View this post on Instagram
“Shake it off, it will only sting for a second.”
I pulled my finger out of the door hinge and held it up: it was crushed, the tip turning purple and swelling. My stomach roiled as I felt the wave of pain-induced nausea washing over me, goosebumps covering me from finger to toes.
This 10-word summary from my dad, delivered in a seconds-long window of my life when I was less than 10, taught me that expression wasn’t safe.
Even when my physical body was throbbing.
Emotional stoicism was bred into my family, rooted so deeply that it would be hard to find the seed.
When I was little, I would sit on my grandpa’s lap and clean his nails after his long day of working on the farm. I had to be extra gentle with his thumb, as the nail bed was black all the way to the end.
“What happened?” I asked him.
“Smashed it in some farm equipment a few years ago.”
“Did it hurt?” I asked.
“Ya, it hurt.” He shrugged.
“Did you have to go to the hospital?”
“Nah, a guy’s gotta get back to work, you know?”
This was one of my earliest lessons on how my family dealt with pain. Sweep it under the rug. Move on. Don’t complain. Earn our scars in silence. Disconnect from our body and talk about it in the third person, like a piece of farm equipment.
As a child, I didn’t know anything different. The awkward shuffles of avoidance at Christmas on one side of the family, and the focus on “the neighbors” on the other were just how I thought everyone’s family was. We attended each other’s weddings and graduations, trading claps on the back along with a handshake. We attended hometown funerals, where silence was the most prominent guest.
I have zero recollections of even a single time I heard either of my parents express fear, anxiety, sadness, grief, shame, or disappointment. I only heard my mother cry once, when I stood by the bedroom door and overheard the sounds of muffled sobbing. Once she emerged, she was the same as always, ready to prepare dinner. “Don’t let anyone see you cry,” was the lesson that emerged with her body, unspoken by her voice.
Take a joke.
You’re such a girl.
Nobody taught me how to name my emotions or helped me process the experiences. Instead, this instruction manual on stoicism swirled through my head as tools for tolerating being snubbed by my best friend or grieving the death of a teenage schoolmate involved in a car accident.
Pain had no name.
Grief did not exist.
Social exclusion was to be paid no mind.
And that’s just how things were done.
We can’t learn skills around what we can’t even acknowledge. We can’t learn to process pain that is never given a space to exist.
When we grow up unable to express our emotions, we feel alone, ashamed, and defective. We don’t feel like we belong, and a deep sense of loneliness fills our body: an unknowing about how to process something that we are simply not supposed to feel or experience in the first place.
I wasn’t like my family. I thought something was wrong with me for not being able to just move on. I’d go to my room and cry so hard my stomach hurt. I learned to do it in private, behind closed doors, just like my mom.
Shame runs in families.
We suffer illness after illness, breakdown after breakdown—the message from our body clear: “You can keep your pain, but you can’t store it here anymore.”
One night, in the cover of darkness, I said to a friend, “I don’t think I’m going to live very long.” Looking back, I think I meant, “I don’t think I’m going to live very long if I keep going like this.”
When we aren’t allowed to speak, clenching tightly to our emotions and pretending they don’t exist, our body will find a way to express what we cannot. Something inside of us will eventually claw its way open.
Often, we find that anger comes out first, like bolts of lightning; when we have been modelled emotional suppression, release is a dramatic thunderstorm rather than a peaceful sunrise.
I swore. I growled. I hissed. I let my body shake and didn’t try to stop it. I could’ve forced it to stop: I knew how to do that. But I was just learning how to let it speak.
“Anything is accepted in this space,” said one healer.
Anger that our parents were like this. What was wrong with them? Why did they do this to us? Anger that the world doesn’t make space for people like us.
Eventually, the thunderstorm ends, followed by the rain of accepting what we feel in the moment without judgement.
There is nothing wrong with us for having emotions. Humiliation, sorrow, shame, fear, and disappointment contain our humanity.
It’s energetically possible to heal our generational line both forward and backward. So when we do the work of expressing and releasing, we can have compassion for our parents, who never had the opportunity. When we try to decide whether to ask for help or go it alone, we can think of a beloved grandmother, whose hands were bent with painful arthritis and back stooped with age but who never missed getting dinner on the table.
And we can think about our children, raised to express themselves, and marvel in these moments, yet still feel a lingering smoke trail of fear inside us that other people might think them weak for such displays of vulnerability.
When we consider our parents and our parents’ parents, we think of people who had to work hard every day to survive. They were farmers, they were teachers, they were soldiers and miners and nurses.
We only have a combined amount of energy in our human condition, which needs to be divided between our emotional, intellectual, and physical load. Taking time to express emotions—to be authentic, to cry, to connect, to be vulnerable—once meant that chickens didn’t get fed or dinner wasn’t on the table. And so our ancestors became stoic, a trait wrapped in pride.
Once meant to protect the farm from being lost, stoicism now prevents us from authentic relationships, connection to ourselves and others, and making choices that are best for us.
It’s now an asset to have compassion, feeling, and sensation. We have choices that were not available to our parents or grandparents.
It’s impossibly hard work to be a transition generation; raised by stoics, these coping mechanisms are no longer a benefit. We have to unpeel our traumas, repressions, and suppression. We have to move through the layers of grief and shame and sadness and fear. We have to acknowledge that being human is f*cking hard.
And still get dinner on the table.
For more from Janis.
For more from Keri.