A therapy office is often a space for topics that cannot otherwise be safely or comfortably discussed. It is a place for clients to unburden themselves of things left unsaid, a place to practice saying them out loud. Some topics are considered culturally inappropriate to talk about, and others are unique to a particular relationship. Sex, money, politics, and religion are generally considered culturally unacceptable to discuss openly because these matters are considered deeply personal or likely to make others uncomfortable. But, perhaps surprisingly, for many the most foreign, taboo topic is often simply the mention of feelings. Again and again, clients come to me stating that in their family, they did not talk about their feelings. Any feelings. And as a result, they not only struggle to communicate feelings to their partners and friends, they are so disconnected from the feelings themselves that they often don’t even know they exist. As you can imagine, coming to therapy for these clients is quiet an impressive feat, and I am always aware of the courage needed to do so.
Learning to recognize and acknowledge feelings is much the same as acknowledging and communicating needs. The failure to do so often has the same impact. Clients report feeling unhappy, misunderstood, unimportant. Learning to understand and communicate their feelings and needs is like learning a new language or a musical instrument; it’s imperfect and difficult. If they are in a relationship, the established dynamic will necessarily shift and their partner may not welcome this change. Or they might intellectually understand the reasons for the change and how it will benefit the relationship in the long term, but they may fear losing their partner or their control. If met with resistance, the partner practicing this fragile new skill may revert to withholding or withdrawing again. But if their efforts are met with warmth, patience, and support, tremendous growth can take place and the couple has the opportunity for greater intimacy and trust.
For those who struggle to know or express their feelings (and, thus, their needs), I try to ask a lot of questions. And to broaden their ability to describe any given emotion. To see if there might be other feelings at play as well. In doing so we broaden the repertoire of felt experiences, making life more diverse, nuanced, and rich. I ask clients to check in with themselves throughout their day and identify what their emotion at any given moment might be in the way a non-judgmental observer might report. This allows clients to practice sharing the full range of their emotions with those around them. Once this becomes more comfortable, clients usually come back to a middle of sorts, in which they begin to differentiate which feelings they might want to share and which they can save for themselves. This choice will then not be made out of shame or secrecy, but because it actually feels healthy to do so.
I will never understand the arbitrary fashion in which some things are deemed more acceptable to talk about than others, but for individuals the origin of the taboo is always the same: shame or conflict-avoidance. Often the two go hand in hand. The person who feels shame about inner thoughts, feelings, or external behaviors feels conflicted, and as a result tries to avoid talking about it. In a relationship, if a partner persists in pressing the discussion about such shame, there is often a conflict born of defensiveness.
Take alcohol use, for example. Let’s say that someone has a drinking problem but isn’t ready to do anything about it yet. They are ashamed but protective of their behavior. If their partner brings it up, they might minimize or dismiss the issue or become defensive about it. After this has happened a few times, the partner will likely stop bringing it up, making it a taboo topic for the couple. Avoiding certain topics becomes a learned behavior because addressing it never goes well. Of course this doesn’t mean the issue goes away. Couples might work around it, but it remains a source of tension, distance, and distrust. It becomes something that divides people, rather than bringing them together; something that creates an inherent power imbalance in which one person’s preferences have more leverage and become the automatic fallback during any disagreement. I see this often in decisions around money expenditure and co-parenting, as well.
Sex is, not surprisingly, one of the most prevalent taboo topics I work with. This may be because clients are simply not used to talking about sex, or it may be because a sexual interest of one or both partners is seemingly uncommon. In the case of the latter, clients are often surprised to learn that their particular interest or fetish is not as unusual as they may have thought, or that there are reasons why that interest is compelling that make a whole lot of sense. In the case of the former, wherein clients are not accustomed to open sexual discussion, any conversation involving sex is embarrassing, awkward, and uncomfortable, and couples involving such individuals tend to find their sex lives somewhat dissatisfying. It’s hard to have pleasurable sex when you can’t talk about what you like or don’t like out of fear of being judged or of hurting your partner’s feelings. When sex feels unsatisfying, the long-term consequences can be significant. Sex can slow or stop and when this happens, and it often gets more and more challenging to talk about it or fix the problem.
This is the dynamic I see in the majority of couples I work with. Whether it is specific to sex or another topic, couples find themselves in crisis when important things go left unsaid for too long. And sometimes, repairing the damage that this does is not possible. Sometimes a person simply cannot come back from a place of their feelings and needs going unheard and unmet. In order to find and actualize themselves, they must (or believe they must) leave their partners and relationships and start over. But fortunately, some couples can pull from the dark, underwater places those topics they consider so painful or so scary to talk about. A resolution might not be reached. Being able to talk about feelings doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be agreement. However, with the respectful and authentic airing of such things comes relief – the kind of relief that in my office is usually palpable.
As a counselor, if there were one piece of advice that I could give people, it would be, simply, “Talk about it.” Don’t try to ignore, repress, or deny your needs or feelings. Don’t assume that someday someone will invite you to share them or that perhaps they won’t matter to anyone. Give them light and sunshine. See what they have to teach you. Give those around you the chance to know you and see what they do with it. If they hurt you or use it against you, you will survive and you will know that they are not the right people to spend your time with. This is important information to have and will allow you to move forward in your life and in your relationships in a way that will promote, rather than reduce, your chances for overall happiness.