Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Owls and flowers, a divided self

I first encountered Blodeuwedd as a child, and was instantly struck by the woman who is made of flowers and turned into an owl. From very early on I understood flowers as pretty, delicate, socially acceptable femininity. Owls were clearly dangerous – night creatures, predators, pointy and unacceptable. I was already encountering issues with my own unacceptability.

Through my teens, I focused on trying to keep the flower face visible, and to hide my owls. I found that my ideas, passions, hungers, needs were all things the people around me didn’t much like. I tucked them away. Somewhere around that time I also encountered the language of seelie and unseelie, and that seemed like a good match, too. I have my acceptable, hard working, house elf seelie self, and my dark, unspeakable other half. I became increasingly troubled by my unseelie owl side, and kept on squashing it down.

It’s only as that side of me resurfaces that I properly appreciate what it is. Much of my confidence, my ease in my own body, my sexuality and passion is tied up with my unseelie side. Wicked humour, and a willingness to be considerably less gentle with people who mess me about. Self defence, and self assertion, going after what I want and need for me, rather than what everyone else wants and needs… these are the things a younger me deemed unacceptable and hid away in the darkness and did not speak of.

The best of my creative energy comes from the parts of me that I’ve deliberately suppressed. Perhaps it has an impact on my physical energy too – that remains to be seen. My scope to be fierce, intense, full on, and to feel more wholly myself is part of what I have called my unseelie side.

I have ventured to let parts of this out before, in brief, uneasy forays, and then watched people I loved back away from me. I had considered this part of me unlovable. This time, as I’ve started easing off the mute button, and taking off the flower mask, I’ve found welcome and encouragement for what’s underneath. This is the point in the story when I get to say yes, you wanted me to be flowers, because that was easy and convenient for you. I am not what you wanted to turn me into. I am myself, and I have claws.


Intuition, ill health and uncertainty

As a much younger human, I trusted my intuition, but through my twenties I became ever less able to do so. For a long time I’ve had incidents that make it difficult to tell what I’m dealing with.

Anxiety will tell you that something is terribly wrong. Depression will tell you that there’s no point even trying, it’s all hopeless. Stress will tell you that you have to keep going, flat out no matter what. Problems with bodily health can feel like psychic attacks, premonitions or signs. If you start buying into these as intuitions of the truth, what you do is reinforce whatever is wrong with you. But at the same time, none of these conditions turn your intuition off, so that can also mean missing important insights.

I don’t think intuition is a ‘woo-woo’ issue, at least not all the time. We take in vast amounts of information – far more than we are consciously aware of. We do most of our processing unconsciously. Thus often what we experience as a magic thing happening, is really our brains having worked through what we’d got. Those ping moments of inspiration, eureka, and intuition aren’t at odds with reasoned thinking, they’re just one mechanism amongst many. At the same time, if your take on reality has room for truly magical things to happen, well, sometimes what we intuit can be so far removed from what we had information about, that this seems plausible.

The question remains, how to tell one from another? Just because you’re feeling anxious, doesn’t mean you’re paranoid. Just because you’re depressed doesn’t mean nothing is crushing you down.  In the last few years I’ve let go of the idea that my intuition is totally broken, unreliable and best ignored, and started making space for it. I’ve started trying to tease out those threads of mental health, hormonal activity, body feelings and so forth to get a better picture of what’s going on in my life.

I’ve come up with a couple of things I think are useful. Firstly, checking in with someone else. Most mental health issues make it difficult to trust your own judgement or perceptions. If there’s a person you really trust, being able to run things past them can be helpful. Am I being paranoid? What’s the most likely source of this experience? What’s your perception? It is worth being wary because two people intent on out-wooing each other can build layer upon layer of imagined things and end up convinced that they’re at the centre of a magical war or some such (I do not jest, I’ve seen it happen). If you can help each other think critically, all well and good. If not, it may do more harm than good.

My other solution is to give my intuition defined outlets – divination tools to play with where the interpretations do not depend so much on my own mental state. Oracle cards are great for this. It gives me a cross reference for the body feeling. Do the cards reinforce what I’m experiencing, or are they at odds with it, or do they cast the whole thing in a different light? It’s also a way of honouring and making space for my intuition rather than wholly distrusting it, and I feel better for being able to do that.

Working when ill

It’s something I’ve done a lot of over many years. One of the advantages of being self employed is that you have some flexibility when sick. You also have no scope whatsoever for sick pay, often there’s no one who can cover for you, and being ill can be expensive in that it can cost you future work. Increasingly, conventional workplaces seem to be pressuring people to work when ill as well.

I know from experience that I’m considerably less efficient when ill. It plays havoc with my concentration. I move slowly, making more mistakes, my judgements are never as good, I don’t have good ideas. There isn’t an ailment out there that won’t be easier and quicker to deal with if you’re able to rest, and won’t be exacerbated by additional stress. And some illnesses are contagious, and taking those to visit other people isn’t nice. The idea of keeping a human working when they’re sick clearly isn’t informed by anything real about the implications of illness.

Over time, there’s a bigger and more insidious impact to working when ill. It dehumanises you. It takes away the sense of being a proper person with the same rights as other people. You’re just a thing to keep slogging along to get the work done. This is one of the ways in which a physical health problem can easily develop into mental health problems as well. Exhausted, demoralised people who are obliged to keep suffering are likely to end up with low self esteem, anxiety and depression at the very least.

I will do the things I absolutely have to do, and then I’m heading back to bed with a book – because I can, and it’s a far better idea. There will be many other people obliged to work a full day today, despite being sick. Some of those people will be doing unpaid domestic work, but that doesn’t guarantee you respite, either. Given that the amount of work available is decreasing as people are replaced by machines, we could collectively square up to this and bring in a citizen’s income, so that no one has to work full time, and no one has to work when they’re ill. Failing that, better worker’s rights and a better social safety net would be a great help.

The Parallel World of Pain

My understanding is that for many people, pain is not normal. It’s a sign to stop, to rest, to not start things. Exhaustion is another thing that many people take as a sign to quit. I’ve had conversations where people have told me things like how terrible it would be if you hurt yourself doing exercise, and that I shouldn’t do something until I’m entirely well…

For most of my life, if I waited to be pain free, not exhausted and feeling well, I’d never get to do anything. The only way to exercise is to deal with a body that hurts before I’ve even started. If I want to do anything much, I have to push. Sometimes it feels a bit like living in a parallel universe. People I encounter have such a different experience of life, such different assumptions about what’s ok and what isn’t. I know it’s not just me.

It’s easy to imagine if you see someone doing something, that they’re fine. No one can see what it costs, at the time, or afterwards. Sometimes I choose to pay that cost, because otherwise I don’t get to dance or do longer walks.

There’s an ongoing emotional cost to pushing a body that hurts into doing things. People who live in the parallel world of pain can have very different emotional experiences from those who don’t. It may be that you get by through learning to tune out your body. It’s awkward for someone with a nature based faith where embodiment matters. It’s emotionally exhausting, and leaves you feeling like you’re less than the people who can afford to be present all the time. Sometimes, you end up so out of it that you can’t really think because there’s so much to tune out.

Living in the parallel world, it is hard to make choices about what is and is not a good idea. The regular road map for the territory assumes you are well. How much sleep, exercise, food, rest etc you officially need isn’t much use, but there’s really no one to tell you what might be worth considering. What’s the right balance for a body that doesn’t start from the assumed position of a morning?

We only have our own experiences to guide us. This means that for a person in the normal world, where pain is occasional and the rules for dealing with it are clear, people in the parallel world are confusing. I don’t think it’s possible to imagine what long term pain does at a mental/emotional level if you haven’t endured it. I also don’t think it’s easy to understand the rest of the life impact either, not without making some effort. It helps when people can recognise that there are other people whose experiences are totally different from their own.

We’re not making a fuss.  We tend to make far less fuss over pain experienced than people who are generally pain-free do if hurting. We’re not doing it for attention. Whether you think we have low pain thresholds or not, is irrelevant. We don’t want unsolicited medical advice from people who have no real experience to draw on. We don’t want to be told what to do. We don’t want to be told that we should be more positive, more grateful, or that like attracts like and we’re doing it to ourselves. These are not helpful suggestions, they are toxic acts and as cruel as they are unreasonable. If you don’t understand what’s going on, consider that we live in a parallel universe and the rules are different here.

Contexts for depression

One of the things that makes it difficult to ask for help around depression, is that depression takes away any feeling that it is worth asking for help. It leaves me feeling that I am worth far less than anyone I might inconvenience with my distress. I feel that it would be better to make no fuss, to hide it, or to go away. However, alongside this it is worth noting that most depression is caused by experiences, not body chemistry, so not being able to ask for help usually means not being able to do anything about the source of the problem.

I blogged recently about anger and humiliation, and it’s become apparent to me how this intersects with depression. It’s often said that depression is anger turned inwards, but it is also the experience of dealing with people who get angry when you express difficulty. It’s being afraid to say there’s a problem in case you bringing it up is a bigger issue than you being unhappy. If the angry defensive response of the person who hurt you in the first place is likely to be even more harmful than the original harm, you soon learn not to say anything.

The person who has gone a few rounds with people who didn’t care, wouldn’t deal with issues, only wanted to be comfortable… that person learns not to make a fuss. They learn that their mental health is less important, while other people being comfortable at all times is more important. They learn that they are not worth as much as the people who get angry with them. The more exposure to this you get, the more you are likely to internalise it. The more you internalise it, the more likely you are to beat yourself up, not seek help, and view any situation in which your ‘illness’ has made someone else uncomfortable, as a potential threat to you.

As a culture, we make depression an issue for the individual, with cure a personal thing to sort out. I can say with confidence that it is nigh on impossible to fix this kind of dynamic while being in it. This is an example of the sort of thing where the behaviour of third parties can change everything. Do you encourage people to paper over the cracks, not make a fuss? Do you take people seriously if they admit they have a problem? Do you step in if one person seems to have far too much of the power in a situation? Do you challenge people who won’t look at their own issues or do you tacitly support their behaviour by staying silent?

When we do nothing, we support the person with the most power. When we do nothing, we facilitate the aggressors and bullies, and the people who refuse to take responsibility for their actions and inaction. Not getting involved is not an act of holding the middle ground, it is not an act of neutrality. Doing nothing is how we help bullies carry on, how we let abusers off the hook, and how we fail to tackle people who, unwittingly perhaps, are really piling the shit on those around them. Doing nothing and saying nothing sends a clear message that we have no problem with what’s going on. If more people were willing to be a bit uncomfortable now and then, many people would not have to spend their lives mired in utter despair and misery.

Anger and humiliation

Put in the same sort of situation, some people respond with defensive anger, and others feel shame, humiliation and guilt. As far as I can make out, the response has more to do with the person than their circumstances.

The person who is defensively angry often won’t take responsibility for things gone awry. They don’t change, or it will take a great deal of pushing to persuade them change is in order. The plus side for them is that they maintain feelings of personal integrity and worth, they don’t end up doubting and mistrusting themselves, they are more confident and remain able to stand their ground.

The person who responds with guilt, shame and feeling humiliated will try and change themselves to fix things. They’ll take responsibility, even when there’s nothing they can really do. Humiliated people lose confidence and self esteem, and become less able to protect their own boundaries. There will be times when being able to learn and change things will be to their benefit, but often this kind of response will be costly.

Put together two people, one who does defensive anger and one who does guilt, and what will happen is that one party does not change at all, and the other becomes responsible for everything. If it’s easy to make the humiliation-prone person responsible for everything, then the defensive person may become even less inclined to keep an eye on their own responsibilities.

Put two defensive people together and you’ll get a lot of arguments and not much resolution. Point scoring and trying to blame the other will feature heavily, but things will only change if one person succumbs to being the guilty party. The most likely resolution is to pull away from each other.

It’s when you put two people who can be shamed and humiliated together that you can see what’s going on. Two people who take things to heart, take responsibility and are prepared to change in order to fix things, will negotiate. They’re more likely to try and figure out what the real issues are, rather than just trying to blame each other. As both are likely to feel responsible, they will look for ways to work together in order to create solutions. When two easily humiliated people are working together, the net result is often not one of humiliation, but of cooperation and real change.

I’ve noticed bystanders are often persuaded that the defensive anger equates to innocence and those who are shamed are guilty, and this doesn’t help at all. How people respond is a reflection of who they are, and not a reflection of what happened.

And most things, it has to be said, are better dealt with by working together rather than blaming, or making one person entirely responsible.

There is scope for choice here, in the moment of discomfort. Do we make space to look at it and see what we could have done better? Or do we throw up walls and refuse to engage, lashing back at the person who dared to make us feel uncomfortable? In practice we all need to be able to field both responses, but for many of us it’s one or the other.

The value of being bored

Now that we have screens, we can take amusement with us into any and every situation. Headphones, and perhaps a battery of some sort, and you will never be bored again. Children will never be bored again. What progress!

Except that boredom has a value for adults and children alike.

I grew up in a rather boring place, and at the risk of sounding old and clichéd, we had to make our own fun. I am no doubt richer for that. As I see it, the entire folk music tradition comes from bored people with limited resources obliged to make their own fun. Pubs exist for people to gather and amuse themselves. Or you’d have to go out and kick a football around rather than watch someone doing it for a lot of money.

Boredom is the parent of creativity and innovation. Being bored now and then is good for us because it spurs us to come up with solutions, or get off our bottoms and go somewhere more interesting. If the little screen of endless distraction is always there, you never get chance to do that. Big dreams come out of idle wondering. Big visions come out of empty days, if we use that space. The urge to make and do, to meet and encounter comes from a feeling of lack. What we get when we fill some of our time from our own resources does more to nourish us than staring blankly at little time killers.

Last night on my way home I saw a group of kids heading towards the park to do poi and such like, so it’s evident that the little screens aren’t stopping everyone from having a good night out. That cheers me greatly.

Many of us live in an overstimulating reality, plying our brains with more information than they can take in. It’s good to stop, do nothing, be bored and let your mind catch up once in a while.

Personal tectonic plates are moving

I learned a lot of things about myself this week. I notice that it takes me days to process emotions. I can’t respond fully in the moment. Tom suggests this is because I don’t let myself, and I don’t let myself because I don’t feel safe.

In the moment, control feels more important, a lot of the time. The priority is to stay calm, reasonable and not expressive so as not to cause anyone else trouble. I’ll need to get away by myself to howl, to rage, even to celebrate. It’s not a conscious choice, it’s what my body does.

I realise that this must make me weird to deal with. That I don’t manifest obvious emotional responses at the time, but may talk about them later could easily make me look like I’m faking. Immediacy is one of the things that makes emotions seem real to other people. But, with all due reference to the title of this blog post, what happens with me is like tectonic plate movement, and where and when the volcano or the earthquake happens doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you know about the plates.

Emotion is so easily used to invalidate people. Tone policing, ‘calm down dear’ responses, being told not to make a fuss… The person who expresses things emotionally can find that their emotions become the issue, not the thing that caused the emotions. Equally, my tendency to the delayed response and being able to talk about it calmly has led to suggestions that I’m an ice queen, that there is no genuine feeling going on and that I’m just trying to emotionally blackmail people.

The conclusion I’ve come to is that often there is no win with this kind of thing. If you’re dealing with someone who has no space for how you feel and finds it inconvenient, how you handle it won’t make any odds. Express, and you’re silly and over reacting. Don’t express, and you’re lying about how you feel. On the whole my conclusion is that I need to focus on better spaces and pay attention to when my body feels more able to be present to my emotional experiences.

Living with fear

I’ve had some years now in which to study the mechanics of anxiety as they manifest in my own life. There are things I’ve learned about fear that I think have a wider significance at the moment. We live with many things that cause anxiety – massive uncertainty and insecurity about jobs, money, the political future, climate change – even for people in relatively secure, relatively privileged positions, there’s plenty to feel uneasy about.

Anxious people do not make good decisions. If you’ve been locked into fear for any length of time, it will be easy to frighten you into doing things. Fear of it getting worse becomes a motivator, so threats have more impact. If people, especially people with power tell us there are threats, we are more likely to believe them.

We are more readily persuaded to run when we’re frightened. The good old fight or flight impulse will be holding our inner steering wheels. For some, this comes out as fight, for a redirection of anxiety into violent action. It’s easy to hate and blame when you’re in fight mode, easy to be persuaded to hate and blame. Flight mode make it easy to persuade you to run, and as running away isn’t always an option, that can be subverted into other kinds of running hard. Working flat out. Never daring to stop and draw breath.

Exhausted people don’t make good decisions. Fear itself is exhausting. Fighting mode is exhausting. Flight mode is exhausting. After a while, any apparently easy solution looks tempting. We don’t have the resources to scrutinise, to consider alternatives, to think about nuances. We just want someone to tell us where the quickest, easiest path out is. Fear makes it hard to think straight, or to see the lie in the apparent easy option.

On a domestic scale, these issues are all part of what can keep an abused person in an abusive situation. We’re seeing it at a country level. It makes us easy to manipulate, and anyone offering an apparently easy answer – however empty and stupid that answer is – seems far more persuasive than they should.

We can stop this, we can turn it around. It won’t be easy. We have to not feed into each other’s fight and flight reflexes. The idea that hard work will save us needs to go, just as much as the idea that hating the ‘other’ will save us. Hate can be just as much a panic response as running round in little circles.

Our government has had periods of talking about the country as though it was one big house. In the austerity household, there’s been a lot of suffering for ages. Like a domestic abuse victim, we need to recognise it isn’t our fault we’re in this mess. We need to see the tactics of our abusers. They say they are helping, only doing it for our own good, that it is necessary, and the only way. They lie, as all domestic abusers lie. We need to stop letting them persuade us and manipulate us and control us with fear. But, be warned, in a domestic abuse context, leaving is the most dangerous time, and there’s no reason to think this will be any different.

Relationship stories and questions of self

For most of my life, relationships of all shapes have been difficult for me. It started at fourteen with the boyfriend who found me too serious, and that refrain has carried on through friendships and love affairs alike. Too intense. Too much. Too difficult. From teenage onwards I had the keen sense that most of my interactions with people would depend on my ability to fake it. If I failed to be comfortable and convenient to them, there would be no one. I developed a story that I am no good at relationships.

There have been people ready to play this story out with me at regular intervals. I doubt they will ever cease to show up and expect me to be exactly what they want, when they want it, and to turn it off like a tap when that’s not convenient. They want the work I can do because I care passionately about things. They want the raw creativity and sometimes they want the ego boost of being the focus of my intensity, but they want to be in control, un-obliged and easy about not bothering with me when it does not suit them.

So, I learned to hide. I learned to mask intense attachments and passionately falling in love with people. I learned to mask hunger for specific company, and wild delight in being around others. I learned not to say things like I miss you, I love you, I wish I could have more time with you. Every so often I’d take a risk on someone and let them see something a bit more authentic, and nine times out of ten they would turn out to prefer the carefully faked me. The one in ten folk have been precious beyond all words, and are not, it turns out, afraid to be that valuable.

What makes it tricky is that there are people who play at being serious, intense, wholehearted and authentic. They wear it as a costume, because they like how it looks on them. They often enjoy drama, which I don’t. It’s all too easy to get drama and intensity muddled up. But, after the arm flapping and the big words, there’s nothing to back it up, and they move on to their next little game.

I’ve found along the way that other intense, deeply feeling, passionate people don’t do this. They aren’t quick to self announce, often having been through the grinder themselves. They don’t want drama. I discover that my longstanding story is wrong. I can do relationships, but only interact well with certain kinds of people. Give me people who feel keenly and think deeply, and good things will tend to follow. I can’t deal with superficial folk, drama queens, or the ones who are there for cheap kicks and inclined to move on when they’ve taken what they wanted. People who feel threatened by the idea of love, who are panicked by the suggestion of being needed, and who can’t bear to let anything mean too much.

When you think no one can accept you as you are, it is easy to get locked into trying to appease people who are never going to be ok with you. It’s not a good way to live, it sucks the joy and colour out of life. If you are a passionate, wholehearted, intensely feeling sort of creature, then only people of the same ilk can and will answer the yearnings of your soul.