Moving Beyond Emotional Chaos

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Reader’s Question

I think I have a need for emotional pain. Growing up, I was with my alcoholic father, who didn’t physically abuse but verbally abused instead. When I was younger, I used to wish I was raped — not for enjoyment, but for the distress, I guess. I used to think up scenarios of a harder home life, because I felt like mine wasn’t bad enough, and I wanted something worth crying about. Does this mean something is wrong with me?

Psychologist’s Reply

I don’t know about something being “wrong” with you but your situation certainly sounds miserable!

I doubt anyone has a “need” for emotional pain but, for numerous people, it is a comfortable place to be. People often seek situations that are familiar to them, regardless of whether they are healthy. This may be what is happening to you. It sounds like you are riding an emotional tornado or, as I like to call it, seeking emotional chaos.

Emotional chaos is when there is complete disorder and confusion with a person’s feelings. People experiencing this are unsure how to feel, probably because there are conflicting emotions and a perception of loss of control. With all of the emotions swirling around, their body may enter a heightened state of physiological arousal. After living in a constant state of emotional chaos, many people reach a point where it feels good. They start enjoying the drama and eventually believe that living in a state of serenity is too weird and boring. Thus, regardless of whether things are good in their lives, they seek the chaos in an effort to return to their comfortable state.

There are a lot of ways people end up in emotional chaos, and living with an alcoholic, especially an abusive one, is near the top. Alcoholism is a dreadful disease for many reasons, not the least of which is the damage it inflicts on family members. Children, especially, live in a hyper-alert state so that they can sense danger and either escape or head it off. They frequently feel angry at the alcoholic parent, but because showing anger is not safe, they have to hide their emotions and do whatever is necessary to survive. Moreover, while children of alcoholics tend to love their parent, they don’t know how to balance that emotion with the anger, sadness and fear. Consequently, there is a lot of conflicting emotion, they are used to being in a heightened physiological state, and there is little control they have over any of it. In short, they live in emotional chaos.

Since you’ve written in asking what is wrong, I’m guessing that you want to change it. This is doable, especially if you can have the assistance of a good psychologist who is trained in addiction and family systems. This person will, most likely, help you learn how to better regulate your emotions, set interpersonal boundaries, and establish a sense of control over your life. Once the swirling from the emotional tornado has stopped, you may discover that being “boring” isn’t such a bad way to be.

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