From The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families
by Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
6. Thou shalt not feel.
Sample Situation: A child cries because her best friend is moving away. “You shouldn’t feel like that. Stop crying!” yells her mother angrily.
Application: Since any display of emotion might betray the family secrets that all is not perfect, all emotions must be repressed and numbed. After all, we’re a normal family. We’re not like other people who get angry, sad, or afraid.
Motto: Be respectable. After all, respectable people never show their emotions or pain.
In a dysfunctional family, everything must be controlled lest information leak out and besmirch the family’s image. It is important to recognize up front that the image the dysfunctional parents hold in their minds of the family is not necessarily the image that observers hold…and it is the image in the minds of the parents that is the important one—any others can be discounted, minimized, or ignored.
The heads of dysfunctional families tend to be control freaks and they expect each member of the household to be able to control not just their thoughts and actions, but their feelings—both emotional and physical.
I think one of the reasons I was selected for the Scapegoat crown was that I was stubbornly independent and asked the wrong questions…NM tagged me with the “defiant” label when I was very little—I cannot recall a time that she did not describe me as “defiant” and having an “over-active imagination.” I, of course, saw it much differently…I didn’t see things her way and I had the temerity to doggedly cling to my own views and opinions.
“Oh, that doesn’t hurt!” she would say, her voice dripping contempt and disdain, “stop your blubbering!”
How the hell would she know if it hurt or not? I would think to myself resentfully. She’s not in my skin…maybe getting sat on by a person twice her size and having a swollen, tender, exquisitely painful boil squeezed like a toothpaste tube didn’t hurt her, but it damn sure hurt me!
When she took The Strap to me, the same control issues ruled. I had to take my pants down and present my bare behind and legs, then lay across the bed. I was not allowed to move, no matter how long or how hard she whipped me…if I wriggled or even looked like I was trying to get away, she would redouble her efforts, whipping me longer and harder. My vocal reactions were also controlled by her…and they were based on her whim of the moment. I always gritted my teeth and was silent in the beginning because once I started crying, it was almost impossible to stop. If she wanted to hear me screaming she would view my silence as further defiance and she would say something like “Think you can take it, do you? Well, we’ll see about that…I can keep this up until you have to holler!” If I started out crying, she would invariably demand that I stop, often telling me that I was “over-reacting,” that she wasn’t hitting me that hard to warrant those screams, but she could, if I really wanted a reason to scream bloody murder. As an adult I hear people sometimes remark on my stoicism and high threshold of pain—wonder where it came from…
The heads of dysfunctional families must be in control of everything. This can cause a lot of friction between the adults if one of them doesn’t like being controlled to the degree his/her partner demands. And there is no trust in such a family: if there was trust, there would be no need for the extreme control. The adults do not trust each other or the children—even the Golden Child must abide by the rules of not feeling.
“But my GC Sister was a screaming drama queen!” you object. OK…was that real emotion you were seeing? Or a manipulative display of rage designed to get her what she wanted? Narcissists use emotions like tools, which means they must be able to control them. This was one of the more frightening aspects of my NM, in fact. I can recall numbly enduring one of her Nrages, carefully schooling my face into exactly the right expression—a combination of attentiveness slightly tinged with fear—watching her bloody-red lips move, covering and revealing, covering and revealing those crooked, yellow, nicotine- and coffee-stained teeth to the accompaniment of her shrieks of outrage and bellows of wrath—and suddenly hearing the telephone ring. The terrifying thing was not her over-the-top display of bombast and fury but its sudden cessation and seamless segue into a cheery, breezy “Hello?” when she picked up the phone, followed by an equally serene conversation with her caller. It was terrifying to watch, a person’s emotions abruptly toggled on and off like a light switch…it meant that I could never relax, never feel safe, because she could go from quietly reading a book to a terrorizing rage in literally the blink of an eye…she could control it, but I couldn’t predict it with any hope of accuracy.
But emotions are not necessarily forbidden in the dysfunctional family—it is control of them that counts. You must control them according to the wishes of those who control the family, which is usually one or both of the parents. So, maybe your GCSister was a screaming drama queen—and maybe that is what your parents fostered. “Oh, Lily is so high strung, poor darling. She is a very picky eater and normal fabrics just break her poor skin out so we have to buy her silk underwear and nighties, and even her toys…” Then again, as long as your GCSister did what your parents wanted her to do, perhaps she was free to do what she wanted and if that included having raging tantrums when you got one more piece of candy than she did, they were okay with that—they key here being that she must do what they want and in exchange, she can do what she wants.
This can backfire. My GC Bro was pretty much a little terror, and pretty much allowed to do what he wanted by NM. Things got a bit out of hand, however, when it was time for him to start kindergarten…he didn’t want to start school and none of his pleading, tantrums or rages moved our mother to change her mind. So, he took it in his own hands and tried to burn the school down!
The school was a rickety relic of WW2 military dependent housing. Hastily built of now-tinder dry wood, one of the buildings, the Quonset-shaped auditorium, had already been condemned as a fire hazard. All of the buildings were built with a crawlspace beneath them and a raised wooden “boardwalk” connected the buildings together. One of my friends saw my brother go under the auditorium with some matches in his hand, and she ran to tell me. It must have been a weekend because my father was home and it was he who crawled under the building to drag my brother out and it was he who punished him. I am pretty sure that if it has been up to NM, she would not have punished him. Why? Because she punished me for being a tattletale!
My brother, who was accustomed to getting what he wanted, had tried to burn the school down so that he wouldn’t have to go to school. Believing himself entitled to have what he wanted and unwilling to take “no” for an answer, since he couldn’t sway our parents to give him what he wanted, he decided to take out the school: they couldn’t make him go to a school that wasn’t there. I can only imagine the possible repercussions had he succeeded: it was the immediate post-War years and schools were in double sessions (one group of kids attending classes from 6 am to noon, a second group in the same classrooms from noon to 6 pm) due to a shortage of classrooms… He might have been the Golden Child and enjoyed entitlements and preferential treatment, but he wasn’t allowed to express his feelings, if they contravened what NM wanted, any more than I was, so he resorted to sneaky, passive-aggressive behaviours guaranteed to get him his way—and it would probably have worked if he hadn’t been spotted and I hadn’t tattled.
In a dysfunctional family we can express only “approved” feelings. I hated the “singing career” my mother was trying to carve out for me but if you asked me, I would smile and tell you how much I loved singing and performing…it was the approved feeling and everything else not only had to be kept to myself, it had to be kept to myself in such a way that NM would not have to address or acknowledge the truth of my feelings. I think most of us find it too stressful to keep up the ruse and ultimately cease to feel anything except that which we are permitted to feel. I know that I eventually became completely numb to all feelings but despair and hopelessness—although I could access rage at times—and it was a long and painful road back, full of bumps and obstacles as I came up against the taboos against telling the truth, the prohibitions against feeling outraged or even angry at unjust treatment. I was to be the family “problem child,” I was to take on the fault for everything and I was to do so without complaint. “Like it or lump it,” NM used to say to me when she saw protest forming on my face. “My way or the highway.”
It takes a lot of pain to teach a child not to feel, to become numb to not only his own emotions but to those of others. Some of us are left only with rage, others are so broken that even the empowerment of rage escapes us. I can remember being so depressed that I would lay on the bed on my back, eyes unfocussed, mind a blank, almost not breathing, feeling nothing…almost serene in my extreme withdrawal and near immobility. It was almost too much of an effort to get out of bed to go to the bathroom…sometimes I would get half way there—10 feet at most—and just collapse down the wall, unable to walk any further. I was married to an N, a paranoid, controlling man, and I had finally succeeded in feeling nothing except the vast yawning chasm of emptiness that seemed to have overtaken my body.
We first learn not to express any feelings except those permitted by our dysfunctional families in order to protect the family; we later learn to feel nothing in order to protect ourselves from the family. Ironic, because the family does not deserve our protection and we, when we master numbness, harm rather than protect ourselves.
It is of critical importance for the dysfunctional family to look “respectable,” at least in the eyes of the adults. Anything that does not fit the head of the family’s definition of “respectable” becomes forbidden. People take on crippling debt loads in order to create and maintain that “respectable” façade, buying cars and homes and furniture and clothes, jewellery and wine and other things they cannot afford…whatever they perceive is necessary to erect and maintain that façade of respectability. Everything family members have, wear, do, eat, or say affects that façade. Your wishes, desires, opinions and feelings are unimportant unless they contribute to shoring up and maintaining the façade. And if you are the scapegoat child, your contribution is to be the silent, acceding receptacle for blame, the one who generates sympathy for the rest of your family with your (real or imagined) disappointing behaviour. Your feelings cannot be allowed to matter—indeed, their very existence are not even acknowledged.
Anything that gets in the way of keeping up the façade of a perfect and respectable family is frowned upon, and that includes emotions. You cannot be compassionate to anyone, lest you feel compassion for those whom you manipulate and exploit, you cannot permit the least display of a disallowed emotion in a public setting, be it a restaurant or park, school or church or work, lest those emotions get loose inappropriately. To prevent those emotions from coming to the fore, they must be ruthlessly stomped down, stuffed, eradicated, both in the adults and the children. That those feelings may emerge in other ways like alcoholism, drug addiction, promiscuity, self-harm and depression are not acknowledged.
Emotions can be dangerous, unpredictable things and in a dysfunctional family they are best managed by eradication, the earlier, the better. If, by the time your kids start school you have succeeded in having them stuff their feelings, you don’t have to worry about something being revealed that could damage the family image that you hold dear.
Next: Ten Commandments of Dysfunctional Families:
7. Thou shalt allow your boundaries to be violated, especially by those who “love” you.
It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.