Stuffing Emotions

I survived a holiday visit with my mother.  I say, ‘survived’ because I grew up in an alcoholic home and learned many typical but dysfunctional ways of behaving and coping.  I’m working hard to recognize these destructive behaviors and learn new ones, but nothing triggers a regression like combining a week long visit from my mom with the holidays.  It makes me introspective and while doing some deep thinking I’ve identified another intersection between alcoholism and autism.

One particular characteristic I’m actively working on is my long running habit of stuffing emotions.  Often, family members living with an alcoholic work so hard to deny that there is a problem with their loved one that they bury the worry, shame or fear they may feel and only acknowledge the happy feelings.  In my experience, it often wasn’t safe to express intense emotions.  Both tantrums and the over-exuberance typical of happy children were dealt with harshly because it bothered my dad.  In an effort to stay unnoticed, we lived in a kind of narrow range of emotions so that we could remain in control. 

I know when I feel happy, sad and mad, but the nuanced emotions like irritated, agitated, grief, passion, joy or fulfillment have long escaped me.  Ironically, I first recognized this problem when trying to teach G to take his inner temperature.  G has a quick and explosive temper which he expresses physically.  He can go from perfectly calm to enraged in a split second.  Usually, he is frustrated for quite a while but is unable to express that something is bothering him until it reaches an overwhelming level.  We’ve long worked to help him recognize the leading indicators of trouble so he can use his words to explain the problem.  I often tell him, “If I don’t know there is something bothering you, I can’t help you fix it.” 

Then I realized – I do the exact same thing to my family.  I bottle up the little things that frustrate me, and actively deny they are bothering me, until it reaches a critical point and I explode.  Recognizing this trait and working on it myself has made me much more empathetic to how hard it is for G to learn this skill.  So we’re working on it together.  When I’m getting agitated, I make sure to vocalize it to G.  For example, “G, I’m trying to have dinner ready by 5 o’clock, but the phone is ringing, the dogs are barking, and you’re asking for my attention.  I’m feeling overwhelmed and impatient right now.  I need to stop and take some deep breaths until I feel calm, and then I will answer your question.”   I make sure to analyze what I am feeling so I can recognize those nuanced emotions that I missed for so long and then I try to express and explain those emotions to G.

I’m starting to see this effort, which I started when G was 4, pay off.  Recently, G has been forgetting his polite words and has been simply demanding what he wants.  I have been doing what any parent would in this situation and have been making him rephrase his demand into a polite request.  After prompting G to be polite the other day, he huffed and said, “Mom, can you stop making me say please?  It’s really annoying and makes me feel frustrated.”

This is one of those double-edged sword moments.  On one hand, I am so excited – he identified a trigger and a nuanced emotion and verbalized both before he exploded!!  Unfortunately for G, I’m not going to stop nagging him to be polite.

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Published in: on December 28, 2009 at 9:38 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. “Then I realized – I do the exact same thing to my family. I bottle up the little things that frustrate me, and actively deny they are bothering me, until it reaches a critical point and I explode. ”

    ~ Boy can I relate to that…I too grew up in an alcoholic home, and I also married an alcoholic/drug addict (who was in recovery when I met him, but was actively using/drinking when I left him) and I will very often do the same thing. I am getting better, but when I spend too much time around my ex, I tend to slip up and go back into those old habits.

    It’s awesome that G is learning to express his feelings…but you’re right, don’t stop nagging about the manners.


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