I know, first hand, the destructive power of repressed feelings. I endured subclinical depression for the first 33 years of my life, and my emotional numbness was one of the main reasons for the failure of my first marriage. I was depressed because I was not in touch with my sorrow and anger over the death of my parents.
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When I look back, it is astonishing to me that I could lose both of my parents by the age of six and not experience any emotional pain. My father died when I was eighteen months old, and I have no memory of that event. My mother died from a sudden stroke five years later. I am told that I showed little reaction. I didn’t even cry. I remember my adult siblings taking me aside and praising me for being such a “brave boy.” Operating out of my childhood logic, I converted their compliment into a blanket assumption: “I am loved when I deny my pain.”
I learned the lesson well. In young adulthood, I was able to look back on my early life and tell myself I was fortunate that both my parents had died. It gave me the opportunity to leave the farm and live in town with my sisters, where I got a better education. This myth had its uses. I went through my early years numb to the pain of abandonment. I pictured myself as a “lucky” person, not a poor orphan boy, and I wasted little time bemoaning my fate. I took on challenges well beyond my years and succeeded at most of them. I was on my way.
But, years later, my repressed sorrow wreaked havoc in my first marriage. Cut off from my pain, I was not fully alive. To survive, I had anesthetized an essential part of my being. Unconsciously, I looked to my wife for what I was missing. I hungered for emotional and physical contact, but she was unable to give me enough—partly because of deficiencies in her own childhood and partly because she experienced me as withholding, cold, demanding, and needy. It was a vicious cycle. The more I wanted, the more she withheld.
One of the most telling moments in our relationship took place the day after her father died. We were alone in our bedroom, and her grief over his death was just hitting her. She cried and cried. I circled my arms around her, but my body was stiff and unyielding. There was no warmth in my embrace. Inside, I felt deeply conflicted. Intellectually, I knew that it was reasonable for her to cry over her father’s death, and I wanted to comfort her. But a larger part of me was cold and unsympathetic. It was thinking,“What’s the problem? I lost both of my parents when I was a little boy, and I didn’t cry. Why is she so emotional?” Lessons learned early in life persist.
A few years later, when I was thirty-three, I saw a therapist for the first time—not because I thought I needed any help but because personal therapy was a recommended part of my training. In one of the first sessions, the therapist asked me to tell him about my parents. I told him that they had both died when I was very young, but that a lot of good luck had come my way as a result. Because they both died, I got to live with my sisters, get out of South Georgia, get a better education, and so on and so on.
“Tell me about your mother’s death,” he said to me, cutting short my highly edited autobiography.
I started to tell him how she died, but for some reason my throat felt constricted.
“Tell me about her funeral,” he said.
Once again I tried to talk. Once again, my throat seized up. Then, to my great astonishment, I burst into tears. I began to sob. There was no stopping me. I was an adult man, and there I was sobbing like a six-year-old boy. After a few minutes, my therapist looked at me kindly and said, “Harville, you are just beginning to grieve over your mother’s death.”
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After that momentous day, I began to feel my own pain and anger—not just from the past, but from the present as well. I became less anxious. I had more compassion for other people. If my needs or wishes were disregarded, I experienced the normal feelings of sadness or anger—but not rage or depression. Because I was being reunited with my full range of feelings, I was beginning to feel fully alive. I was more in touch with who I was and where I had been, and I became open to the rhythm of my own heart.