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Emotional Survival Skills For The Family Scapegoat: Granting Yourself ‘Permission To Feel’ Can Set You Free

Healing is about feeling.

If you’ve ever stepped into a therapy office, chances are you have been asked the question, “How do you feel about that?”

If you are anything like me, you can rattle off a fairly involved, immensely insightful narrative about exactly what you feel, why you feel it and where it originated. You are a pro at how you feel.

Next question, you say! Let’s take this even deeper.

Alright, what about: “Where do you feel that in your body?”

I don’t know about you, but this is where I start to lose my bravado.

“Ummm, my shoulders?” You suggest. After all, they are around your ears. Or maybe it’s your chest; that crushing weight that seems to sit there like an anvil at all times. Yes, the heartache of not knowing what healthy parental love feels like. That lives in the chest for sure, you say.

When you start going on like this, your therapist just looks at you, head tilted to one side.

“Errrr…or maybe it’s my stomach?” You offer. That weird mix of butterflies, nausea, and emptiness. Yes, it must be the belly. Because that’s what anxiety feels like right? Is that where the void of abandonment sits?

You can see your therapist raise an eyebrow.

They ask, “what does it feel like?”

“What does what feel like?” You shift uncomfortably. Did your narrative not make sense? Were you wrong about what you feel and what your toxic family did to you? You grow uneasy.

“Abandonment. What does abandonment feel like?”


That’s when it hits you. They want you to feel it again. That thing. That awful, gut-wrenching, soul-sucking thing that happened to you. That you worked so hard to not ever have to feel again.

That thing you don’t think you deserved…but can you ever really be sure? Your critical self-talk and years of being gaslit kick in. Your family certainly made some bold claims against you to most everyone you know. They seem firm in their opinion of you in their own hearts and minds even though the facts don’t add up or reflect your experience of reality at all.

But yet you still question yourself. You question your feelings. Yours.

How could things be so disparate between your experience and their opinions about it? How come their opinions trump your experience?

You start to notice something in your body. A bubbling, a rising. A shortness of breath. You grow warm. Your eyes…leak?

You know the feeling. It’s terror-anger-injustice-sorrow-fear.

You launch into your story. You know exactly how to tackle these feelings. You will explain them so thoroughly and with such depth that your therapist will be amazed at why you are not “fully recovered” by now.

In fact, you are wondering the same thing. After 5, 10, 20 or more years “on the couch”, you’d think you’d be impervious to trauma by now. You would have conquered it, right?

“So why do I feel so stuck?” you ask. “Why is that emptiness there still? Why am I in agony?”

You think, “There must be something I missed in my story. A connection not fully interrogated. A gap not fully closed. I just need to find it. Once I do, then I can quit therapy and be healed.”

“It’s clear this all started when…”

But you’re cut off.

“I’m going to pause you right there”

Your therapist explains: “I see you trying to understand the pain and I am thinking it is because that feels safer than feeling it. Let’s revisit the question. What does it feel like? Even if you don’t have the words for it, can you sit with it for a bit? Invite it in? See what it has to say?”

They are right. You were indeed doing it again. Oops!

“It” being the intellectualizing that serves as a replacement for the emotional labour of processing my emotions.

Thinking and talking about your feelings rather than feeling your feelings is indeed safer. Because it is done at a distance.You are not in your body in those moments, and for someone with trauma, being ‘in’ the body can at times feel much too threatening.

Intellectualizing: The Trap Of Self-Awareness and Emotional Intelligence

Intellectualizing has its place; It is a wonderful, important skill of self-awareness and it is useful when feeling the ‘feels’ becomes too deep and you need to pull back a bit on the emotional throttle.

But, unfortunately, it is a management tool. It helps you manage the intensity of challenging emotions. It does not help you resolve them.

And when we don’t resolve our emotions, they hang around in our body like unwanted houseguests wrecking all sorts of havoc on our mind, emotional well-being and yes, even our physical health.

Unresolved emotions are like a weight we carry around, unable to put down. And the corresponding stress hormones (cortisol) and adrenaline that spike when we are in “survival mode” (aka fight, flight, freeze, fawn and force), over time can lead to chronic inflammation. I need not remind you about the pitfalls of inflammation and their relationship to illness and disease, not to mention intense burnout and exhaustion.

We need to resolve our emotions. And the only way to resolve them is to face them fully. That means feeling them fully. From start, right through agony, into completion.

Emotional Closure

You say you are looking for closure. Well, friends, this is what closure really means. We cannot expect it from external sources. We cannot expect other people to manage our emotions for us, to make us feel better, to carry the burden of our pain, and to hold our emotional weight. In fact, that is exactly what your toxic family expected you to do for thembecause they weren’t able to face their own feelings.

You bear the brunt of their inability or unwillingness. They projected onto you their shame and pain so that they didn’t have to feel it.

You do not have to continue to feel their emotions for them. Remember, the narratives they have spread about you are lies. They are carefully curated stories made up for their convenience. The narratives are what they use to sidestep and circumvent their own traumas. Toxicity is their coping strategy.

But it is not yours, cycle-breaker. We’re in this together, even though it is much harder to work through the generational trauma than to pawn it off to the next generation.

Let’s Talk About Feelings, Baby!

It’s not a newsflash for me to say that feeling our feelings is the hardest part of recovery. But what may be news is that when you think you are feeling your feelings, you may actually be avoiding them.

If you just talk through your feelings or just talk about your feelings, then what you are doing is talking around them. You are not, in actuality, facing them.

Darn. That’s a lot of emotional work you have been doing to not feel like you are getting anywhere. This is likely why you feel intensely exhausted (and also why you may have been in therapy for years wondering why you’re still dealing with the same thing).

Listen, as a coach and former therapist (and a professional client) I can assure you there is no shame or judgement in having a narrative that just seems to stick on you, that you can’t shake off. And, let me doubly reassure you that you are not annoying your mental health worker, nor are you doing anything wrong. Exploring and developing an understanding of what happened to you is a critical step in recovery! And narratives stick to us because they hold depth for us. We may resolve bits and pieces over time as new tendrils crop up and remind us all over again. You are not ‘playing victim’ when you are still hurt and in pain about something that happened to you. Your hurt and pain are understandable and welcome.

But if you’re sick and tired of it hanging around and you want to break free and find fulfillment, then you need to do more than talk. If this is where you are at, then all it means is you are ready to progress to the next stage of your recovery journey. You are ready to level up! You are ready to feel.

Remember — there is no stage in recovery that is more important than the next. And you will ebb and flow in and out of multiple stages. There is no such thing as “going backwards”. Revisiting a previous step is a healthy part of the process as new information and feelings emerge. Every experience in recovery provides valuable information as you unpeel the layers of your trauma onion (mmm delicious!)

Why Feeling Feels Is Particularly Hard For Attachment Trauma Survivors

So your therapist called you out.

And you want to yell, “I don’t know what that feels like. I don’t know where I feel that in my body! I don’t even know if what I feel is what I feel or if it’s what I am supposed to feel in order to make sure you feel what you want to feel. Don’t you realize I was taught not to acknowledge my feelings? That I was shamed away from honouring my emotions? That I was gaslit so much I find it hard to trust myself and what comes up in my body? I was taught that my feelings didn’t matter. That I don’t matter! And now I’m being asked to explain my emotions? Do I need to justify them? Do you not agree with me? Do you think what I feel is incorrect, dramatic, too sensitive, or invalid? Will you approve of what I feel or not? I silenced my feelings for so long that I don’t know where they exist in my body anymore. It never felt safe to be in my body in the first place, and now you want me to go back there? My body, my boundaries, my feelings had no place in my life growing up. How are they supposed to find space, safety, and sanctuary here?”

But you don’t say any of that because you are trying to be a “good” client. You are still in “fawn” mode, activating your best-used skill: being exactly what people need you to be so they remain comfortable and will like you and not abandon you.

“How do you feel about that?”

“Wait”, you realise: “You mean we trauma survivors are allowed to have feelings about that? You mean that I can acknowledge and honour my feelings and you will accept me just as I am, with no strings or conditions attached? That you will believe I have inherent value even if what I feel makes you uncomfortable or you don’t understand it because it wasn’t your experience?”

You’re so used to riding the family toxicity train to dysfunction junction that it makes sense if you get confused when someone comes around and says, “Hey, you want off on this platform? It’s called Safe Space”.

The Sanctuary (And Terror!) Of Safe Space

The problem with feeling safe is that inevitably your emotions will recognize that you are no longer in survival mode and will (correctly) assume that it is now time to bubble to the surface. They have been loitering around your inner world for a long time and they have a few things to share with you.

Anger and Rage want to tell you that what happened to you was not ok!

Sadness and Grief want to tell you that you deserved so much more.

Fear and Vigilance want to protect you from giving all your love and effort away to people who cannot care for, or honour, it.

And Pain. Oh, the pain!! The pain is there to remind you that you are alive, that you have the capacity to feel deeply, and therefore have the capacity for deep joy, abundance and fulfillment.

But you need to let them in. Since all feelings are connected on one emotional circuit, if you shut off the switch to one, you are effectively shutting off the breaker to the whole circuit.

Yes, my dear, you need to let the feelings in.

But once we give ourselves permission to open the gates, what will flood in?

The Invisible Backpack

Everything you have experienced in your life is like a little emotional stone that you picked up and put in an invisible backpack. You have carried that backpack throughout your life. Everyone has a backpack and we all have stresses and triggers throughout the day that we need to safely tuck away until we can feel through them fully. If crying isn’t on the agenda during that big work meeting, well, just tuck that emotional treasure away for later. This is an understandable and appropriate level of containment and compartmentalizing.

The problem is that when you grew up with toxic caregivers, you weren’t allowed to feel anything fully. So you had a lot of rocks to tuck away “for later”, but that “later” never really came. Until now, decades on. That’s a lot of rocks. That’s pretty heavy.

So it’s understandable that you don’t wanna look inside to see what you’ve been carrying. I get it.

Another roadblock to feeling your feelings is that having toxic caregivers who denied your emotions also means you weren’t given any (or very limited) opportunities to practice feeling through difficult emotions or sitting with discomfort. Your emotional resilience skills are lacking (no shame, not your fault), but now you are faced with a challenging ‘opportunity’ to build those skills for yourself. Not having emotional resilience skills is not a personal failure. Like arithmetic, filing taxes, or how to get stains out of new carpet, emotional skills are not inborn. They have to be taught. And most of us are taking ‘emotional night school’ trying to catch up as adults.

So don’t judge yourself when a big, full emotion starts creeping your way and you want to just duck and cover. When you feel like you are spilling your emotional goo all over the place, desperate for anything to just make the pain and discomfort stop. You are not innately capable of managing emotions. Your caregivers had to do a good job for you.

Chances are you never learned that emotions have a lifecycle and actually, if given the opportunity to fully express themselves, they don’t actually last that long. The people who were supposed to sit with you while you felt through deep things — to provide safety and sanctuary while you discovered how to move through discomfort — instead chastised you for having feelings in the first place:

Why are you being such a drama queen?

You’re too sensitive!

You’re being difficult and rude!

That’s not what happened, you’re wrong.

I would never have said that. That doesn’t sound like me. You must have taken it all wrong.

Why do you make up all these assumptions?

Stop attacking me! You’re emotionally abusive.

I think you’re a narcissist. This isn’t even about you. Get over it.

Your Emotions Are Not An Inconvenience

Attachment trauma survivors had to develop other ways to work through emotions because they were taught that having feelings inconvenienced, harmed, and upset others.

Instead of feeling through the tunnel of emotions, they were halted in the cave of them. Stuck with them. They had to circumvent them, dodge them, “rationalise” them (or, more likely “irrationalise them” — deny the reality of them so that they more closely adhered to the toxic family’s skewed narrative of them).

You problem solved. You analyzed. You distracted. Dissociated. Denied. You swallowed them, along with your voice and your truth. You did what you needed to survive.

Emotional Management Skills

One of the most common coping strategies of survivors of narcissistic abuse is called “fawning”. This is essentially “people pleasing” but to the point where it feels like it is embedded into you as a personality trait. You have lived for so long “on guard” that to start advocating for yourself would feel alien. This isn’t a personal flaw. Just a strategy that was so habitual (and necessary given your circumstances), that people expect it from you.

Fawning happens when you don’t do your own emotions, but you do other people’s emotions really well. You manage their feelings for them. You contort yourself to meet their needs while denying your own. You force yourself to accept their toxicity as the truth while tucking your reality away in a safe container, free from their prying eyes and meddling.

If you find yourself able to sense someone’s mood before they can, or you can take the pulse of anyone in a room immediately, then you have honed your survival craft very well. But chances are, you are also walking on eggshells at all times — because your safety is tied to what others think of you. Because, back then, your safety literally was tied to what others thought of you.

Feeling Feelings Leads To Fulfillment

Breaking free and finding autonomy, embodiment, and genuine joy and fulfillment in your life starts with giving yourself permission to feel things fully. Because it is your inherent right.

The steps to emotional recovery start with acknowledging what you are carrying. We do need to know what is there if we are to work through it. But we usually stall at the next stage which is offering ourselves permission to feel. Giving yourself permission is all about processing and honouring your personal experience without side-stepping the discomfort by taking LEAPS over it (Logic, Explaining, Analysing, Problem Solving).

Yes, I made that acronym up on the spot and I am very proud of it.

Granting yourself permission to feel is the hardest stage. The five stages that follow on the bridge of emotional recovery (Deconstructing Discomfort, Seeking Sanctuary and Safety, Cultivating Compassion, Banishing Burnout, and Finding Freedom and Fulfillment) won’t have nearly as powerful an effect if you do not give yourself permission to first to feel.

Healing is about Feeling.

Gone are the days of earning your emotional place in this world. Feeling your feelings is a true act of rebellion and resistance. It is a way of grabbing autonomy and becoming more embodied which are two of the most important and precious outcomes of the recovery journey transformation.

You are allowed to feel. You are allowed to heal.

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  1. I love your message and your writing style. I’m a pro at intellectualizing my dysfunctional childhood, but I may have some work to do on feeling my feelings. Alas, trauma has already trashed my health, and that’s become one more rock in my backpack – one more loss that I’m trying not to fully feel. I look forward to more of your essays.

    1. The intersection of illness/ill health and trauma is a space many of us reside in. I’m sorry this is the story for you as well. I’m working on a series of posts to support people through the process of feeling the discomfort so we can unload a lot of the rocks weighing us down.

  2. Hello! I was trying to find more info on your private counseling (if you do so). Can you please tell me where I might find that? Thanks so much.

    1. Hello. I offer coaching services. I do have a bit of a waitlist right now, but if you hit “reply” to the newsletter I sent out, then we can be in contact and I can let you know when a spot opens up.

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