A young boy of seven just lost his father to a heart attack. You are at the funeral and overhear an adult shake his hand and say, “I am so sorry about your dad, Johnny, but you are the man of the house now, take care of your mom and your sisters.”
Do you notice anything disturbing here? Or, are we so acculturated to this dynamic that we do not recognize the message(s) we are sending to Johnny?
After the funeral, his mother starts relying on him to soothe and comfort her, calling him “my little man.” Is he a man? Is he developmentally capable of taking care of his mother and sisters? What does “take care of” his mother and sisters entail?
Sadly, Johnny is expected to be an adult when he is a child. He becomes a substitute spouse to his mother and substitute father to his siblings. That is quite a heavy burden for a little seven year old boy.
The above is another way that Covert Emotional Incest manifests. It, in my belief and professional experience, has been woven into the fabric of our society.
Objectification is one more aspect of Covert Emotional Incest that is important to identify and explain.
Objectification is when one feels like an object -- a thing -- created to please others, (often sexually) rather than a human being in their own right. I know I felt this way as early as the age of five. I knew I was expected to welcome stares and comments from others about my body. Both my parents, my mother in particular, kept a keen focus on my physical appearance, directing me to diet when I was eight. There was also unwanted touch that made me cringe -- kissing on the lips, hugs that were a bit too tight and too long. They were uncomfortable but my family believed these things happened in a close-knit family. So I denied my feelings of fear, anger, humiliation and revulsion. I was ever the good girl and I never said no.
As I have seen with clients, being objectified taught me the following:
1. I was only worth something if I was sexually attractive to a man and provided him with what he wanted.
2. I was only sexually attractive to a man if I had the perfect body. Who defined the perfect body? My father.
One of the most profound experiences in my recovery from CEI and CSA happened in a professional training group back in 1996. “My hope for you is to be able to hold your competence, your sexuality and your spirituality all at the same time,” said my mentor.
He voiced in that short sentence what I had been trying to accomplish for many years. This integration was exactly what Covert Emotional Incest (CEI) robbed me of. Being objectified and made a surrogate spouse led to compartmentalization of my sexual and sensual self. I believed, because of my experience, that being female meant being a victim to sexual violence. Therefore, identifying as female and feeling sexual was scary and bound with shame and guilt. What I know and teach today is that whatever gender identity you claim, it, in and of itself, does not mandate you to victimhood.
What I also know and teach today is that sexual energy is literally our life energy. If I split that off or suppress it, I will find myself down and depressed.
Without these two resources, I would not enjoy nor be successful at what I do, be it hobbies or professional endeavors. I would be a talking head and the experience empty. Because of embodying and allowing room for my life and soul energy, I have great fulfillment in what I accomplish.
I am excited to say that I have been thriving because of the integration of my sexuality/sensuality, competence and spirituality for quite a number of years now. How did I get there, you ask?
I have to be honest. For me there was no one right way. I had many teachers, guides and supports.
Somatically focused work was essential in allowing me to get in touch with and really listen to my body. It taught me to not just tolerate sexual and other feelings and sensations, but to revel in them. It helped me feel free to express them in a safe way with safe people in the present moment. Being with my wife, who celebrates my sexuality, competence and spirit daily, has been the main reinforcer that this freedom is possible and here for the taking.