I grew up in a family where a favorite form of punishment and manipulation was to stop talking to the person with whom you are angry. Some perceived sense of wrongdoing on the part of the offender was the reason for the silent treatment. The only way to end the treatment was to apologize. It made no difference that the offender may have felt they did nothing for which they needed to apologize, they needed to apologize. Of course, this was maddening. However, this was not the only type of thing not discussed. There were secrets and physical suffering in silence. I had a grandmother who, one night, could not breathe and had chest pains but said nothing until the pain became overwhelming and it turned out that she had a coronary thrombosis, a stroke.
As a therapist, I have learned that there was nothing unique about the behavior of my family. In fact, there are many families whose systematic way of functioning is to not speak about issues, emotions, and opinions. In such families when there is any sign of disagreement everyone "shuts down" or "stuffs it." What is "stuffing it" you ask? "Stuffing it" has to do with keeping thoughts and feelings to oneself so as not to hurt the feelings of other people in the family. In these "stuffy families," conflict is labeled as dangerous and harmful. Emphasis and value is placed on silence about anything that might be deemed controversial. Each family member works hard to protect the feelings and well-being of the other members. However, this comes at a great cost to everyone in the group. Very often the cost is physical health.
A woman underwent quadruple bypass surgery after she collapsed in the street. She lived a life of constant tragedy and disappointment. Her only child, a daughter who was now an adult, would have nothing to do with her. The reason for the breach was never made clear except that the patient had a long history of being emotionally distant and aloof. Her father, mother, husband and family had all died leaving her alone and isolated. Tragically, she had miscarried eight times before the birth of her daughter. In a very real sense, this woman was dying of a broken heart. Yet, in therapy after surviving her bypass surgery, she denied feeling depressed and denied feeling sad or disappointed about her daughter. This woman lived alone, isolated herself, and continued to keep her feelings and thoughts to herself both after her surgery as she had prior to the near fatal incident. She never confronted her daughter about her failure to call or visit her mother.
Another man, always healthy, energetic, and vibrant began experiencing serious physical symptoms when he moved to another part of the country. While the MD's could find nothing wrong with him he complained he could not breathe, experienced numbness in his hands and arms, and could no longer work out in the gym. Having moved and given up his career, he could not seem to determine how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. While he had a career in the health industry, he never felt respected by his father, mother, and siblings for what he did. Worse, he devalued his profession. Anger and outrage were often and easily expressed by this explosive person. Yet, he could not verbalize or understand the full spectrum of what he felt. For one thing, as the only fully educated individual in the family, it was difficult for him to surpass his blue-collar father. Prior to moving to another part of the country, he could not admit to himself how much he would miss his parents. His family, always protective of this man, regularly failed to inform him of any type of health problems family members experienced. They feared he would become too emotional. As a result, he worried about everyone, including his parents, even more because he could not trust that they were being honest with him. Now that he moved, he worried even more than before.
A woman whose father died of a heart attack when she was a teenager was left at the mercy of her alcoholic and abusive mother. Filled with rage at her mother, she could never settle into an intimate relationship which was both calm and reassuring. She fought with each of the men she with whom she had relationships until they left her out of complete frustration. Although she was highly educated and extremely bright, her work relationships were marked by constant conflict and quarreling. When she finally did meet a man she fell in love with and married, she was unable to become pregnant. Her doctors, including fertility specialists, were unable to find anything medically wrong with her. They were unaware of her emotional, explosive, and angry nature. Research has shown how this type of emotion and storminess can contribute to fertility problems.
In an excellent psychology book entitled, I Don't Want To Talk About It, author Terrence Real discusses the male value of keeping feelings to themselves at the cost of alcoholism and depression. With verbal and emotional pathways of expression closed to them, many men turn to alcohol and/or drug abuse to attempt to defuse their problems...............What types of emotions are these men stuffing: Feelings of 1. Shame, 2. Anger, 3. Rage, 4. Embarrassment, 5. Sadness, 5. Depression and these are a but a few among many others.
Words are symbolic representations for how we feel, what we think and what we are experiencing. Many great psychologists and psychiatrists have written about their observations that verbal communication is a way for people to mitigate the impact of the stresses to which life subjects them. The failure to communicate with loved ones and the need to avoid discussing anything emotional lead to the types of somatic symptoms experienced in the cases cited above. Comprehensive Counseling Services Are Available
What to do About Verbal Communication For You and Your Family:
1. It is important to understand that anger can be expressed without tempers flaring. The purpose of words is to express feelings and thoughts in ways that are controlled but effective. The most effective way to express anger and disappointment is to lower one's voice and to carefully explain the reasons for the anger.
2. It has often been said by many family therapists that when expressing anger and disappointment an individual should avoid using the pronoun "you." "You" carries with it a tone of accusation which makes other people defensive. Instead, the preferred pronoun in the parlance of family therapy is the pronoun "I."
3. The purpose of using the pronoun "I" when expressing feelings is to state one's own thoughts and feelings without accusing the other. For example, I may feel angry that my daughter broke her curfew and came in late. I want to tell her that when she is late "I feel" worried about her. Or, if a husband or wife has spent too much money on clothing "I feel" worried about money and I need your help in controlling the budget. If I state something like "You are always late," or, "You are a spendthrift" the groundwork is being laid for a gigantic quarrel.
4. Our colleagues in Family Therapy also tell us that adjectives such as: always and never are more exaggerated than can actually be true. Teenagers do not always break their curfew. Instead, my teenage son broke his curfew this evening. Also, my spouse does not always spend too much money. Instead, she spent more than I wanted on this occasion.
Controversies, fears, disappointments, passions, and other emotionally laden issues can be discussed in ways that express emotions while protecting the dignity of others in the family.
Dr. Schwartz can be reached at www.allanschwartztherapy.com