When I was younger, my father used to lecture me. It did not matter what I had to do, what homework was due at school the next day, when he had a grievance against me. He had us sit at the kitchen table, and he would talk for 2 hours straight, on average. He was a preacher, so he had no problem talking for that long.
The grievances were usually petty. I didn’t hold a family member’s hand well enough during the blessing for the food. I couldn’t think of a prayer request. I corrected a fact that he had gotten wrong. It didn’t matter what it was. I couldn’t predict it. Sometimes I could get away with a snarky comment to one of my sisters. Often, I couldn’t pass the salt to his satisfaction. Supper nearly regularly ended with a long lecture from him.
During these lectures, I was not permitted to speak unless he asked me to. When he did, he expected a specific answer.
Do you understand what you did wrong?
I still haven’t figured out what answers he wanted to some of his questions, though. When he asked those ones, I knew that it was going to be a long night.
I had to make eye contact. If I broke eye contact, he would notice, and the lecture would be extended. If my eyes made even the slightest movement, even to glance at someone moving in the next room over, I was rolling my eyes and showing disrespect.
Emotion had to be avoided. Showing emotion was a sign of weakness, because women are over-emotional, and it clouds their judgment. Furthermore, if the wrong emotion was displayed, no matter how little of it showed, he took offense. Any time he interpreted anger, frustration, impatience, or any other emotion that he didn’t want to see from me, I was suddenly in trouble for that, too, whether the emotion was one that I was actually feeling or not.
Don’t raise your eyebrow like that. How dare you show such anger! This is for your own good, you know…
Even breathing was a risk. Should I accidentally breathe too heavily, he interpreted it as a sigh of frustration.
I heard that sigh!
But I didn’t-
Don’t lie to me! I know you did, and that is not acceptable…
I could not speak or move or show emotion or make a sound when I breathed, so I learned not to. I shut down. I developed a survival skill that allowed me to get through these lectures as quickly as possible. I stopped moving, breathing, speaking, feeling, and while I was hyperaware of everything around me, and I heard everything that was said, I would forget the whole lecture within half an hour afterwards. When it was over, though it took me a while to move, speak, breathe, and feel again, and I could only do so when everyone else had left the room.
Shutting myself down was a means of survival developed for a very specific situation, and it worked well for that situation. The problem with it began when it started showing up even after I had gotten myself out of my parents’ house.
“Think about a time when you felt angry.”
I knew exactly what I was angry about. Someone had selfishly acted, and in doing so, had hurt someone who was like a daughter to me. I was furious.
Other people began to share. My hands trembled with the anger I felt. Hot tears balanced on the corners of my eyes.
Don’t speak up. Other people are speaking. You need to let them all finish before you can speak.
My stomach clenched, and my knuckles were white.
Don’t show strong emotion. It wouldn’t be appropriate.
My anger increased, but I kept my face still. My legs shook with tension.
Don’t move. Someone might notice it.
I stopped moving. I looked straight ahead. I stayed silent. My breathing was ragged and harsh.
Your breathing is too loud. No one must hear you.
So I slowed my breathing to silence, and I shut down.
The group ended. People dispersed. I still could not move or speak or feel or breathe. They did not understand.
Not one person understood that I was not in danger. It is a survival skill. I want to survive. This skill is just the wrong one for this situation.