Catherine Auman, LMFT
Supervisors SIG Chair, LA-CAMFT
People who grow up in difficult families miss learning some of life’s most basic skills. In homes where physical abuse is present, for example, children often don’t grow up with the understanding that their bodies deserve respect. If the parents were emotionally cold, the child misses learning what it’s like to live in a world where affection is easy and can be taken for granted. Kids grow into adults who don’t believe they can fend for themselves when their parents are controlling and over-protective.
A common thread running through these challenging environments is an inability to speak the language of feelings. These kinds of families often have unspoken rules about not feeling, not speaking about feelings, or not feeling feelings they believe are incorrect to feel. Not learning the language of feelings can lead to feeling alienated from oneself and others.
It’s as if your parents didn’t teach you how to speak French and you suddenly realize you’re living in a world where everyone speaks French but you. Yes, it’s a handicap, but you can learn, even at the advanced age you are now. You will have to work on it diligently for at least a couple of years, but it can be done.
The first step is learning that feeling feelings is okay, even preferable, and to welcome their presence in your life. Next is to learn the names of the various feeling states and their many gradations. Sometimes I’ll give my patients a simple chart with faces mimicking the various emotions such as anger, happiness, or fear, and we’ll go through them methodically noticing the attendant physical response. The patient begins a process of checking in with their body to identify what they are feeling. They learn to bypass the mind, that purveyor of false information.
Patients practice “speaking French” during the week between sessions and report back what it is like to identify their feelings and live with their responses. The next stage is to practice expressing these feelings in words, both in the therapy session and with trusted people in the patient’s life. Expressing feelings to a loved one can lead to closeness and intimacy, often of a type which the patient has never experienced before.
It is certainly harder to learn French when you’re an adult than if you had grown up bilingual at home, but we all know people who have done it. It is quite possible to become fluent in a second language and enjoy eloquently conversing with friends, write poems and sonnets and essays, and who knows, maybe even share a few jokes.
© 2014 Catherine Auman This article is an excerpt from Catherine’s book Shortcuts to Mindfulness: 100 Ways to Personal and Spiritual Growth