them; people who’ve learned to numb out are often in the position of guessing at what they’re feeling. If you think you might be in this category, but aren’t sure, here are some indicators to look for:
- feeling tired and drained around relatives
- feeling out of control of your emotions
- feeling powerless over your life or clueless about what you want
- compulsive behavior/addiction
- unsatisfying relationships, wanting to feel closer to people but not knowing how to
- confusion about what you feel or guessing at what you’re “supposed” to feel
- having “emotional amnesia” about past events; having no feelings about something you know was painful
- inappropriate emotions: laughing about something that was painful
- blanking out chunks of your childhood
- feeling like something’s missing from your life but not being able to identify what it is.
Nobody gets through childhood completely unscathed. But if you have any of these symptoms in a persistent pattern, chances are you don’t need antidepressants (which are really just medically sanctioned numbness pills) so much as you need to own the disowned fear, anger and grief that you traded away for numbness so long ago in a survival pact with the devil.
The only way out is through.
Despite my family get-together experience, it took a few more years before I stopped going to my family for validation, approval, and support. It took that long to fully understand the pattern in which I was stuck and how to get unstuck. For me, it was kind of a weaning process. I instinctively stopped going to them for certain things, got hurt when I went to them for other things, and found myself limiting contact more and more until I finally stopped going to them with any emotional information at all.* If I hadn’t had that initial awareness about how numb I was and why, I would probably still be going to my family to get something they aren’t capable of giving. Words can’t describe what an awful thought that is for me. Numbness served its purpose, and without it I may not have survived my childhood as intact as I did. But in adulthood, it is a terrible handicap, and I am so grateful to be out of that pointless, painful pattern.
*An interesting thing happened here. When I stopped sharing emotional information with my parents, they began to make it up. They either assumed or manufactured (I will never know which) unflattering “facts” about me, which they spread among family members, including my grandmothers. As hurt and angry as I was when I found out, I did feel vindicated in my decision to keep my distance. They’d been doing some version of this to me all my life, and it was only after I’d distanced from them that I was able to see this malicious pattern.