Feelings in our Early Family
Some authentic feelings may have been forbidden in early family life. Other feelings (or ‘Racket Feelings’) may have been allowed as replacements for the ones that weren’t allowed.
Some feelings were forbidden
In family situations it is likely that expressing some or all of our authentic feelings is just not acceptable.
So, a little boy brought-up hearing ‘Big boys don’t cry’ may have difficulty expressing sadness as an adult. But how does this work?
The existential position of infants is precarious indeed. They are dependent for everything they need on two adults who are enormous (6ft), highly functioning, (often) working together and who have the power to withdraw at any time. This withdrawal is perceived as ‘fatal’ to the infant.
Infants make decisions about how the World works based on little real-life information and, what’s more, they have few opportunities to reality-test their ideas. Older siblings, as well as younger ones, are a further complexity.
If I lose my favourite toy and, quite naturally, cry then I’m expressing an authentic sadness. But how will my parents respond? If they appear to move away (because maybe my constant feeling is getting too much around here) or tell me in a harsh voice to “Shut Up!” then the problem of the lost toy needs to be balanced against the existential dread of abandonment by my caregivers. I decide that expressing sadness could be ‘fatal’.
Later, the verbal message “Big boys don’t cry” would reinforce my earlier decision.
Anger is similarly often unacceptable in family situations.
Other feelings were allowed – Racket Feelings
Families have ways around not allowing themselves to do authentic feelings. There are usually inauthentic feelings that are allowed instead. In Transactional Analysis these are known as ‘racket feelings’.
Say my big brother is hitting me – then anger would be the authentic feeling and may well get the problem solved. However, the more I escalate my anger the more it seems to upset my parents and the more anxious they get.
So, anger is risky because it means my parents are unsupportive, distanced and troubled by it. What they show me though is that ‘anxiety’ is OK and, if I do anxiety, they seem to know what I’m about and give me a cuddle to soothe me.
The cuddle feels good, but that doesn’t stop my brother from hitting me. He hasn’t experienced me expressing my needs in a direct way and this problem remains unsolved.
If we fast forward to me experiencing bullying at work some twenty years later then you’d expect me to be angry at the office bully who pokes fun in the rest room. But my anger is disconnected, cut off. I don’t even seem to hold it as an option in the way some others might. My early decision to not feel anger (or risk a fatal abandonment) is still in effect. Instead I feel and show anxiety in the rest room, which doesn’t solve the problem.
It’s worth knowing that feelings of anger, sadness or fear can be racket feelings covering an authentic feeling. For example, if anger wasn’t allowed in the family but sadness was allowed, then we might cry when we are angered. This is indeed quite a common racket feeling response.
Getting help with feelings
Remember that everyone is different and any self-help process can only offer ideas in general terms. It may be that ‘dealing with feelings’, especially uncomfortable ones, means working with someone who is qualified to support you.
Why not book an initial assessment session with a counsellor/therapist who is registered with a nationally recognised professional body (such as BACP or UKCP in the UK)?