Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Self Awareness and Unawareness

I’ve yet to encounter anyone who self-identifies as being self-unaware. It’s one of those things that you have to have if you’re on a spiritual path, and that we tend to talk about in terms of work done rather than in terms of struggle or full on failure. So, here we go…

I like to know what I’m doing and why, but honestly, sometimes, I have no idea. Sometimes the emotions and impulses turn up and it isn’t until afterwards that I can figure out what’s going on. Often this is important, it happens because I’m changing, growing, healing, breaking, stretching or somesuch. To do those things I have to go through a patch where I may have little idea what’s going on with me.

Not all of my thinking is conscious – there’s all kinds of stuff the brain gets up to where the conscious bit of the mind can’t see it, and sometimes surprising things bubble up from the depths. Sometimes this shows up in dreams, or comes through in my writing. Sometimes I can only bring things into my consciousness by accidentally starting to write about them. I like this about me. I like that I can still surprise myself and that there are always new things to explore.

I’m getting new experiences and information on a daily basis. My environment shapes and shifts me. My body changes over time. My needs, wants, hopes and desires change. When they are in flux, I may need to question them regularly to keep up at all.

I have ideas about who I have been and aspirations about where I might be going, but both of these can be wrong. We re-write our stories all the time, and I’m fine with that – it is necessary. The story I tell myself is not the story other people tell about me. There are plenty of other people’s stories in which I am a far better person than I appear to be when I look at me. There are also plenty of other people’s stories in which I am all the wrong things imaginable, and there are lots of those and they exist for reasons and some of those reasons are definitely of my making. Often they pertain to situations where I refused to do or be what was wanted of me.

There is a balance to strike between navel-gazing introspection, and looking outwards. We can’t entirely know ourselves by looking in, we have to get out there and do stuff, and see what we do and how we feel about it and what happens next. We have to engage with other people and see what they make of us and whether we agree with them. Too much introspection can create halls of mirrors in which we see reflections of who we imagine we are, ever more distorted by all the things about us we haven’t actually faced or dealt with…  Too little introspection and we can be at the mercy of anything – interior or exterior. We’re easily led and persuaded if we don’t know who we are or what we want.

I don’t always choose the right bits of my personality to squash down as unacceptable, or the right bits to bring forward into the light. I have a history of making poor judgements about what of me should be allowed, and what is too offensive to other people, what I’m entitled to and what I’m not. At least, right now I think those were bad choices, but a decade ago I thought they were wise and responsible choices. The opinion of future-me remains a mystery.

For all that I try to understand how my history impacts on my outlook, how my feelings affect my actions, how my actions inform my life… I also give myself permission not to know. To be perplexed and lost and confused sometimes – because those are important experiences too. I give myself permission to have no idea what’s going on or what I ought to be doing so as to make space for new things to come in. I give myself permission to change and to surprise myself. And as far as I can manage it, I am not going to let any story I have about how self aware I am become a reason to ignore anyone who doesn’t agree with me, or to reject input that doesn’t affirm to me how brilliantly self aware I am being. It’s a theory, at any rate.


Being attention hungry

I tend to be critical in my posts on drama, and attention seeking behaviour. I find it exhausting to deal with and I don’t feel much empathy for people who need to generate drama in order to be in the middle of things all the time, so I have challenged myself to try and look at this from some different angles.

Being attention hungry is a real thing. It can have deep roots going back into childhood. The need for affirmation can be all about low self esteem and lack of confidence. My answer to this comes from parenting – which is to reinforce the behaviour you want to see. Validate someone when they aren’t doing drama and you can change everything. Give people space and opportunity to prove themselves in other ways and they may not need to do drama at all. It definitely works with small children.

There’s an emotional intensity to drama. If life seems dull, thin and narrow, then drama can be an antidote to banality. People can end up creating it because they crave interest and excitement. That same intensity and excitement can draw people in who claim not to even like drama – I’ve certainly been that person. The answer is to find real stimulation and value, because drama tends to be empty, hollow and unsatisfying.

Just because it looks like drama to me, from the outside, doesn’t mean I’m right. I may have a poor grasp of what’s going on. I may not understand the significance of events, someone else’s triggers, how much they had invested, how much is at stake and so forth. I should not be too quick to discount other people’s problems. It may be more honest to say that I’m sorry but I just don’t have the spare energy right now, rather than making my inability to help the responsibility of the other person.

It may be that the person I’m dealing with feels very small and very powerless, and whipping up drama they are in the centre of is how they cope with this. If I support the drama, I may reinforce the idea that only drama makes them important or powerful. I should look at how I am treating them outside of drama situations and see if I can improve things there.

It may be that the person doing drama has learned growing up that this is the best way to get attention, or get things done. They may have learned habits of thought and behaviour from family members, or soap operas. If I get cross or upset with them over the drama, I can only feed into the drama and keep it attractive. I may be able to protect myself by very quietly withdrawing my energy from the situation. If I’m dealing with learned behaviour, then I need to model the behaviour I want to see rather than enacting the drama and then wondering why it won’t go away.

The problem could be one of perspective. People who have spent their lives in relative ease, privilege and comfort can get upset about things the rest of us find it hard to make sense of. If you expect life to be hard sometimes, then you just knuckle down and deal with the tough bits. If you expect it to all go effortlessly your way, then you may have no ability to cope when it doesn’t. Fragile egos, first world problems, and no perspective can have people whipping up drama around minor incidents because they don’t know how small their shit is. People who say they are triggered when they are uncomfortable, and so forth. Sucking up time and energy because of privilege isn’t cool, but education can be a slow process, and often an unwelcome one.

Drama and Anxiety

I hate drama, but anyone who has ever dealt with me when I’ve been panicking could easily assume that I love it. I expect I’m not alone on this, and that talking about the mechanics might be useful for people who find they are dealing with other people’s anxiety.

Anxious minds generally haven’t got there by themselves. The fear of failure, the need to psychically know and guard against any mishap, even the ones you could never have imagined… Experiences that mean you know exactly how it could spiral out of control leave anxious people hyper vigilant. We’re looking for trouble, for threats, for things that could go wrong because we’re trying to make sure they don’t go wrong. We may feel unreasonably responsible for making everything ok, and again, people who get to this point often don’t do so alone, they’ve been made responsible for things they have no control over, which is a damaging experience.

The anxious mind may be looking for the small, controllable thing that could be changed to avert the big disaster. Put that way, it may sound fairly logical, but in practice it means we may be constantly catastrophising. Small problems appear to us as really big problems in the making because experience has taught us to look at things that way. If anything starts going wrong, that threat gets bigger, and at those points I start seeing many, many means by which it could all play out in the worst possible ways. Anxiety plus a vivid imagination is a tortuous mix.

If a person is anxious because of historical trauma, then getting into a fear situation can trigger flashbacks and much deeper fear. It can go beyond being anxious, to being terrified, overwhelmed, being consumed with absolute panic. That in turn can look like some very random flailing from the outside. If you don’t know a person’s terrors, then what they do and say when gripped by terror may not make a lot of sense.

From  the outside, it isn’t easy to tell who is just enjoying being the centre of attention and who is mired in terror and misery. You may rightly not want to get involved with someone else’s wallowing in drama. If you’re a halfway decent person you probably also don’t want to add to the suffering of someone who has been triggered into a state of intense distress.

Look closely, and the anxious person will not be enjoying it. They won’t be drawing attention to their panic any more than they can avoid. They may also be anxious through to terrified about how people are even going to react to the state they are in. They are more likely to apologise (and in the case of people with an abuse history, apologise a lot and for things they clearly have no control over). They may not be able to hear reassurances or accept comfort easily but once they can, they will respond well to sources of safety and calm. Anxious people seek affirmation and safety, although we may use some convoluted routes to try and get there. Drama people seek escalation and attention. Anxious people are exhausted by terrifying episodes. Drama people feed on it.

The anxious person wants to be safe, and they want the people around them to be safe. The person who does drama for attention wants to be the centre of attention. In the heat of a stressful situation it can be hard to decide what you’re dealing with but I think it is possible to tell the two apart. If you ply a drama person with care and support, they will keep having more drama. It can take time to get an anxious person out of the loops and cycles of fear, but it is possible. Over time, a person can heal themselves but it helps if there’s a safe environment in which to do it. Treat an anxious person like they’re just making drama for the hell of it and you can make things a good deal worse for them, silencing them and limiting their scope to ask for help. The drama lover will just seek out a new audience if they aren’t getting the feedback they crave. Unfortunately, seeing what someone does with your disbelief can be the easiest way of identifying what’s going on. For the anxious person, that can mean yet more broken trust, yet more isolation and fear of asking for help.

Infinite love, finite time

I tend to think of love as at least an infinite possibility. It’s not something to guard jealously or ration out, the degree to which I love one person does not reduce the amount of love I might be able to feel for a second person. The bigger issue is the simple, practical point that as a living mammal, I have finite time.

Love, for me, is not simply a concept, it is a lived thing. Love without expression is of limited value. It might create some warm and fuzzy feelings for the person experiencing it, but it does nothing, changes nothing. Love in action is much more powerful. Love in action shows up, spends time, listens, does things with, or for the focus of this feeling.

This is not simply about people either. Love for the landscape takes you into the landscape. Love for the ancestors takes you to ancestral sites. Love for wild things takes you to where you may encounter those wild things. It requires you to know them, hear them, feel for them, help them, be active in your care for them.

All the same is true for people. If love is something we feel privately, stepped back from the world, it is a hollow sort of thing.  Love is better expressed by doing. In some contexts, that might have a sexual aspect to it, but energy, like time, is finite, and shagging people takes both time and energy, and doesn’t make sense in all contexts. Physical affection can of course exist without manifesting lust as well, but that too doesn’t work for all situations, and sometimes it doesn’t go far enough. What we do for each other, what we make for each other and what we make together is key here.

It is possible to hold the idea of love at a distance and without contact for any amount of time. However, what we hold then is the knowledge that we love and the idea that we are loved. Without active expression it can all get a bit speculative and one sided. Letters, phone calls, emails, packages in the post can affirm bonds of affection over great distance, where silence does not.

If love is something you do consciously, day to day, then the choices of how to deploy your time may shift. How much time will you give to people who do not care about you in the slightest? How much time will you give to time-wasters and people who just want to use you? How much of your life will you invest in superficial acquaintances? There is only so much time available to you, in which to love the people, places, creatures that you love. Every hour given to something you do not love, every hour squandered on someone who leaves you feeling empty is an hour you did not get to spend doing something your heart was in.

And while life may involve cycles, afterlives, reincarnation and such possibilities, this moment is only available to us once. Today is unique. Today’s possibilities are unique. Will you grasp them wholeheartedly, or let them be lost in something insignificant and forgettable?

Emotional processing

I have very little idea how other people deal with their emotions. Maybe most people are better at hiding things than I am. Maybe not everyone feels everything quite as keenly as I do. Maybe not everyone gets as exhausted by their own emotions. I don’t know. I haven’t the faintest idea what’s normal. Sometimes I feel very lost and out of kilter when trying to deal with other people. Sometimes the task of keeping all the feels tucked in, tidy, and out of sight takes all the effort I can muster.

One of the things I’ve found that helps, is having safe spaces in which I can vent, or pour out my emotions without it impacting on anyone else. Sometimes writing will do this. I still occasionally produce the same kind of angsty, self involved poetry I wrote in my teens. Why poetry so often bears the brunt of this kind of thing I am unsure.

I can’t do it with drawing, or painting or crafting. I suppose in part because in those forms, over emotionality translates into mistakes, and sometimes to accidentally stabbing myself with the tools. Sometimes cathartic, sometimes not.

I’ve always found music helpful. As a teen, bashing out Beethoven on the piano kept me sane. That, and drumming, which is a very safe place to leave your rage and frustration. In my twenties, when I was hurting too much to speak I let the violin speak for me, and it helped.

One of the great things about music is that you can do it with other people, pour all the excessive emotions into it and that be ok. No one ever complains about too much emoting with a violin. Folk music is generous with its tragic ballads as well, so public wallowing without obvious self pity can be a thing. If a song says everything you are feeling, then you can say everything you are feeling and no one has to make anything of it. Hiding it in plain sight, if you will.

Trigger anxieties

No one wants to be triggered. No one wants a panic attack, or a flashback, or any of the revisiting of fear and pain a trigger can bring. Alongside this, being triggered can become a fearful thing too, because of how other people react to it. This may well not be an exhaustive list.

Fear of being mocked, ridiculed and humiliated. Special Snowflake. Drama Queen. Attention seeker.

Fear that others will see you as weak, lacking in self control, over-reacting or unreasonable.

Fear of your triggering being used to prove some point – that you are useless, incapable, unreliable, attention seeking, fuss making… and thus shouldn’t be allowed something. As though what happens when you are triggered is a fair measure of you as a person.

Fear that the panic will be a justification to do something to you – remove power, jobs, titles, autonomy, children, opportunities.

Fear that if you talk to someone about having been triggered they will be hostile. Fear that they will react as though you are accusing them of something horrible even if you’re just asking for help. Fear of finding you can’t trust someone you thought you could trust, that they resent being asked to walk on eggshells. It’s hard to talk about this without making people uncomfortable. If you have poor self esteem, fear of making other people uncomfortable may seem more important than not being triggered by them. Fear of damaging relationships may make it tempting not to even say there’s a problem. Fear of the anger of the person who is cross with you because you made a fuss about being triggered.

None of these are hypothetical scenarios. I’ve either seen them happening or experienced them first hand. I think a lot of it comes from a lack of understanding about what triggering means. This is not helped by a mainstream media prone to ridiculing things like trigger warnings. There are a lot of people out there suffering from trauma. We can choose to add to that, or we can choose to try and help each other as best we can.

Sensual, not sexualised

We all get a barrage of information about how we are supposed to be sexually, and what we are supposed to find attractive. I grew up in a hetra-normative environment, and like many queer people my age and older, I had no words for how I am for too long. I grew up with clear messages about what my apparently female body should look like and do, that my clothes could be my consent, and that my clothes should be sexualised and consenting. And that at the same time it wasn’t ok to be a slut.

All the things I’ve been told to find attractive in men – status symbols, big muscles, dominating personalities – I don’t find sexy in anyone. There’s nothing I find more unattractive than the ‘alpha male’ who takes without asking. The person bold enough to ask for what they want? Now, that’s sexy.

At the personal level, there have been plenty of people in the past – some who were lovers, some were not – who wanted to tell me who I was and what it meant. People who wanted to define my identity for me, describe my sexual identity for me, translate my presence on sexual terms for me – and I think this is normal, because mainstream culture is rife with it and it is what we learn to do to each other.

For a while now I’ve been asking what happens if I reject all notions of the male gaze when considering what to wear. The male gaze of my bloke isn’t an issue on this score, he likes me, and he likes me being happy, all I have to do is show up. I don’t have to dress and act a part for him.

I’ve started asking what happens if I have a sexual identity that begins with how I feel, and not with anything coming at me from outside. A sense of physical self rooted in how my body is and what it enjoys and responds to, not what the culture I live in would have me believe I should enjoy and respond to. What immediately struck me as soon as I began exploring this, is that what comes from me is a far more sensual state of being than a sexual one.

Part of this is practical. With the best will in the world, actual shagging can only take up so much of a person’s time. Issues of chaffing and energy and all that. A sensual state of being is much more available, and much more possible in all kinds of contexts. I realise that I want to form a more tactile relationship with the world around me. I want to touch more – plants, stones and soil especially. I recognise how affected I am by sun and wind on skin, by being in water.

For many reasons, I did not have a very tactile relationship with the world as a child. I expect I’m not alone in that. Adults certainly aren’t supposed to paddle in puddles, stroke trees, put their faces against rocks just for the joy of doing it. We are to dress for how it looks, not for how it feels. We are to touch other humans for sexual purposes or not at all. We are allowed to have sensual, non-sexual relationships with our pets.

I go forth to experiment, to find out who I am if I just put the whole notion of sexual identity down for a while and explore sensual identity instead. I’ll report back if there are any interesting discoveries along the way.

Facing a trigger

There is a world of difference between causing anxiety, and triggering. Anxiety is unpleasant, no two ways about it, but a trigger will give a person a flashback to a situation of trauma. It is possible to tackle anxiety by facing up to the sources of fear – and of course the less well founded the fear is, the more effective this is. Sometimes we end up scared of things for no good reason and we have to retrain ourselves to deal with stuff. I’ve done some of this along the way, I’ve found CBT approaches really useful.

The worst thing to do to someone who suffers PTSD is to make them revisit the trauma. Untreated trauma, and trauma revisited can build up layers of additional triggers and problems. Been there too. I don’t have a PTSD diagnosis because the doctor I was seeing when that would have been most useful didn’t want to send me for tests – not because he thought there was no issue, he just didn’t want to send me for tests, and I didn’t have the energy to fight him. Every single professional person I encountered over a period of years – doctors, police, solicitors, social workers and the like, every last one of them required me to retell what had happened. That’s a lot of deep retriggering, often in situations where being distressed put me at a significant disadvantage. I have no idea if being able to name a diagnosis would have helped.

Triggering happens because something is too associated with the original trauma, and brings it all back. This is why trigger warnings matter – on obvious things like child abuse, torture, extreme cruelty and rape it is worth warning people because anyone who has experienced that will suffer enormously if they come upon it unprepared. This isn’t like pushing past fear of going outside to go outside – because in that example, you go outside and you probably don’t face a terrible thing. Being triggered means facing a terrible thing. So on the whole, facing down a trigger is not the ideal way to deal with it.

The further removed the trigger is from the trauma, the more chance you have of taking it out. You need to stack up a lot of time feeling safe and secure first. There is no real scope for dealing with triggers while you’re still in a dangerous situation. I’ve written before about how I have overcome being panicked by post. I’ve got that down to just a bit anxious, now. The reason I had become so panicked by post, was that terrifying things came in envelopes for some years. Many of those terrifying things came from my solicitors, and every envelope represented a bill that would cripple me financially for good measure. Between this and the deliberate retriggering described above, I’ve been totally unable to deal with most people in a professional capacity for some years now.

Yesterday I went to see a solicitor about making a will. The same family solicitors company responsible for all that letter sending. I let a professional person ask questions about my life. But, because it was a will, we didn’t get into the stuff I never want to have to talk about again. And I knew upfront what it would cost. The appointment letter, when it came in the post, made me feel bodily sick, but I weathered it. I’ve kept reminding myself that I’m in charge of this process. Perhaps next year I will find the means to go and talk to a doctor – and it will be a different doctor – about things that are wrong with me.

It has taken me years to get to the point where I feel like I can do this. Years of kindness and support on the domestic front. Years of rebuilding my sense of self. It is possible to challenge a trigger, but it is not something to rush towards. Only the person dealing with the trigger can say when it might be worth having a go.

Privilege and Pain

How do we make sense of each other’s pain? If someone is suffering, all we know is what we can see, what we’ve experienced and what we imagine. We guess, we judge, we decide whether to take them seriously or not. We call for an ambulance, or we tell them not to make a fuss.

I’ve seen rather too many statistics say that women’s pain is taken less seriously than men’s. I’ve also seen plenty to suggest that fat people in pain are taken less seriously than thin people. Black people may also find it harder to get taken seriously than white people. When it comes to the business of other people’s pain, we bring our prejudices to the table and judge accordingly. People who are wealthy and deemed important will have the slightest health issue jumped on – perhaps because they can pay people to do just that. The rest of us will have to make our case, and may be met with suspicion and disbelief.

As a child I was told I had a very low pain threshold. The implication was that I made too much fuss about things that hurt me – cuts, bruises, splinters etc. As an adult dealing with children, I’ve seen far greater reactions over far less. Not least because children have little to compare a hurt to, and are far more shocked by it. Often it’s the shock they most need you to help them with. There’s a balance to strike between helping a child keep their experiences in perspective, and comforting them.

Into adult life, it is often the people with least experience of pain who make the most fuss about it. The people for whom pain is not normal, are the people most keen to avoid it. I recall being told that a person just couldn’t go for a run unprepared, they would hurt themselves. Well yes, they might make their muscles sore, certainly. I don’t run often, because the jolting hurts my body too much, but when I’ve had a go, I’ve been in pain before I started. It must make it hard for an observer to make sense of me. I walk for transport, I do long walks, I dance when I can – it doesn’t mean I don’t hurt, it’s just that I choose not to be ruled by that hurt.

There are many conditions that mean living with pain. You choose how much you can do and what you can take, or what you’re obliged to take in order to work.  With the safety net ever harder to access, people who don’t know you may make superficial judgements about your pain and thus your right to time to rest and heal. Some things can be recovered from if people are allowed to rest and heal. Some things are more readily managed without piling on the economic pressure. The question now isn’t whether you should work, it’s whether you can. A person who is in constant physical pain can indeed work. I do so. I don’t think anyone should be obliged to, though.

I don’t look like I’m in pain. I’m not pulling dramatic faces or making sad noises, I don’t limp or have a sling, I only use a stick for longer walks over more challenging terrain. And like a great many other people in similar circumstances, I can’t prove to anyone how much my body hurts. This means we are easy to dismiss. If we’re inconvenient, we can be ignored. If we can’t do something we can be told off for not trying, not pulling our weight. It is really easy to deny, ignore and denigrate someone whose pain does not manifest in ways you can easily observe.

And then there are the people who feel I should deal with my pain in the manner of their prescribing. If I don’t, I’m not taking it seriously, not trying hard enough. Or I was lying in the first place. It can be frustrating to say the least, and I don’t have to take as much of this as some people will. As far as I can see, there’s a definite parallel between who gets to have their pain taken seriously, and who has other kinds of privileges going on. It all seems to fall out along the same lines, and that stands some thinking about.

When People are Troublesome

Here’s a very useful line of thought which I got from Alain du Botton. It goes like this. When small babies are grumpy, shouty or otherwise horrible, we check their nappies, burp them, see if they need to sleep, or we feed them. We wonder if they are teething. More often than not, what’s wrong can be put right. When adults are inexplicably funny with us, we infer meaning, and we get unhappy too and that seldom fixes anything.

Low blood sugar, insufficient sleep, trapped wind, and countless other simple body issues affect the moods of adults, too. On top of that we have all our baggage to lug about as well. For some time now, I’ve tried to factor this in when dealing with people. Sometimes I can just go for simple physical interventions to see if it helps, sometimes I just imagine that the reason a person is odd isn’t about me, but about them. At the very least, it helps me not to make worse an already awkward situation.

I’ve started applying it to myself as well. If I know I’m being crappy and short tempered, I check through for obvious physical things, and try things that might alleviate problems. If I know there’s a problem with me – for example if I’m in a lot of pain – I say so, in the hopes that the people around me will know not to take me too personally. I tell the people who live with me if I’m bleeding, or I think I’m pre-menstrual, so they know what’s going on. Hopefully, this helps. It certainly helps me take better care of me.

I think part of the problem is that we’ve inherited a culture that thinks body things are vulgar and not to be mentioned. We can’t tell people we’re menstruating! Or constipated! The horror! Instead we are to present a stiff upper lip and pretend everything is fine. Of course this means a lot of stuff comes out sideways. There’s nothing like trying to pretend you don’t feel awful for making a person over react to small things gone awry.

If we’re allowed to be honest about body issues, we can be kinder to each other. We can understand each other better and not build up layers of overthinking and anxiety around our interactions. If we assume that as grown up people we are basically big babies, we may be better able to recognise when someone just needs a pat on the back.