As a boy, my family taught me certain dysfunctional lessons. One of these lessons was that I was not allowed to express (or even have) thoughts and feelings of my own. My job was to smile and look good and do what was expected of me no matter what. This lesson was continually reinforced throughout my childhood.
For example, I remember a trip to the pediatrician when I was around ten years old. I was horribly ill, with a very high fever. When I went into the doctor’s office, accompanied by my mother, he asked me how I was doing. I said, very honestly, “Awful.” At that point, the doctor’s visit paused while my mother gave me a mini-lecture (that continued as a much longer lecture in the car on the way home) about how to respond when a person asks how I’m doing. According to my mother, I should have said, “I’m fine. Thank you for asking.” Any other response was unacceptable, even when talking to the doctor.
And that was simply a response to a question about how I was doing physically. Being honest about emotions was a million times worse. If I was feeling confused or anxious or afraid, I could tell my father and I would get approximately the same amount of understanding and response that I would get by talking to a doorknob. (Please understand, my father was and is a wonderful human being and I love him dearly, but his ability to be emotionally present is limited.) I could also talk to my mother. However, she was almost certain to wildly overreact, with that overreaction directed, usually inappropriately, at, well, pretty much anyone. Including me. (As with my father, my mother is a lovely person who struggles to be emotionally present. But while my father’s coping mechanism is avoidance, my mother’s is to lash out.)
Whichever parent I turned to, I did not get my emotional needs validated or met. Eventually, to avoid this ongoing interpersonal disappointment, I set a boundary: No matter what, keep my thoughts, feelings, and emotions to myself. I decided to always present a happy, successful façade regardless of how miserable, alone, anxious, and depressed I felt on the inside.
Unfortunately, this boundary was not a boundary; it was a wall. I projected the message, “Tell me I’m great and that you love me, but stay away.” And guess what? People stayed away.
For the most part, I was OK with that because I didn’t need them. When I had the type of emotional discomfort that healthy people tend to share with empathetic others, I numbed it. I turned to alcohol, drugs, sex, food, spending, whatever – anything to not feel.
Eventually, this stopped working (as addictive behaviors and other unhealthy coping mechanisms always do). Even if I could numb for a few moments, I soon found myself right back in reality. And whatever I’d been trying to not feel was still there, along with a heaping helping of shame about my dysfunctional coping behaviors and, occasionally, some fresh consequences to deal with. Finally, I had to stop. I had to find a healthier coping mechanism – and that meant reaching out to other people, telling them the truth about my problems, and letting them help me.
Honestly, I would rather have eaten a plate of worms. Becoming vulnerable in this way was something I’d avoided since childhood, and I was not keen on the idea of breaking down the walls I’d so carefully constructed. And once those walls were down, what was I supposed to do? I had no idea how to relate to other people on an emotionally intimate level because I’d never done it. I wasn’t even sure it was possible. I figured that everyone in the world who said that he or she had close friendships and a great romantic relationship was lying – putting up a façade as I had done for so many years.
Nevertheless, I knew I needed the support of others. I knew I needed to connect emotionally even though I did not feel safe doing that. So I started small and worked my way up the ladder. I trusted my therapist, and he responded with empathy and healthy boundaries. I trusted my sponsor, and he responded with empathy and healthy boundaries. I trusted a few other recovering addicts, and they (mostly) responded in the same way. Eventually, emotional connection with other people changed from impossible to possible, and then from possible to desirable.
This was not, however, an easy process. For starters, I had to learn that healthy boundaries are not walls. Healthy boundaries are not about keeping other people out; they’re about letting other people safely in. If other people behave in ways that are safe for me, I can choose to let them in. If they behave in ways that are not safe for me, I can choose to keep them out. Their behavior belongs to them; my choices belong to me.
This realization, coupled with a whole lot of trial and error, helped me see and appreciate the joys and benefits of intimate emotional connection. Over time, I have learned to relate in healthy ways with the people I love and care about even though they don’t (or can’t) always meet my emotional needs in the ways I might like. Because of this, I have true friends in my life and a meaningful connection with my family. For me, these unexpected gifts of recovery and healing are hard-won, but more than worth the effort.