There is an enormous amount of learning that occurs in the first years of life. I’m not just talking about the usual: learning how to talk, learning how to feed, and learning how to the use the potty. I’m talking about the things that people don’t realize: how children learn emotions.
Infants emulate their parents, including facial expressions. As they grow, they learn to associate emotion words with their expressions, with the help of their caretakers. Toddlers learn to identity emotions, and children learn to regulate emotions in the early years of schooling.
But what happens when a child’s caretakers are emotionally empty?
An infant can’t emulate emotions she doesn’t see. A mother who is never happy or joyful cannot show her baby how to show happiness or joy. This hinders the development of emotional literacy. Children can learn about emotions in school, but when there is no emotional learning going on at home from an early age, the child misses out considerably, and the effects are long-lasting.
My mother was (and still is) a sociopath. She cannot express genuine emotion. She never has. The only emotion she ever expresses is anger. She is void of happiness (and a lot of other things, but we won’t go there right now). It is no surprise, then, that I grew up emotionally illiterate.
Of course, as a child, I didn’t know what emotional literacy was or what it entailed. I remember people defining their emotions: happy, sad, surprised, mad. I knew they were emotions, but I didn’t really comprehend anything beyond that. I never felt them, or at least understood that I felt them. I knew what anger was, because I experienced it through my mother and father regularly. And as a result of their anger, I knew fear like it was my best friend. The rest was a mystery.
My facial expression has been consistently “muted anger” since I was a child. Many people accused me of being angry, and I didn’t understand because I wasn’t feeling angry at all. But my natural facial expression was typically angry. Because that is the only facial expression I experienced as an infant. It’s the only facial expression I was able to emulate, and I carried that with me through life.
I learned quite a bit about emotions when I was around my peers in school. I finally started to identify feelings within myself, only to have them trampled upon by both of my parents.
I remember one time, I had an About Me project in elementary school. I chose to write with the marker colored bittersweet, because I said my life made me feel bitter. My mother became enraged when she heard, and I was punished severely. She told me I had no reason to feel bitter, and that I should be grateful for the life she was giving me. A 9(ish) year-old who identifies feeling bitter about life should be a red flag for anybody. But of course, my mother believed she did no wrong, so she just burned that flag to the ground.
Then there was the incident when I was a teenager. My high school guidance counselor called my parents, concerned that I was significantly depressed. I was. But feeling depressed was not allowed in our family. Feelings in general were not allowed. And I was punished severely for it. For years after that incident, I became emotionally constipated. I made myself numb to protect myself from my parents. I showed or felt no emotion because I did not want to experience the pain I felt that night ever again. The little bit of emotional knowledge I had was buried deep inside of me, never wanting to be dug up.
My issues are complex (!). First, I had a rough start in life being raised by a sociopath, so I spent a good portion of my childhood emotionally illiterate. Second, what little emotional knowledge I did have became muddled in my adolescence, and pushed down into the crevices of my semi-conscious mind.
So now, at the age of 30, I find myself needing to learn emotions all over again. And yes, sometimes I feel like a five year-old. I read children’s books on feelings. I have charts with emotion words and flashcards with feelings on them. My therapist draws faces depicting different emotions that I try to guess.
Whenever I correctly identify a feeling in myself, my therapist praises me like you would praise a small child. Because that’s what I need. Because I am so emotionally inept. I am an emotional illiterate.
But I’m learning what it means to have feelings again.