Emotional Honesty Is Great (on the futility of labeling emotions)

When I was in fourth grade, the teachers and other students would try to get me to smile, by telling a joke, tickling, or calling attention to me. No one asked why this little boy might be unhappy, no one wondered if he might be beaten and sexually abused by his older brother when he went home, if his mother might be an alcoholic, if he has no one in the world. They weren’t trying to dig deeper and help him, they just didn’t want him to show how sad he was, and for their own comfort, not his. At the end of the year, my teacher gave me a hackeysack with a bandaid and crying face on it, which she gave to all the children with what she described as a ‘poor me’ attitude; a mocking label for the sad boys and girls heading home to fear, emptiness, and pain. From that point on I tended to just walk around with my natural face; the way it fell without my moving it, not in any particular expression, but people always bothered me about it, insisting that I should change it for them. I didn’t live in front of a mirror, and resented other people complaining about my face, the way they imagined I saw myself or the world as a whole.

At fourteen, my grandmother gave me a long, preachy lecture, insisting that I was “too negative,” and needed to conform to her religion. Likewise my father once made a grand statement about how “everyone should have to talk at the dinner table” (there were three of us and my mother went on and on, so he was directing it at me.) When I pointed out that he hadn’t been saying anything himself, he replied in a hateful, aggressive tone that “well, normally if it was just me and your mother I would, but with someone who always seems so negative…” What this communicated to me was how much he wished I wasn’t there, and how extremely immature he was that he felt free to avoid me, to label, insult, and shun me because I was quiet and seemingly unsatisfied with all the incest, violence, and emotional abuse I suffered through in the family.

Meanwhile, apparently our mother, who spent most of her time either drinking alcohol, screaming, or gossiping about other people was “positive” enough for him. I just didn’t speak; I had become selectively mute after a particularly traumatic period years before, I had social anxiety, and definitely was not comfortable around my abusive parents. But to be honest, my father had always been like that; even as a three year old I remember just how uncomfortable he was around us, my brother and I; how much anxiety he felt when we were even in the same room. Was that because I was “negative” as an infant, or was it something wrong with him? At the dinner table during much of my fifteenth year he had such a standoffish tone that he wouldn’t look at me except in utter disgust, because I had pink hair and black painted nails; because he was so homophobic. He believed in reincarnation, and insisted that I would “suffer on a thousand different worlds” after this lifetime. But whatever the changing justifications were, whether it was his new age cultism about “negativity,” the way I looked or his dislike of children, he seldom approached my presence in a warm and kind way himself.

They were all fond of labeling me as “miserable,” at deciding my emotions for me even when I was going through a good period. In my late teens, my mother would always insist to me “I just want you to be happy.” What she implied with this statement is that I definitely couldn’t be happy at all at that moment, with the choices I was making for myself; she wanted me to be something she was sure I wasn’t, she was deeply unsatisfied with my life and wanted me to change it for her. At 18, I had lost a great deal of weight, I was no longer obese as in my earlier teen years, and that made me feel so good about myself, but she wanted to push food at me, wanted me to gain weight again, insisting that I couldn’t be ‘happy’ with healthy food in reasonable portions, when I was. I came out as a homosexual to be more open and live a better life, but despite gay also meaning happy, she was so bigoted that she wanted me to keep looking for that special girl who would appeal to me, so I could have the same relationship as she did. There was no happiness for me in the plans she designed for my life, in these manipulations and mind-games of hers.

In my previous entry on Boundaries, I recounted the story of a verbally abusive person who shouted at me for not being ‘positive’ enough because I was trying to honestly explain my feelings, emotions, and reality as a survivor of abuse who had to strike out on his own in the world. She tried to make me feel bad because I didn’t have a repository of happy, easy-going stories about my life, and because I insisted on criticizing my ex-family members when I talked about the past. She also was one of those people who closely studied my facial expressions and would openly comment on them in a mocking way, even after I asked her to stop. She tried to make me lie, talk only about the few ‘good times’ and deny my emotions in order to stick to shallow subjects. Why is it that proponents of ‘positive thinking’ feel themselves righteous in personally attacking others who are not deemed sufficiently positive? Is it really better to insult, censor, and tell others that they are wrong then to honestly state one’s emotions, feelings, and view of the world? I don’t think so.

My older sister thought she could ‘rise above’ anger by engaging in passive aggressive behavior, giving people the silent treatment and obfuscating what her real emotions were. She refused to express her justified anger at our parents, and wound up yelling at me, her son, and her husband all the time as a result. Because she repressed herself, she was repressive to others as well. I remember she once wrote to me in an email that she was sorry that I was going through all my traumatic memories to heal, and that I should try to write down all the good times instead; she actually wanted me to repeatedly write down those ‘good memories,’ as if like a child punished by being forced to copy down lines. This was poisonous and ridiculous advice. People do not heal by running from reality, burying and repressing their emotions in order to put on a good show for other people. Focussing on the ‘good times’ that came largely out of her memory never took me in the right direction.

I do not believe in positive thinking; it is a standard which at it’s core does not prevent people from being abusive to themselves or others, so it doesn’t meet my criteria at the outset. But having had these experiences, it really irritates me to be exposed to this limiting philosophy. Artistically, politically, and emotionally, I find positive thinking to be utterly bankrupt, restrictive, and even harmful. Ironically, the phrase emotional freedom is often used to describe a CBT technique designed to violently force internal thoughts to go away, but here I see real emotional freedom as respecting and taking all of our thoughts and emotions seriously, listening to and understanding where they take us. If this means eventually through that process we change over time, then so be it, but I don’t see judgement about ‘bad thoughts’ or ‘negative emotions’ as being the goal for myself.

I recently had to draw a boundary with an acquaintance of mine who insisted on repeatedly bringing up one of these positive psychology based treatments despite my attempts to have her stop. I see that perhaps in the past I had been spending too much time trying to be nice and tiptoe around setting this boundary. But this time I stated more clearly that this subject makes me extremely upset, I am absolutely against it, it will never be a part of my life and I have nothing new to say about it, so I don’t want her to bring it up to me again. I decided that regardless if I offended this person or made them want to end our correspondence, I had to say this. I was offended myself and spent weeks before replying to her previous message that asked me to give my opinion yet again on these remedies, as if by reading a testimonial I was going to instantly convert. Much of the morals these people think of as positive are utter poison to me, so I don’t use such labels at all.

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About proudlysensitive

Gay male survivor of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.
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2 Responses to Emotional Honesty Is Great (on the futility of labeling emotions)

  1. Cheryl says:

    I heard that all my life too: “You should. Be more positive!” Not only does the statement deny a person’s feelings and the experiences causing the feelings, it is also hypocritical because the person saying it is not being positive about you. I felt totally erased as a child every time someone said such a thing to me, and I understand now that the erasure was caused by the hypocrisy as much as by the denial of my emotions. The message was that I deserved negativity, whereas everyone else deserved happiness.

    • Cheryl, I concur, when people shamed for me being “miserable” or “sad” or “negative,” they were always telling me that I wasn’t good enough, and whatever experiences and mistreatment lay behind my honest feelings, it was all my fault. It is terribly invalidating to be rejected because you can’t pretend to feel and be what you are not. And that contributed to teaching me not to accept myself, causing even more damage.

      thanks for sharing,
      -Caden.

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