Welcome to the Sidebar’s advice column, where lawyers, loiterers, and loggers alike sit down for a chat with our very own Muffle. Her advice might be bad, but hey, at least someone’s listening. Today we’re talking about the feelings that come up in therapy.
I always felt like my childhood was pretty good. We had our ups and downs but I was a happy kid. But I recently started going to therapy for, I thought, unrelated reasons, and in the process of talking through those issues I’ve been realizing how much my parents failed me when I was little. It’s not that I didn’t remember my childhood, I just didn’t think about how unfair a lot of it was until someone asked me to. Now I’m angry, and I don’t know what to do. Do I confront my parents? Do I get over it, like I’ve done for years? How do I handle all these feelings?
Therapy is a funny thing. You go into it thinking that it’s going to settle your feelings, but in my experience, you have to dig a lot of things up first, and a lot of complicated emotions rise up with them. Despite our expectations, that’s a huge and important part of the process.
You haven’t given me many details about what happened to you, Delayed, and I think that alone says something: whatever you’re feeling, it’s still very raw, and very personal. Even though what you’re reacting to happened a long time ago, because you didn’t process those feelings until now, it’s as fresh as if it happened this morning. And that is totally, perfectly normal.
Because you’re not ready to share those feelings yet, I can’t know how your parents failed you. But if I had to hazard a guess, I’d bet that they put too much on your shoulders too fast, and never let you be the kid you really were. I say this because, in your question, you’re asking a question every child is asking when they cry, freak out, throw a tantrum, run away: what are all these feelings and what do I do with them? I’d wager your parents didn’t know the answer to that question, themselves, so they never answered it for you.
What you do with those feelings is, simply, feel them. For whatever reason, you’ve hidden these emotions away like an old photo album for a very long time. Unlike old pictures, however, emotions don’t fade; they concentrate, even way below the surface, so when they do come out, they’re even more intense than if you’d dealt with them straight away.
There’s good news and bad news, though. The good news is that you’re finally doing the work you need to work through all those bad feelings! The bad news is that I think you’re still protecting yourself. Anger is a defensive feeling. We use it to shield ourselves when we feel threatened or hurt. And it covers up the real feelings that the anger is responding to: sadness, betrayal, loss, grief. It’s only when you work through those feelings, the real ones, deeper down than you’ve even gone yet, that you can really start to move on. Don’t “get over it;” you’ve been trying that since you were a kid, and it didn’t work. You wouldn’t keep trying to hammer a nail with a sponge, so why ignore your heart?
What happens next with your parents really depends on your relationship with them now, and whether they’ve grown up as much as you have. It’s entirely possible that, with the wisdom of age and experience, they’ve learned to be more comfortable with their own feelings, and would be open to discussing yours. But it’s also possible that they can’t grow up; that whatever they’ve experienced in their lives has left them as scared of feelings as they taught you to be, and they’ve been looking away from real, authentic emotions for so long that they wouldn’t recognize them if they saw them. If that’s the case, then they can’t help you. In fact, maybe, once you find peace with your parents and your past, you’ll be the one who ends up helping them.
Snark and tipples,
Got a question for Muffle? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.