Many emotions arise from living in a family of addictions or other trauma. Due to the “survival rules” that are developed in traumatic situations, these emotions are often repressed. If these emotions are not identified and resolved, they will create anxiety that requires repression. The buildup of repressed emotions is so powerful that an individual becomes susceptible to addictions providing psychological relief. Identifying and understanding these repressed emotions provides an opportunity to witness the personal effects of addictions and family trauma.
Paul searched the bleacher crowds for any sign of his father. His Dad promised that he would make the last game of the season. Once again a promise had been broken. Paul went through the probable excuses of a last minute committee meeting, car trouble, or an emergency at the office that would be offered by his father to cover up for another drinking episode. Paul couldn’t wait until he was allowed to play. He was in the mood for some hard contact.
In troubled families, the rules are rigid. Responses to the rules are black and white, and allow for very little grace. A child learns that the family’s desires are most important and his needs as an individual are not. Children learn that they are to sacrifice themselves for relationships, peace, and the wants of the family. Family rules state that “you either love me or you hate me, there is no in between.” The reality is that the person is loved for being a family member; yet, at the same time, they are hated for the embarrassment, emotional pain, broken promises, and abandonment that is the reality of dysfunctional families. This love/hate conflict is not allowed to be discussed or resolved, resulting in feelings of rage.
Rage is a seething and sometimes violent emotion—anger in the extreme. In a family of trauma, the origin of rage stems from a primary unresolved conflict involving love/hate relationships. Individuals love their family members for who they are. They hate them for their actions that create pain and chaos.
Rage is like a coin with two distinct and opposite sides. The amount of anger and rage a person has within life speaks directly to the depth of unresolved hurt and fear that they feel. In the same way, the amount of hurt and fear within an individual’s life speaks directly to the amount of anger and rage that is also present. One emotion does not exist separate from the other.
If anger or rage is a pervasive problem, it may be covering a depression or another deeper emotional concern.
Emotional Hurt: Pain
The alarm clock shows the time as being 2:30 in the morning. June knows that her husband never made it to bed last night and that he is online looking at pornography. She considers sneaking into the office to catch him, but knows that he will immediately switch screens and have some excuse for working late. June lives with the pain of wondering why her husband would rather look at porn than sleep with her.
Families of trauma suffer from issues such as separation, divorce, addictions, and death. The result of these losses is often pain caused by repeated broken promises, ignored commitments, and violations of trust. Emotional, physical, and sexual abuse wounds the soul of the victim, leaving a legacy of pain. Emotional hurts and pain are unavoidable byproducts of living in families of addictions and trauma.
Survivors of family trauma commonly work hard to avoid repressed pain. Pain becomes an emotion synonymous with feelings of vulnerability. For a trauma survivor, vulnerability is to be avoided at all costs. This mindset leads to a continued lifestyle of pain avoidance and does not allow a healthier approach that acknowledges and works through painful life situations. The denial of pain allows repressed emotional hurt to build, making a person vulnerable to the relief offered by addictive behaviors, such as alcoholism, pornography, or work addictions, among others.
Most children hate school, but Jean loves it. School is a place where she can learn, play with her friends, and be safe. At the end of the day Jean takes her time walking home. She never knows if her parents will be angry, if divorce will be threatened, or if the situation will be violent. For Jean, home is a nightmare and she lives every day with fear.
The unpredictability of a family of trauma creates fear. Fear, anxiety, and stress become a primary part of a person’s survival protection system. Addictions, conflict, chaos, and abuse create an insecure family atmosphere. Because of this uncertainty about family relationships, children growing up with family trauma learn not to trust others. Fear creates a perception that all relationships and life situations are potentially precarious and, as such, need to be treated with distrust.
Anxiety is a form of fear caused by the expectation that something potentially hurtful is about to happen. The anxiety created by the unpredictable nature of family trauma requires that a person develop an attitude of hyper-vigilance. Being vigilant means searching the horizons of life to identify potential trouble that may be coming in the future. “Hyper” involves intensity. Hyper-vigilance creates a lifestyle of anxiety, often about situations that rarely, if ever, materialize.
In families that involve abuse, fear is the result of living with real danger. Emotional, physical, or sexual maltreatment requires survival skills that include becoming sensitive to the emotional climate of the family. Many individuals that come from abusive families develop a fear-focused emotional radar used to anticipate dangerous situations.
A common response to living with anxiety and fear is worry. Worry is a fear-based attempt to control the future. Persistent lifestyle patterns of worry create increased levels of anxiety and fear.
Mark is a physician with a thriving practice. His patients appreciate him and he has earned the respect of his colleagues. There are times however, when Mark feels like Dr. Impostor. He still wrestles with his father’s constant criticism of him during his childhood. No achievement was ever good enough, not even a medical degree. Mark still struggles to please the ghost of his father who died four years ago. He is glad that his patients and family do not ever see the fear and inadequacy that he struggles with on a daily basis.
A common theme in families of addictions and trauma is, “Nothing is ever enough.” In these situations there is little or no family acceptance or recognition of individual achievement. Often children will try to achieve in order to generate pride within the family. The child who looks to the family for praise, recognition, and validation is treated as selfish and needy. For many, this battle with inadequacy and a need for family recognition is acted out well into their adult lives.
One component of inadequacy is the illusion of perfectionism. If a person does not get family recognition for achievements, it is difficult for them to accurately evaluate success and accomplishments in adult life. Often this results in a quest to be perfect. Perfectionism can never be achieved, leaving an individual’s self worth susceptible to perpetual feelings of inadequacy.
Tonight is like most nights. Sharon’s parents are working late again and they have asked her to fix dinner, check homework, and make sure she makes her brother get to bed on time. She cannot remember the last time the whole family spent time together and just talked. Sharon lives with the loneliness of knowing that her parents’ careers are more important than the needs of her and her brother.
Loneliness is the experience of being a member of a family but not feeling the bonds, respect, or companionship that exists in healthy families. In families of trauma, each member feels that they are not important. Other issues, such as family problems, addictions, frustrations, and extended family issues, become the primary focus. The needs of each individual are largely ignored, resulting in a sense of unimportance and loneliness.
In an attempt to fill the void of loneliness and inadequacy, people often are attracted to other unhealthy relationships that re-enforces this dynamic.
Joe’s parents divorced 8 years ago. He lives with his mother and stepfather. His father has remarried and lives on the East Coast. Joe sees him on holidays and for a month in the summer. Joe and his stepfather have a casual relationship. His dad acts like more of a father to his new family than to his own son. Joe often wonders what his life would be like if mom and dad had not divorced.
Abandonment is a parental relationship issue. In most families of trauma, the relation between a child and one or both of the parents has been damaged. Issues such as abuse, separation, divorce, and addictions are the primary causes of parent/child relationship breakdown. The loss of parental recognition, relationship, and support is the primary cause of the feelings of abandonment.
An individual who has experienced abandonment will often go to great lengths to avoid being abandoned again. Many times, this involves living with and accepting emotional, physical, or sexual abuse in relationships and subsequent marriages. Others develop a relationship addiction, going from one uncommitted relationship to another just to avoid being alone. Some guard against relationships or isolate completely in order to avoid being abandoned. Sexual addictions provide the illusion of a controlled, protected, and depersonalized, fantasy relationship. The allure of having total control and not being abandoned by others can create a strong attraction to unhealthy relationships and sexual addictions.
Jim is miserable. He has been having trouble sleeping and often wakes up feeling exhausted. He gets easily annoyed with his wife and children. He has noticed that work and hobbies no longer interest him. Jim is in denial about his depression. When he was young, he tried repeatedly to help his depressed mother. She never recovered. Jim now associates depression with weakness.
Surviving family trauma involves the repression of emotions. Depression grows out of living with repressed emotions. Depression is a pervasive sad, melancholy mood. Symptoms of depression are varied and involve emotions and behaviors that may not be recognized as signs of depression. These include pervasive anger, fatigue, sleep problems such as insomnia or oversleeping, low self worth, over-eating or having a poor appetite, self hate or destructive thoughts, and hopelessness.
Depression that lasts six months or longer may have physical origins. This includes conditions such as major depression, bi-polar depression, dysthymic disorder, and milder forms of malaise. Depression is best treated using a combination of medical interventions and counseling.
Chelsea often plays alone at school. As a quiet and shy child, she is often teased. Her classmates tell her often she is overweight, ugly, and stupid. She tries to make friends but is often rejected. Chelsea has felt like a loser her whole life and the rejection of peers reinforces her shame.
Shame is often misunderstood. Psychological literature differs on whether it is a healthy or unhealthy emotion. Healthy shame is made up of deep guilt feelings resulting from a violation of our values. This type of shame is a result of making a mistake and serves as a strong motivation for remorse and correction of the problem. Unhealthy shame is rooted in a person’s belief that they are a mistake. This type of shame is addressed here.
Unhealthy shame is a master emotion that results from a developmentally damaged self-esteem. A person who suffers from shame believes that he is defective and a mistake. This perception is often established because of inconsistent parental responses to a child’s needs during early years of life. The child from a family of trauma believes that there is something foundationally wrong with him that compels parents and others to react to him in neglectful, teasing, unkind, or abusive ways. Shame is a strong foundational, spiritual lie that takes control of a person’s life. The feeling of being defective and less important than others can occur at such an early stage of development that individuals believe that God created them this way.
Shame is referred to as a “master emotion” because it is a strong controlling dynamic within a person’s life. Individuals filter most experiences and decisions through the perception of shame. If people who struggle with shame make a mistake, the problem is seen as a confirmation that they are a mistake. If a child is teased he sees the teasing as proof that his friends and peers can see that he is defective. Many times shame-based persons will avoid making decisions because they feel that they are flawed. For a person struggling with shame a common goal is to survive each day without others seeing that he or she is defective.
Recovery from family trauma requires facing the past, working through the emotions, grieving loss, and unmasking the lie of shame. The task is best approached with medical, spiritual, and counseling direction. Failure to rectify these emotions will result in continued distress and make a person vulnerable to the deceptive emotional relief found in addictions.