For as long as I can remember I’ve struggled with ‘stress’ or at least that’s what I’ve always called it. I’ve definitely experienced stress possibly some anxiety and probably some depression. It was never diagnosed but then I never told anyone about it. Perhaps there was nothing to diagnose. Nevertheless I was hurting and I couldn’t tell my doctor or those I was closest to – my family or my friends. I didn’t feel I could tell anyone perhaps because I hadn’t heard anyone else talking about it. I think I felt like a failure, ashamed, inadequate because I felt like this when no one else seemed to. I remember asking myself why I was lacking confidence, self-worth when those around me were all confident and able to get involved. I felt I had little of value to offer my family, friends, community – the world. I was the only one who felt like this which meant it wasn’t normal. That I wasn’t normal.
What was wrong with me? I’d had a good upbringing. We weren’t rich but we weren’t poor. We’d always had the space and freedom to play. I have fond memories at the swimming pool with my dad and of building dens in the woods with my mum. My parents were educated and I had help with school work when necessary. Meals were cooked from scratch and with love. Every bite of bread we ate was kneaded and baked by my mum’s hands.
The only thing we didn’t have was emotional honesty and openness; and this was through no real fault of our own. Our society doesn’t allow it. And it’s hurting us.
And so I went on alone struggling on and off with stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, whatever it was until I eventually figured out that my problem was all about confidence and that I needed to start facing my fears in order to become more confident. This worked on the whole but of course I still hadn’t talked about any of these experiences and still wasn’t really talking about my feelings. I thought on and off about therapy for years but always told myself that it was too expensive and used that as an excuse to continue avoiding rather than facing my emotions.
Over the last few years I realised I was stuck in a perceptual cycle of accumulating ‘stress’ until I’d get to a point where I felt I couldn’t cope and would collapse in exhaustion and sadness and often with headaches and migraines when I’d be forced to stop and rest but then the cycle would begin again. In 2017 I was also waking up repeatedly at night due to pain in my hips and sides with no clue as to what was causing it.
“So we grow depressed about everything because we can’t feel sad about something. We can no longer sleep, insomnia being the revenge of all the many thoughts we’ve omitted to process in the day.”
In September I decided enough was enough and it was time to face this thing and so I’ve been going to weekly therapy sessions since then. It’s integrative therapy (a mixture of psychoanalysis, relational therapy and CBT) and it has helped me no end. All I’ve done so far is talk. We haven’t peeled back layer upon layer of my life nor have we done any CBT. I’ve just talked… and talked… and talked… I’ve also cried. In fact I cried so much when I was off work over Christmas and New Year that I got headaches and I thought it’d never stop. I’ve talked about things that I’ve never talked to anyone about before and have finally been able to really feel them and to let them go.
In the beginning I went with lists of things i wanted to talk about until my therapist mentioned just ‘sitting with how it feels’ as an alternative to the lists and organisation (ie need to control) and so I started to do just that. So now I’m trying to focus on how I’m feeling during therapy but also in my daily meditation and anytime I notice I am or have been feeling something. It’s helped me to open up to family, to friends as well as to colleagues at work. I think it’s enabled me to start writing this blog – I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. In engaging with therapy (talking) I’ve created a space for myself to explore my emotions properly and to take the time I need to do that. I’ve started to recognise different emotions rather than labelling everything as stress so I’m starting to see sadness, disappointment, anger, frustration, guilt, shame and so on whereas before it was all one amorphous and inaccessible mass I called ‘stress’. I’m already seeing how this is affecting my awareness of how I think, feel and behave. I’m gaining emotional intelligence but I’ve got a long way to go yet.
I’m going to continue the focus on my emotions as well as talking to my therapist and being more emotionally open with family and friends so that I can grow and flourish. In return I am also learning how I can hold space for others because whilst they are supporting me on my journey and listening to me as I talk I also need to be able to do the same for them. I also need to give out the right signals to others so that they know I’m someone they can talk to, and rely on.
Is positivity how we should judge strength of character?
Society tells us that positive emotions are OK (as long as you don’t go too over the top or show off too much, of course) but negative emotions are not to be shown let alone shared. To be ‘normal’ is to be happy and smiling at all times and so we tell each other to “keep a stiff upper lip” and when someone manages to appear contained or positive when their situation means that they must be suffering inside we admire them for being stoical.
“If you say that someone is a stoic, you approve of them because they do not complain or show they are upset in bad situations.” (Collins dictionary)
When people do show their true emotions we say they’re being over emotional or that they lack self control. Of course crying’s not allowed and if you do you’re a cry baby. And perish the thought that a boy or a man should ever show emotion because they’re likely to be told to man up because big boys don’t cry and if you do you’re crying like a girl.
What kind of messages are we giving each other? What kind of messages are we giving our children? What kind of messages are we giving ourselves? We need to change the message.
In her compelling TED talk psychologist Susan David says that a third of people judge themselves for having negative emotions and therefore push those emotions to the side (she calls this bottling). Another tendency is to brood obsessively on our feelings where we get stuck inside our own heads and feel victimised by events that happen around us even if they really have nothing to do with us. She calls these responses emotionally rigid and encourages us instead to practice emotional agility. She’s written an entire book on the subject. It’s a surprisingly easy and very informative read. She very carefully avoids scientific language and explains everything in lay terms.
“Normal, natural emotions are now seen as good or bad. And being positive has become a new form of moral correctness. People with cancer are automatically told to just stay positive. Women, to stop being so angry. And the list goes on. It’s a tyranny. It’s a tyranny of positivity. And it’s cruel. Unkind. And ineffective. And we do it to ourselves, and we do it to others.”
“I found that a third of us — a third — either judge ourselves for having so-called “bad emotions,” like sadness, anger or even grief. Or actively try to push aside these feelings. We do this not only to ourselves, but also to people we love, like our children — we may inadvertently shame them out of emotions seen as negative, jump to a solution, and fail to help them to see these emotions as inherently valuable.”
Whether brooding or bottling it’s damaging. We’re failing to use the information our emotions are showing us to our advantage and respond in an agile and intelligent way. Instead we’re burying them or obsessing over them and holding on to them when we should be processing them and letting them go – releasing ourselves from them. In holding onto them we cause our minds and our bodies unnecessary stress and also give the message to those around us that this is the appropriate and expected behaviour. As with my own example this messy mass of buried emotions becomes indiscernible and an increasingly heavy load to carry around with us. And it impacts every aspect of our life and the people around us.
It’s time to show up to ourselves and each other and to do so authentically. Only then will we fulfill our potential and achieve great things both individually and together.