To read the previous posts in this series, click here for Part 1 and click here for Part 2.
This is Part 3 of this series about what I’ve learned about emotional expression in the last couple years. This blog post will be about experiences I’ve had with and regarding my dad in the last couple years, that has helped me to understand his affect on my struggle with emotional expression.
As I mentioned in my first blog of this series, I have never expressed anger with my dad, and rarely has he seen me cry. Being around my dad has always sent my anxiety sky-high and I would fully “freeze” in his presence. I’d barely breathe, my body would go numb, my throat and belly would clench and I’d often struggle to talk at all, much less emote. I would get quite stiff and quiet around my dad which I now recognize as terror. I think I have often totally gone out of body and dissociated when around him.
I have been aware of my dad’s unloving behavior since I was a teenager, when I had a short stint in therapy, and the therapist was the first person to help me see my dad was abusive.
Growing up with my dad, he sometimes would grab me roughly or shove me, and would scare the family by slamming fists on tables or slamming doors or suddenly yelling etc. He also spanked me a few times but this was considered normal in my Christian upbringing. Because his physically aggressive outbursts weren’t daily or weekly, and didn’t leave me bruised or bleeding, no one thought they were an issue. One time in my childhood he grabbed me and kissed me on the lips and it completely freaked me out. Often I would notice him looking at me too long and it made me feel terrified and ashamed.
Later in my adulthood, more stories about my dad came out. My mom told me that when I was a baby in the car with them, my dad purposefully drove into the curb to scare everyone because he was angry about some destination direction mixup. She also said that once after I left for a school dance as a teenager, my dad remarked that I looked “smoking hot”.
So I already had some awareness of his creation of my struggle with emotional expression in my childhood. My dad is very narcissistic and abusive, and gets a sadistic sort of pleasure from pulling down others, wants power and control over everyone in his environment, and desires to harm people emotionally. He is very manipulative and blaming.
In the years since I was a teenager, my relationship with my dad was on and off and overall rocky. We would often be in touch for a short period of time before he attacked and I drew a boundary and then sometimes we were not in touch for a few years.
Because of my fear of my dad, nearly all my correspondence with my dad has been over email, letter or text. I have always been too afraid to even confront him live on the phone. His responses to my confronting him via email or letter have always been the same: that I am the abusive one, I’ve harmed him severely, I am to blame and he hasn’t done anything wrong.
One time in my early twenties I told him I’d only attend his wedding if he went to a therapy session with me, so we went to one. I tried to share how I felt but his emotional abuse was so bad that the therapist couldn’t keep him civil and herself seemed terrified of him.
Prior to the events I’ll share from a couple years ago, I had come to terms with the fact that my dad was abusive. I had also realized he had sexually predatory feelings towards me. I had known for a long time that a real relationship with him was not possible, and unlike with my mom, I never really tried or hoped for one. I didn’t try to convince him about issues, and I didn’t have the same feelings of desperation that he see what he’d done and validate it like I felt with my mom. I think I had just given up on that a long time ago.
However, because the experiment with my mom had helped me access previously repressed emotions and revealed some really important truth, I wanted to see if I could also experiment with my dad. However, I knew it was a long shot that he’d even agree to see me at all.
But wanted to try, so I texted my dad, which was the our first contact in about 5 years, to ask if I could meet up with him before I moved to England to discuss our relationship. He texted back only, “Not unless the first words out of your mouth are apologies.”
This is one of his abuse tactics, so I knew I would not be able to meet up with my dad unless I groveled and admitted I was horrible, which of course I wasn’t going to do. However I wanted to try to experiment with emotional expression with him somehow. So, a few days later I decided to try to call him. I knew he very likely wouldn’t pick up, especially knowing it was me calling, but it was a huge fear to call him and risk a live conversation, so I wanted to see what would happen for me emotionally if I did.
It took me an hour to call him. Every time I’d get close to calling, I would nearly pass out. My hands would shake and my throat would close up, I felt like I could throw up and then I felt lightheaded. I kept cycling through all these physical sensations of fear. This was only the second time I think I’ve properly felt fear in my life, with the first time being with my mom.
In the process I realized it was a different sensation and a different kind of fear than with my mom, though in both cases I was feeling terror. With my dad, it was like a terror of physical danger and of physical violence, like I could be physically attacked and die. Whereas with my mom, I am not afraid for my life with her, however I did feel terror of a different kind with her. It was an odd thing to experience this terror with trying to call my dad, because he didn’t know where I lived and couldn’t access me, so why would I have this seemingly mortal terror of physical safety?
I eventually called and he did not pick up, but I left a short, shaky and teary voicemail saying I wanted to deal with issues but he needed to want to as well, and that what he’d done to me wasn’t ok. I had rarely shown that kind of emotion with my dad, even if it was for only a short voicemail. I cried for a while after leaving the voicemail, and it was good to get some more sadness out.
A few weeks later and unrelated to this attempt to contact him, I found out that a couple years prior, my dad had nearly choked his then-partner to death after years of physical abuse including other choking incidents and threats to kill her. He also told this woman that when my mom decided she wanted to divorce my dad, that he considered killing my mom and himself afterwards.
I also found out that years ago he’d been physically violent with some young boys, sons of some of his friends, which of course, had caused fallout with those friends.
This was all earth-shattering for me to learn.
Well, reading this you might not be that surprised given the background I gave before, but I had no idea my dad was capable of this. My parents were together for about 23 years and he had never choked, hit, or threatened to kill my mom or my brothers and I. I thought, my dad was definitely toxic, but not like this.
I say I had no idea he would do this, but then when the revelation came out that my dad had nearly killed a woman, I realized I’d always known this. Suddenly it made sense to me why I’d always had this level of terror with my dad, and a feeling that my dad could kill me or be incredibly violent. Over the years I would sometimes think to myself or tell friends that I suspected my dad could kill me, but I’d dismiss myself as paranoid and dramatic. My family also always reinforces that I make things up and exaggerate everything and am crazy. So my self-doubt had been huge.
I realized that the only reason he hadn’t choked or nearly killed us was that we were extraordinarily subservient and submissive to my dad. We never stood up for ourselves. We were truly like meek cult followers in the Christian household I grew up in, with my dad at the helm as the cult leader. In particular for my mom and I as the women, it was accepted that he was the superior and we were the inferiors and that we were lucky to be in his presence. Our roles were clearly defined and we obeyed.
In contrast, the woman he abused was not as subservient and she did stand up for herself to some extent and called out his behavior, which he responded to with severe violence. My dad has been far more severely violent with women than men, and so it also confirmed my suspicions that I grew up with a dad who hates women and is a misogynist and chauvinist (also evidenced by many other patterns of behavior that he has).
Additionally, I found out that my dad had even made comments in public situations about my body, telling people how great he thought it was that I had bigger boobs than my mom did or how hot I looked at times. So I found out what I had always suspected but also self-doubted about, which was just how sexually predatory my dad was towards me. This had always been a topic of confusion for me as I wasn’t sexually abused in the traditional sense. I might not be remembering something, but my sense is that I don’t have any forgotten memories of overt sexual abuse. Rather, it helped me realized the sexual threat was severe and was there constantly, and this is why I have had some of the symptoms of sexual abuse victims.
So while I didn’t get to experiment with emotionally expressing myself with my dad like I did with my mom, I still learned a lot. And anyway, it wouldn’t be safe or self-loving to put myself in his presence unless it was in a public or safe setting where he couldn’t physically harm me. But a lot of emotion flowed before and after the attempt to call him to emotionally express myself, and a lot of emotion flowed following the truth I’d found out about my dad.
The truth coming out like this helped me realize that if I had emotionally expressed myself with my dad in my childhood, particularly about any of his issues, or his treatment of me, the threat I was under was severe physical violence and even death.
Because our family were so perfectly pandering to him, we didn’t see the truth of what he was actually capable of; what was actually in him all along. Severe violence was always a second away, but it didn’t come out for many decades due to the pandering we did. He didn’t need to be violent, because we were already so successfully oppressed in our emotional expression.
I think there is a lot in this for many people out there to consider about their parent(s). I am not saying all parents are under-the-surface murderous; of course not all are on the end of the spectrum that my dad is. But how many of us tell ourselves, Yes, ok, I was spanked a few times. I was yelled at a bit too. But my parent wouldn’t have killed me.
Or how many of us tell ourselves, Yes, ok, my parent looked at my body a bit too long at times as I was growing up, but they weren’t sexually predatory towards me.
It is so easy to tell ourselves stories about what our parents are and aren’t capable of, when really we don’t know because we haven’t honestly emotionally expressed ourselves with them.
All of this furthered my understanding that my dad also influenced me to have a facade of emotional control and “niceness”. I was the safest with him if I had zero emotional expression of any kind.
And while the big revelation with my dad at this point was that the threat to not emotionally express myself was violence and death, I have also continued to reflect on other aspects of his emotional oppression of me. My dad is completely shut down emotionally and sees emotions as indulgent, and unnecessary. He violently hates and detests emotion. To him, fear and sadness in indicate weakness and mean that you’re a failure of a human, most definitely not respectable. These judgements extend to both women and men.
However because my dad also has significant chauvinistic and misogynistic feelings towards women, if a woman cries around him, his feeling is, Of course, a woman crying again, just typical behavior of the weak, pathetic creatures that they are. He projected disgust at my crying and generally feels women crying are whining and moaning. He feels that emotionally expressive women are unattractive and ugly. He has only ever been cold, rejecting, abandoning, and judgemental towards my sadness.
As a child, he would often make fun of my fears, and make me feel stupid and weak for having them. He would laugh at them and make jokes about them and it would make me feel incredibly small and dumb. At other times, he would say or do things in order to purposefully increase my fear, in some kind of sadistic taunt, even though he wasn’t afraid of that same thing. He often seemed to get pleasure from making me even more afraid.
And now I know that an emotional expression of anger from me could have been met with physical violence or death. In addition to the physical threat, my dad would also have projected an angry woman is evil, shocking, unattractive and disgusting. He, like my mom, projects that my emotional expression is hurting him and illustrates that I am a bad person.
This has been a very emotional thing to come to terms with my dad, but also indescribably validating in explaining so many of my issues.
In the next and last part of this series, I’ll share a bit more about what I’ve learned from these experiences with both of my parents about emotional expression, self-doubt and facade.
Photo 1 by Karl Fredrickson via Unsplash
Photo 2 by Peter Lloyd via Unsplash
Photo 3 by Reymark Franke via Unsplash