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“She goes from one addiction to another. All are ways for her to not feel her feelings.” Ellen Burstyn

“She goes from one addiction to another. All are ways for her to not feel her feelings.”
Ellen Burstyn (Image from iStock)

Claudia Black, a leading author and theorist regarding adult children of alcoholics, has identified three dysfunctional rules of an alcoholic family.

1. Don’t talk.
2. Don’t feel.
3. Don’t trust.

I’m pretty sure these rules don’t only apply to people dealing with alcoholism. They also apply to those of us dealing with life, which means we’re probably dealing with an addiction of some sort, which I define as whatever we put in the place of God – things like eating to fill our emptiness, exercising to forget our emptiness, shopping for the perfect life, expecting our marriages to be as loving as God, or being a good person.

The latter is one I never considered addiction-like until I heard it mentioned in church yesterday. “Is being a good person where your treasure lies?”

Well, maybe. It hit home.

I’ve even seen God turned into an addiction. Oh, not him per se (he’s too big for that), but by quoting scripture and preaching at people and judging them according to our righteous ways. Sometimes we think being religious makes us better than others.

In fact, we can turn anything positive into a negative when we’re revering it and counting on it to fill the place made only for God.

One of the dangerous parts of this lifestyle is when we browbeat others or are being browbeaten with the three dysfunctional rules, which happens more often when we’re not focusing on ourselves and when we’re toying with our addictions. In other words, we can be dangerous when we’re not talking, feeling and trusting.

While meeting with a customer this week, she mentioned being unable to get along with (for the first time in her long career as a nurse) a relatively new supervisor who sounded like she bosses by the dysfunctional rules.

“It’s lethal,” said my customer.

I agree.

I believe living by the don’t talk, don’t feel, don’t trust rules is why most times people make themselves sick, why we have aches and pain, and why some go so far as to kill themselves. I’m convinced it’s why I’ve come down with fever blisters and a sore throat hundreds of times, and why I’ve wrestled with suicidal thoughts. Those of us who seek others’ approval (I think this includes most everyone in the world) usually have a low tolerance for being bullied into not talking, not feeling and  not trusting what we’re pretty sure is true, yet we turn around and sometimes do the same thing to others. Living by the dysfunctional rules lands us in a dangerous place of being out of touch with who we are.

Most times the rules come as a package deal – “Don’t trust your feelings and certainly don’t talk about your feelings. In fact, why don’t you just not feel at all?”

Why are some of us so opposed to feeling? Because emotions are messy, and who wants to deal with that? So, we try hard to avoid them. This explains at least some of why we overeat, over shop, over whatever-it-is-we-use-to-escape.

But, here’s the thing, emotions get messier when they’re ignored.

A lot messier.

A whole lot messier. 

Telltale signs that we’re living by dysfunctional rules show up in statements like …

  • You’re making a big deal out of nothing.
  • Do you like keeping things going?
  • Are you looking for something to argue about?
  • Why can’t you be satisfied?
  • You’re always bringing up things that bother you. Is there anything that doesn’t bother you?
  • Funny you mention ______  (whatever the behavior is), because I think you do the same thing.
  • There you go again, blowing things out of proportion.
  • You’re overreacting.
  • Really? You’re kidding me? You really think that’s what’s happening? (in a tone of disbelief when you’ve explained a believable family problem that needs addressing)
  • What did you do to antagonize him/her? (when there is an out-of-control family member, but others in the family want to ignore the problem)
  • It’s your fault I act this way. If you didn’t do such and such, then I’d show respect, act differently, do my part, fill in the blank.

Oh, sure, evaluate if there’s any truth to what others are telling you. And if you’re the one making these statements, even if you’re convinced you’re right, evaluate why you’re saying them. Most likely, if you’re honest, each one is said to shut up the person and to shut down their feelings.

When we’re relationshipping with someone who’s saying “Don’t feel, don’t talk, don’t trust,” the hard-for-some-of-us-to-do solution/rule is to feel anyway and talk anyway (letting go of secrets) and trust ourselves and trustworthy others anyway, even though my typical response is to shut down, pout or rage.

On the other hand, talking, feeling and trusting work – “work” meaning I get to feel what I’m feeling and talk about what’s bothering me and honor my feelings whether anyone else does or not.

I say something like “I feel ______ (and I really think about how I’m feeling, which is usually afraid)” instead of “You did this and that.”

What rule(s) are you living by – the dysfunctional ones that keep you trapped or the one that gives permission to talk and feel and trust?

WRite wHere I’m supposed to be – It’s taken 55 years, but I’m feeling my feelings and talking about my feelings and trusting my feelings. I feel better about relationships, especially the one with myself. I think there’s something to all this feeling stuff.

I have something for you!


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