I Can[not] Cry

Abstract: In this essay, I have shared how Transactional Analysis (TA) has helped me understand and overcome the self-limiting aspects of my drivers and injunctions. I have given a few examples through a glimpse into my childhood. I have also shown how the drivers and injunctions manifest in my adult life. I have summarized what I have learnt in this journey so far and how that continues to help me.

I grew up with a strong belief that I cannot cry. I was the youngest person in a well-protected world of doting parents and a patient elder brother. I was a high-energy boy, prone to tantrums when I didn’t like what was going on around me. Tales of my brother’s face always sporting a scratch or two and the household stuff breaking when I lost a game, are part of our family folklore. I was captivated by the angry young man in Indian movies, where the protagonist was mostly a strong man, angrily beating up the bad guys. Fascinated by the fight scenes, I would enthusiastically try out the on-screen hero’s fight moves on my brother, who would play along and let me win. Occasionally, when my brother complained to mom about my behaviour, she would say, “He’s a child. You’re the elder one. You have to be patient.” This environment paved the way for my “Don’t grow up” injunction (Goulding, 1979) that limited my problem-solving abilities later on in life, as I would easily become angry and aggressive when things didn’t go to my liking. While anger was easily accessible, fear and sadness were tougher for me to access. The background for this was my dad’s dislike for crying. Whenever my childhood tantrums involved crying, I either received negative strokes (Steiner, 1971) from him or no strokes at all. This would manifest as: i) Negative strokes – dad would angrily look at me, point his finger, raise his voice and sternly say “Stop crying!” ii) No strokes – dad would tell mom “Let him cry, he’ll come around” and I would be ignored till I stopped crying. So I learnt to swallow my sobs and force myself to stop crying. This behaviour was reinforced by sociocultural messages like, “Being a boy, how can you cry?” and “Don’t cry like a girl!”, both at school and in my extended family. Little wonder then, that I introjected a “Don’t feel sad/ scared” injunction (Goulding, 1979) and a “Be strong” driver (Kahler, 1975). As a child I also developed programs (Berne, 1972) on ‘how to be strong’ by observing my dad. It wasn’t very often that he lost his composure and I idolized him for his serene, calm presence. I also saw him respected as the voice of reason by his brothers’ families, who sought his advice on myriad topics. Yet I don’t remember seeing him reach out to anyone for help. So in my head, I created a grandiose image of my dad as my role-model – the unflappable, intelligent man who never cried or asked anyone for help. Thus, I found tears were hard to come by as the years rolled on. While I benefited by being able to strongly sail through difficult situations in life, a part of me longed to express my real emotions (especially sadness and fear) and ask for help and support.

Recently I faced a tough situation in my life where this behavioural pattern of mine came alive. It started when my mom called to tell me she was getting admitted in the nearby hospital for surgery to protect her from a potentially aggressive cancer. The 32-year old me first felt anger, directed at my mom for not having informed me earlier, and later at life for being unfair to me. Very soon though, anger gave way to fear and sadness as I grappled with the possibility that this could be a life-threatening situation for her. The dichotomy I experienced during this time was that I didn’t know how to express my fear and sadness, while I was easily able to express my anger by being generally irritable and snappy at people around me (including my mom). My “Be strong” driver helped me remain functional through this crisis, as I efficiently made the necessary travel arrangements and was there to support my mom through the surgery, which turned out to be successful. In a break from my usual pattern, I gave myself the permission to let a tear trickle down, as I watched my mom groan in post-operative delirium. However, the voices in my head, “She’s fine, she’s going to live. No need to cry. Be strong” instructed me to become my stone-faced self again and I obeyed. This was how I handled crisis situations.

The remnants of my mom’s cancer were to be incinerated through debilitating chemotherapy sessions over the next six months. It was around this time that I received acknowledgement from a friend that it was OK for me to feel sad and scared in this situation. With this acknowledgement, I felt the familiar un-expressed fear and sadness growing within me. What would otherwise have been a natural “Be strong” was then just exhausting. I enrolled for one-on-one sessions with a therapist, whose accepting presence and acknowledging messages like, “It is OK to cry” and “This is a stressful situation to be in”, slowly brought me in touch with my unexpressed emotions. This led to my “Be strong” dam having a welcome crack during a session with my TA training group, a space where I felt safe with permissions to express and share my emotions. I cried my heart out while I described my mom to the group and I got in touch with my sadness of seeing her in pain and my fear of losing her. I felt relieved after expressing how I really felt, for until that point in time, I was only coping by “being strong”. Consequently, I was able to connect much better with my mom and everyone else in my circle.

Today, I keep checking how I feel and affirm to myself that “It’s OK to feel sad / scared”. I also accept my expression of grief and fear through my tears and I feel the relief after I express these emotions. This way I’m being real and fully available for myself and others. While I don’t get driven by my driver messages to “Be strong”, I do acknowledge them as they help me to be functional during crises. This was evident during my dad’s critical illness that closely followed my mom’s cancer. I acknowledged my fear and grief throughout my dad’s hospitalization and recovery period. I cried in environments where I felt safe (at home, in the hospital ward) and this helped me be present to the needs of my family. I did whatever was necessary in the situation, drawing on the strengths of my drivers. I also reached out to my close friends and my TA training group for help and support. I understood the significance of taking care of myself while I took care of others. This experience has thus helped me update my belief from “I cannot cry” to “I cannot cry.”

 

References

Berne, E. (1972). What Do You Say After You Say Hello? New York: Grove Press

Goulding, M. M., &Goulding, R. L. (1979). Changing lives through redecision therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel

Kahler, T. (1975). Drivers: The Key to the Process of scripts. Transactional Analysis Journal 5(3), 280-284.

Steiner, Claude (1971). The Stroke Economy. Transactional
Analysis
Journal, 1(3), pp.9-15

 

This article was published in the SAATA journal Vol 2. No. 1 January 2016.

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