It usually starts in childhood.
The son learns to play the clown whenever the topic of conversation begins to make his father uncomfortable. The daughter of divorced parents learns that mentioning the other parent has a tendency to end in tears, so it’s better to simply keep quiet. At school, any mention of financial struggles in the home leads to ridicule, so any words that would reveal the truth are instead swallowed. Even when the home environment is one that welcomes open dialog, the reactions of those outside the home often reinforce that it’s not considered polite or acceptable to bring up issues of death, disease or discord.
“We don’t talk about that,” becomes the unspoken vow of secrecy that follows most of us into adulthood.
As we grow and become more aware of the very real threats that exist, we continue to remain silent. Convinced that merely speaking of the thing that frightens us will give it the power to manifest. And that as long as we refuse to say its name, it does not exist. That which will not be named is relegated to the shadows where it can grow and influence without notice.
The husband, sensing a growing distance in his marriage, makes the largely unconscious decision to press onward without comment, believing that addressing the issue would only make it more formidable and would upset his wife. The mother becomes increasingly concerned about her child’s mental health but brushes away the unsettled feelings by telling herself that this is a normal part of growing up. The boss, increasingly demanding of her employees, steadfastly refuses to discuss her increasing fears of failure.
When something becomes off-limits to talk about, it only grows in power.
There’s a strange thing that happens when something is banned. Any parent of teenagers knows that the surest way to get them to act is to forbid them to do something. And we are not so different when it comes to banned trains of conversation; the prohibited becomes more powerful as we begin to fill in the gaps with our fears and our imaginations. Because the dialog still happens, only we are simply listening to ourselves.
The adopted child internalizes the implied rejection, assuming that it must be because she simply isn’t enough. The young man begins to drink to try to escape his feelings of inadequacy because he’s learned that men aren’t supposed to express weakness. The matriarch elects not to disclose her cancer diagnosis to the family after envisioning the tears that the revelation will cause. After all, isn’t it better to spare them the pain?
“We don’t talk about that” implies that your feelings are wrong, misguided.
In our modern culture, we value rational thought and have a tendency to dismiss feelings. We see them as animalistic, base and unsophisticated. We push them down. Shove them aside. Pretend that they do not exist even as we berate ourselves that we shouldn’t feel the way we do. We feed our shame and in turn, it tells us that we need to hide our true selves.
Meanwhile, the suppressed feelings bubble to the surface in the form of increased blood pressure, recurring headaches, panic attacks or IBS. We seek answers in doctor’s office’s, self-help books, online support groups and endless therapy in pursuit of the root of all our problems.
And often it’s found in the dark, in the shadows. By finally bringing light to that which we do not talk about.
Because of instead of causing it to grow, talking about those things that scare us serves to bleed them of their power. Once we name it, bring it to the surface, it no longer can control us.
It’s only when we talk about it that we can begin to release it.