Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Identity, change and consistency

I can tell you a story of my life in terms of change. What I was not able to do as a child that I can do now. What I was able to do in my teens that I can’t do now – all those late night things, and coping without sleep. I can tell you stories of constancy, how things from my childhood are still with me, how things that I consider integral to myself have been with me a long time. All of those stories would be true. It’s like observing light as a wave or a particle.

Every experience I have lived through has influenced me in some way. Every opportunity, every setback, every person I’ve interacted with. I’ve changed, year on year. Some of that change was good, and some of it has taken me years to unpick and recover from. As those experiences shape and shift me, I behave differently, react differently, feel differently and that in turn forms part of how the world seems to me. My own behaviour and responses shape the world I inhabit – for years now I’ve been getting faster at removing myself from drama. If I find someone exhausting to deal with to no good purpose, I step away. I say yes, emphatically, to activities and people that make me happy. As a consequence my life is calmer and richer than ever before. I feel more secure.

At any moment, who we are can seem like a substantial thing. Pressure to change is often threatening. There’s good reason to be wary of anything or anyone that demands you change against your will. Being asked or told to be what you are not is seldom good news. However, the opportunity to grow, stretch and change is usually a blessing. Given room to be more than we were, we can evolve on our own terms. We can flourish. That kind of change often comes slowly and feels more natural.

We are all full of potential and possibility. If life gives us scope to explore those possibilities, we can grow into identities that feel more real than where we started from. We are born into contexts of stories, history, opportunity or lack thereof. We are born into other people’s ideas about who we should be. Given time, space and opportunity we may find we aren’t the person we started out as. That can be a great relief, a shedding of unwanted and restrictive skin. Each choice we make can set us on a new path – and there is always scope to come back and change direction.

It’s when you’re changing that you can most easily see what doesn’t shift. We may label those qualities as virtues and vices, styles of being. “I’m a kind person with a strong work ethic.” “I’m easy come, easy go.” “I’ve got a short temper, I’m wild and passionate” and so forth. These are interesting things, but I think fairly superficial aspects of self. I don’t have a language to talk about my sense of inner self, any more than I have language to talk about the essence of a flame or a river.

I know there are some traditions that identify the core self as absence, emptiness. I don’t experience it that way. For all that I change and flicker, grow taller or smaller, changing shape in response to breezes, the quality of my flame remains flame. Or whatever it actually is. If I explore something new, I soon know what is for me and what is not. I know what fits me and what does not. I know what I respond to. It’s not something I can express in words, although I can dance it, and sometimes I can find tunes that reflect it.

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Humble, or humbled

When people announce themselves as being humble, I’m always put in mind of Uriah Heap (the Dickens character, not the band). Uriah Heap claims humbleness, he plays at humbleness as a way to mask his ambition. It’s a lot like claiming to be funny, or spiritual, or clever – when you have to tell people what your innate qualities are, the odds are you’re ascribing qualities to yourself that you do not possess.

Humble is a Christian virtue that goes with being meek and modest. It’s a virtue that the wealthy particularly appreciate in the poor – we should know our place, accept it and shut up about it. We should not imagine we deserve any better. Humbleness is about having no great sense of self worth, or self importance.

Being humbled can mean being taken down a peg or two. To humble someone else is to crush their pride, put them in their place (or the place you think they merit). This is how dictionaries tend to define being humbled, and it’s not an attractive proposition.

However, I’ve also seen and experienced it working in another way, and it’s this other possibility that I find particularly interesting. To be humbled by an experience that might have functioned as an ego boost for others. Being awarded, celebrated or picked out in some other way. Having the value of your work highlighted and put into context. Some people respond to this by feeling honoured, but also feeling humbled. There can be all kinds of reasons for this – not feeling you deserve it, or having done a small thing with big consequences. It can be deeply moving having someone tell you how what you did impacted on them.

It happens fairly frequently with the blog, that someone contacts me to say why a specific post really helped them. Usually I have not written the post for anyone. I don’t write them imagining they should all have the power to change someone’s life – I’d be too frightened to start, most mornings. I write about what I’ve got and I try to make it useful. If that turns out to be disproportionally useful, I feel like something has gone through me to the other person that was not wholly of my making. I feel like a delivery method for something bigger. I can’t own the effect. It’s the same when a song or a poem deeply affects someone else in an unexpected way, and it’s there as a possibility with all forms of creativity.

You make stuff and you hope it will have some kind of impact, but a part of how that impact happens is down to the person encountering what you made. When the work proves to have significant worth, it can be impossible for the creator to feel that as their own, and you end up with this strange emotional response where you are delighted by what’s happened, maybe surprised or even unnerved by it, and also humbled. Having an unexpected impact on someone else can be a little scary – you have an effect you didn’t really plan and don’t quite feel responsible for. It’s an experience that can give you power with one hand while taking it away with the other.

In spirituality, we find all kinds of opportunities to be humbled. To be awed by what’s bigger than us. To see the enormities of life and death, the vastness of everything else and the smallness of us. The bigger we are in our own minds, the less room we have for the sacred, the numinous, the world. Sometimes we need to recognise our smallness so that we can better appreciate how much bigger things outside us are. Anyone who can face the powerful forces of nature and not feel small, and humbled and put in perspective by that, is probably missing something. There’s nothing wrong with feeling small in the face of the wider world. It’s when it is required as a class status that there are problems.


Talking Down, or Lifting Up

There’s often a large verbal component to bullying and abuse. What is said is often key to keeping a victim silent. That may take the obvious form of threats – if you tell then there will be consequences. It can be more subtle. An ongoing rubbishing of a person’s feelings, needs, preferences, likes, values and so forth can really grind a person down. The more of it there is – the more people are involved, the longer the time frame, the more influential the bullies are, the more damage is taken. It can facilitate other kinds of abuse, if you’re too crushed to know it isn’t fair.

If the people you love (parents, partner, ‘friends’) tell you that you are silly and make a fuss, over react, are melodramatic, then you may start to question whether your responses to them are fair. It’s easier to assault a person who doesn’t trust their own judgement. If they call your favourite things stupid and worthless, you take damage. If they laugh at your clothes, or your cooking, or the music you like, it can all add up. Enough of this undermining knocks a person’s confidence and dents their self esteem. Eventually, confidence and self esteem can be destroyed by mockery and ridicule. Bullies will also try to isolate their victims so no alternative views are available. They may do this while saying they are the only one who really loves the victim, the only one who could understand them or put up with them.

This kind of damage is hard to recover from alone. It’s pretty much impossible to get over it without first getting away from it. A person needs the chance to hear something other than criticism and putdowns before they can rebuild a sense of self-worth. In the meantime, if I’m anything to go by then overthinking and paranoia can be issues. It is hard to hear a compliment when you’re waiting for the sting in its tail. It’s hard to trust someone who is building you up not to be setting you up for a fall. It takes years of safety to build a new normal. It takes multiple people telling all sorts of much more positive stories to undo the work of long term bullying.

There are people who default to uplifting. Who, given half a chance will compliment and encourage and gently prod you in the right direction. They are an antidote to the people who only belittle and knock down. People with the courage and care to keep uplifting even when the person they’re dealing with is too bruised to know what to do with it. People generous enough not to be put off when the frightened soft animal body they are dealing with reacts defensively and with fear.

I want to be that second sort of person. I realise that the key to this is not to take it personally when someone else flails. To learn how to make good decisions about what is intended to hurt, and what comes from a place of hurt is essential. I can’t afford to deal with people who intend to hurt me, but I can afford not to take things to heart that come from other people’s wounds. I’ve got this wrong in all kinds of ways, and there is nothing to do but learn and try to do better.

There will always be people who show up making helpful noises, but who have no desire to help. People who expect others to magically fix as soon as they step in and who are disappointed, even angry when it doesn’t go that way. Healing is slow and takes patience. Hearts and minds are slower to heal than bodies. For the people who were generous and patient enough with me to stick with my often brutal healing process, and not give up on me, I have enormous gratitude. It’s also taught me a lot about the good one person can do for another in the simple choice to lift them up rather than knocking them down.


When good things exhaust me

Good things are supposed to be… good. However, something it has taken me a long time to get my head round, is that if I’m burned out, or close to it, good things are just as problematic in some ways as slightly bad things. This, frankly, is annoying, but in learning how to see it coming I’ve been able to look after myself more effectively.

It’s easy to forget that good things also take energy. Good news, exciting developments, moments of joy, relief and the like all take energy. They take a lot more energy than just shuffling along in a non-descript state. Sometimes, good things even bring an adrenaline burst. If you’re an anxious person, then adrenaline means anxiety even when you know a good thing is happening. I was told by an entirely unhelpful person some years ago that I can’t tell the difference between excitement and anxiety. My head can, but for my body, there is no difference. It’s not a failing, or something to fix by trying harder it’s just what happens.

Good things require processing time. If I’m feeling a lot of emotions, I need time to work that through. It’s more obvious when the feels are all difficult, that self-care is in order. Intense good feelings need just as much processing time as difficult feelings. The high of something good can provide a lift, but if my energy is poor then on the far side of the happy peak, is a slide down into a low place. If I know the slide is coming, I can handle it better.

I’ve spent most of my life doing intense highs and lows. The only times I haven’t were when I was too depressed to do the highs in the first place. I’ve always believed that the lows were the price of the highs and chose to accept that as a trade-off. However, in recent years I’ve become more interested in exactly how my brain and body work, and it suggests something more complex is going on. I can have highs without an inevitable crash afterwards if my energy levels are generally good. I can navigate the aftermath of highs better if I give myself processing time.

Sometimes resting is enough for emotional processing. Sometimes I can sleep it off and let my unconscious, dreaming mind figure out all the things. Sometimes I can walk it off or bounce it off on the trampoline to get excess energy under control. However, when it’s a more complicated feeling, I need to dance, or sing, or play a musical instrument for a while. I think these help me most because they let me manifest how I’m feeling without having to get specific words on it. I can express emotions and embody them and settle them into me. Some emotions are big enough to have an impact on who I think I am and how I view my life as a whole. They take some processing. It’s better if I make time and space for them.


Contemplating hate

Hate isn’t an emotion we talk about much. Other people, of course, are haters, and using hate speech, but we don’t so often discuss the role hate may play in our own lives. It’s not a socially acceptable emotion, for the greater part. To express it, most people need to feel part of a group that’s doing the same, and to be sure they are justified. Hate doesn’t always come naturally or easily to us, we may have to work up to it and invest energy in feeling it.

Hate goes with revulsion and rejection. We save our hate for the things and people we feel are most unlike us, so it can be an emotion that does a lot to define us. Which if you end up hating haters, can get complicated!

Hating people is an exhausting business and can put them at the centre of your world. Focus too much on hating someone and you can end up more like them. You give them space in your mind and life, and the attention you pay to that hate is no great joy. However, hate is also a powerful emotion, and this is no doubt part of why we have a long history or cursing as part of magical traditions. We all like to think our hate is valid, justified and reasonable, and most of us won’t look at it too hard to make sure this is true.

I think we should hate oppression, exploitation and cruelty. We should hate needless suffering, environmental degradation, extinction, and the loss of beauty from the world. These things are not people, and I think that’s important too. There is a world of difference between hating what a person does, and hating a person. When you hate a person, it tends to be about things that are intrinsic to them – race, culture, religion, gender. It’s not about them changing, it is about having power over them, to control, limit and oppress. When you hate what a person does, there’s all the room for them to do something different, and that’s probably what you’re aiming for. If you are canny, you’ll hide the hate in order to try and persuade them to change.

Hate can be a great motivator. It is a recognition of absolute unacceptability. It can be a key part of defining our values and it is not an emotion a person needs to automatically feel ashamed of. We just have to remember that hating doesn’t entitle us to anything, nor does it prove much. How we express it, and why, is what will define us as people.


Taking back power

Loss of power sounds like a dramatic thing, doesn’t it? You’d spot someone stealing your power, surely? This is something I’ve thought about a lot over the last year, struggling to find the energy I need to do the things I both need, and want to do. I started to ask where my energy was going, and over time I realised that apparently small energy losses can add up to a very large power drain. Based on a mix of experience and observation, here are some examples of how power is stolen.

Time is the most precious thing. People who feel entitled to use up your time with their things, who offer nothing in return. Who don’t pay any attention when you tell them you are busy, or need to be somewhere else, or can’t do it right now. Just a few minutes day by day of taking your time to no good purpose can be quite the energy sapper. People who are always late and keep you waiting can steal a lot of time.

Asking for unpaid work. Asking that you stay on for just a little bit, or just do an extra thing – always presented as small and no big deal. Again, when this happens all the time, a great deal of time and energy is sucked up by it. Unpaid work that you didn’t volunteer for is basically theft. I’ve also seen this where people with more power slack off to make people with less power bear more of the load, thus taking even more power from them.

Demanding you do emotional labour can be a massive energy sapper. In a true relationship, people look after each other. You hear each other’s problems when they come along, you support each other, help each other figure stuff out. When one person demands support of another but gives nothing in return, they are stealing energy. When you say ‘I’m in a bad place right now and I can’t really help you,’ and they say ‘sorry to hear that, but here’s my problem in great detail, what do you think about my problem? Let’s talk about me and my problem’ there’s power theft going on. People who pester if you say no, and use up more time and energy if you try to resist than they would have if you’d gone along with them, need avoiding as far as possible.

People who make you feel responsible for their problems can be exhausting to deal with. People who keep having the same problems, doing all the same things, totally ignoring all advice but still expecting emotional support, are exhausting to deal with. I’ve had this one in combination and it took me years to find the resolve to step back and not get snared in it.

When a person is in crisis, things can become unbalanced for a while. There’s no problem in that, because we all have times when we’re in trouble and we should all have time to at least listen to each other when things are tough. However, people who are attention hungry, who need to be at the centre of all things at all times, manufacture drama, inflate problems, and ignore clear signs that they’re asking too much. If you’re wired up to take care of people, inclined towards healing or nurturing, this can suck up your life.

It’s worth doing a sort of energy stock take every now and then, I’ve realised. Pausing to look at what happens, and where your energy goes, who uses it and what they do with it. I find if I’m putting energy into something or giving it to someone, and good things happen, I don’t experience it as a drain at all. What wears me down is when my energy is taken, but nothing changes. When I’m given make-work to do, or badly directed so that my work is useless. When my advice is constantly ignored yet I keep getting asked for advice on the same problems over and over again, that grinds me down.

I find it difficult saying no to people. But, I’ve learned the hard way that if I keep saying yes to people who steal my time and energy, I end up drained and useless, with my self esteem through the floor.


Rest, action and illness

When ‘normal’ people are ill or tired, they rest. What do you do if ill and/or exhausted are your normal condition? I go round this one a lot, and while I’m not able to offer definitive answers, I think there’s mileage to be had in framing the questions and possible answers.

Rest helps us recover faster from illness. Not resting when ill not only slows recovery, but also undermines mental health.

However, being physically active helps move the blood and lymph fluids about, which can also help. Too much inaction leaves us with weakened muscles, reduced stamina, less healthy hearts. Not moving much can also make mental health issues worse. Physical activity is encouraged as an answer to depression and anxiety. Being as fit as you can be helps you stay resilient.

Except if you always hurt and you never have much energy, being active is hard. It isn’t easy to tell if a sudden loss of energy is because you have energy issues, or because you are coming down with some simple ailment like the flu. If you are used to pushing to get things done it can be hard to work out when not pushing is the better answer.

Depression causes loss of energy. Depression is a common consequence of living with long term pain and illness. It isn’t easy to separate the heavy lethargy of depression from the physical experiences you may be having.

It is easy to get into unhelpful cycles. If you push all the time to keep going, you learn to ignore what your body tells you. You become alienated from your body and fight against it continually. You don’t notice when things go wrong that need some response other than pushing harder. This puts you at risk. Perhaps in the end you run out of the will to keep pushing yourself onwards all the time. That can be very hard to recover from.

If you rest too much, you lose, or do not develop physical strength, stamina and co-ordination. Depression may increase. Increasing your feelings of lethargy. You feel powerless, you may feel increasingly intimidated by the idea of trying to do anything. You may just keep spiralling down in this way until you aren’t really living your life at all.

There’s no simple solution to this that I can see. Listening to your body is good and so is trusting your body, but depression and exhaustion don’t make you into a good listener. Often the opposite. Other people will have advice for you, maybe some of them will think they know what you need better than you know. Sometimes they may be right, but not always. Other people will have magic cures and absolute certainties for things that will change everything – but your body is unique and what worked for one person is not guaranteed to work for you.

There are no simple answers. Keep questioning. Keep trying things. Don’t give up on yourself. You may never be able to get so that your body works in the way a normal body is assumed to work, but that’s not the only good outcome available. You can find combinations that serve you best, and that improve your quality of life and you can do it on your own terms.


Recovering from trauma

People who are counselled and supported in the aftermath of trauma don’t tend to go on to develop post traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is something that tends to happen to people who take the trauma inside them. It becomes normal. It becomes how you think the world works and what you expect. This is a higher risk when the trauma isn’t a one off event, but a long process – people coming out of war zones, domestic abuse situations, child abuse, can all have spent a long time suffering and being blamed for what’s happening.

The general wisdom out there seems to be that if you don’t get it dealt with early, it might never be possible to deal with it. Everything I’ve seen has said that recovery requires professional help. So, what do you do if you can’t afford professional help, or you aren’t believed, or you can’t deal with professionals?

Creating a new normal can change a lot of things. It takes time. If PTSD is rooted in a long experience of trauma, it won’t change quickly. However, if you are in a safe environment, and you are able to recognise it as safe, this slowly retrains your brain. It doesn’t mean you won’t get triggered, but it means when you do, you know that’s what’s happening. Support in recognising when you aren’t in danger can really help. Constant affirmation that you are safe now, you aren’t there any more, it won’t be like that again, can, over time, get your brain out of hypervigilant terrified panic stations. It can be done.

I’ve found that being able to tell when I’m being triggered makes a lot of difference. The faster I can identify it, the less damage the triggering does me. It’s when you’re locked into the past, reliving it, re-enacting it, that being triggered is such a desperate nightmare. Recognising that what’s happening is that you’ve been triggered is really powerful because it gives you a little space in which to reassess things. Am I really in danger? Am I going through that same experience again? If it looks like you are, then doing whatever it takes to get to safety is the priority. Mostly I find that I am re-experiencing the past, and it is not the case that the past is repeating itself in the present.

Once I’ve been triggered, there will be flashbacks. Even if I know I’ve been triggered, they still come up. This can go on for days if it’s really bad. Again, I’ve found that knowing this is happening makes a difference. A flashback comes, and it happens to me, a memory surfaces. There will be a period of time when I can’t do much about that, but, as soon as I can properly identify it as a flashback, I can try to put it down. I won’t always manage, but the more I do to try not to become enmeshed in the flashback, the better it is for me. Over time, I’ve got quicker at realising when it’s happening and quicker at identifying surfacing things as flashbacks, and better at not getting involved with them.

I’ve learned that the only thing to do in face of this is be kind to myself. Rest, and get some good quality, soul feeding distraction in the mix. I try to find balances between distracting myself, and thinking carefully about what’s going on. If I can face up to the surfacing trauma and name it, that does help. If I can reframe it as something I didn’t deserve and wasn’t ok, that helps. If I can grieve for what happened to me, that helps. If I can recognise what I internalised at the time, that helps. I have to face why I didn’t protect myself, and those things run very deep.

Healing can be a brutal process. When the cold dead fingers of PTSD are wrapped around your throat, trying to pry them off is not happy or easy work. It isn’t quick, or simple. But it can be done.  And it can be done with no professional help, no guidance, and a great deal of unpicking it yourself. If you can get help, get help. If you can’t, you don’t have to give up on yourself.


Depression and exhaustion

Lack of energy is often treated as a symptom of depression, when a person is depressed, but I am entirely convinced that exhaustion is a major cause of depression. Often it seems like depression is understood as an internal event, but my experience is that it is often caused by external things. We make the problem, and the solution personal because looking at the collective implications would be hugely political.

Over worked, over stressed by increasingly difficult commutes, it’s easy to get into situations of not eating well enough to maintain energy and not being physically active enough to look after your body. That in turn all feeds into poor sleeping and further energy loss. Poverty and lack of work are also exhausting and the government is doing its best to make it so. Depression can be a kind of forced stop, when body and mind won’t take it anymore and just can’t do any more things. Rest at this point is essential.

However, if all you do is recover and head back into the fray, the next round is inevitable. If the way we live makes us ill, brief respites won’t solve anything.

Proper rest and relaxation has to be part of normal life. It’s not some kind of luxury add on bonus thing, it’s not a reward, or a distant goal. It has to be an every day thing to keep mind and body well. It also has to be good quality. Rest is like food – some things are more nourishing than others, and what you really need is the good stuff that will feed you, body and soul.

For me good books and films, beautiful anime, and lots of sleep works well as down time. When I’m a bit more lively, live music and other live entertainment, and time with friends is good. When I’m really low, I find socialising exhausting, even with the people I find it easiest to be around. But then, when I’m really low I find most things exhausting and I can get to places where I don’t have the concentration to read or to watch a film. While I know the theory of how to look after myself, I don’t always do a great job of it.

One of the issues for wellness, is how much slack you have in your systems. I tend to run close to the limits of what I can get away with. When things go to plan, this is fine. However, all it takes is one surprise energy drain and I can be in a lot of trouble. A cold, an unexpected job, or someone needing my emotional support in a big way can all tip me over. I’m not good at saying no to people, especially when I know those people are in trouble, and I’ve found it hard to really look at the costs of some things. But, I can do more good stuff and be of more benefit to others when I’m not dragging myself along the ground, and that logic has helped me make better choices. Like a lot of people, I find it hard making self care a priority when faced with someone else’s need, but I can think about overall effectiveness.

Which brings me round to another underpinner for depression – low self esteem. If you are the least important thing, if everyone else’s wellness and happiness are more important than your own, if every last job you might do is more important than whether you can do it… depression is inevitable. Not getting exhausted all the time in the first place requires you to be worth more than the things that are wearing you out. That’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s not even possible. If, when you are under so much pressure to do all the things and you fall apart, you are then blamed for falling apart, that really doesn’t help at all. It can in fact keep the cycles of exhaustion and depression firmly in place. Blame confirms that if only we’d tried harder it would have worked. Blame confirms that we should be able to do all the things with no respite. This piles stress upon stress and offers no way out. Sometimes, a little recognition that what you’re up against is shitty and unfair can be a life saver.


Mental health support kit

Yesterday on social media, fellow Druid Cat Treadwell pointed out that for physical injuries and disabilities, we use things to help us – walking sticks, being her example. There’s no immediately obvious kit to use as a mental health support. So, I started thinking about things I habitually carry, and things I’ve carried in the past. This is not an exhaustive list. Plus, this probably needs to be personal.

Rescue Remedy (contains alcohol, so not for everyone).

Tissues.

Bottle of water. (I’ve yet to find a situation where water hasn’t helped me).

Something with sugar in it (if you do sugar and if sugar soothes you).

Something hard I can grip to focus my mind (tends to be either keys or crystals for me.)

Something affirming (I used to carry a little plastic figure of Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard in my pocket to protect me from evil. He was totally effective.)

Something tactile and reassuring to touch (I’ve often got a friendly stone in my pocket).

I also find there’s something inherently reassuring about going out with extra gear – whether that’s waterproofs, a sunhat, or other bits and pieces of useful things. I feel more in control when I’ve got some sort of a kit bag to help me deal with changes and thus to face the unexpected. Starting out feeling a bit more in control really helps with the anxiety, I have found.