Tag Archives: emotion

Learning to cry

I was bullied a fair bit as a child. I learned that mostly what bullies want is to make you cry, and that when you cry, the childhood ones soon lose interest. I learned to cry quickly, that to get it over and done with was safest. I did not cry for myself then, I was crying to placate other people with my pain and humiliation.

Somewhere in my early teens I changed tack. I wasn’t going to be humiliated any more. I wasn’t going to give anyone the satisfaction of making me cry. And so, in a determined way I became someone who mostly did not cry in front of other people. I became emotionally unavailable. There were still people intent on reducing me to tears, but I didn’t co-operate with them anymore. It didn’t solve everything, but I liked me better as someone stony and refusing to show distress.

In my twenties, the man I was married to told me that all of my emotional expressions were suspect and seemed manipulative. What tears there were he treated as emotional blackmail. I tried harder with the not crying around anyone. At this point, in my forties, I’m really good at not crying. I’m so good at it that I don’t reliably let out emotions that I need to express and I’m working to change this.

It does help to go off on my own. Making solitary physical space to cry in makes it easier to let go. Having people around me who will let me go off and deal with my feelings in this way is also really helpful.  I notice that comforting me shuts me down, so I’ve started asking the people I am closest to not to do that, and to give me the space to cry. If I need to cry I don’t really want to be soothed, which feels like pressure to stop crying.

I’m going to be working on this. Giving myself permission to cry. Giving myself space to cry. Treating my tears as acceptable and necessary, and not something to be ashamed of. Yes, emotional expressions from me may not always be comfortable for everyone else, but I’m learning to be ok with that. At the moment, I am safe, and the people around me are not going to become dangerous to me if I make them feel slightly uncomfortable. I’m also not dealing with anyone for whom making me cry is entertaining and there is no one in my life using my tears to disempower me. I can afford to cry.

Unexpressed grief is a heavy thing to carry. Letting that out of my body might be messy, but it will be better moving forward.


Learning to be angry

Anger is the emotion I struggle with. Other people’s anger can drop me into a state of panic. My own anger frightens me as well. For much of my life what’s happened is that I’ve managed to feel it – anything from crossness onwards – for perhaps a minute or two, and then it crumbles away into despair, or turns around and becomes self hatred. I’ve spent too long in spaces where everything was always my fault, and getting angry would only have made things more dangerous. When you can’t safely express dislike in a calm way, you certainly can’t lose your temper.

I’ve carried the fear that if I did get angry, it would be like the crushing experience of other people being angry with me. I would become what I loathe and fear. Horror in response to my own anger has kept me from looking at those feelings.

Anger has a lot of protective qualities, and I’ve seen that in other people. Anger can be a fair response, defending boundaries and pushing back against injustice. These are aspects of anger that I need in my life. In my history, their absence made me more vulnerable.

I’ve had two powerful experiences with anger recently. One came as a response to the heady mix of entitlement and wilful ignorance – a man who wanted to talk to me about how hard it is being heterosexual. I had an intense rage response, which I did not manifest and pointed out that queer people are subject to violence and ostracism and he isn’t… and when he tried to argue with me, I walked out. Feeling like being straight makes you ‘uncool’ is not the same as fearing physical violence. I did not stay to be wound up by him, or to waste energy trying to educate him. I did not support his view of himself as a victim – I’ve seen him try to do this before.

My second round with anger was brief and more nuanced. I was decidedly angry about something, and that anger enabled me to say a clear ‘no’ where previously I might have had trouble holding my boundaries. That of itself was both useful and powerful. It took me about half an hour to stop being angry, and then a whole bunch of things became visible – that I could see the other person had acted in error, not malice, and that no great damage had been done. I could also see that by holding my boundaries I had not only protected myself, but the other person as well – if we’d played out that mistake there would have been distress all round. I avoided that.

Protective anger has the scope to protect everyone in a situation. Anger is not an inherently unreasonable emotion – it’s taken me a long time to see that. It isn’t innately destructive. It certainly isn’t always a bad thing.

I’m going to be making more space for the quieter part of the anger spectrum – for crossness, frustration, annoyance, irritation and things of that ilk. I’m going to make sure I hold them carefully when they show up and that I look at them properly. I’m going to include them in my decision-making. Anger does not make me a terrible person. So long as I’m dealing with decent people, there should be room for getting irritable, annoyed and frustrated, and dealing with it appropriately – not with tantrums and power games, but with reasonable expression of what’s felt, moving towards making whatever changes are necessary.

Emotionally speaking, I have a whole new landscape to explore, and I think it’s one that will benefit me greatly.


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.


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.


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.


Making space for the feels

For much of my life, I’ve had external pressures making me feel emotionally unacceptable. Along the way I’ve been mocked, shamed, humiliated and punished for expressing my feelings. I’ve loved people dearly only to find them horrified by any expression of my loving them dearly. I’ve been told my expressed emotions are so extreme as to seem fake. Ridiculous, over the top, drama queen, attention seeking… you get the idea.

And so I learned to mute myself. To not say a good 90% of whatever I feel. To understate, make tame and easy and comfortable everything that goes on inside me. I’ve crushed myself to avoid having to deal with others crushing me. I’ve known for a long time that this process, whether it comes from within or without, has a ghastly effect on my mental health. But I’ve also learned how to put a poker face on and hide that as well. It seems fair to assume that the people who habitually dismissed me would also dismiss mental breakdowns as further attention seeking and fuss making.

In recent years I have benefited from safer and more supportive space and it has allowed me to stretch and experiment a little. I find that if I make some space for me in which I can be totally honest about how I feel, that I don’t take damage. Often this means getting some time alone (bathrooms are excellent for this) and holding a few minutes of space where I can feel the unacceptable thing. Anger, frustration, resentment, envy, bitterness – these are often the most trouble to express. However, I can have a fair amount of trouble with joy, pain, sorrow… I’m still not easy about crying over films in company.

If I make some space for me, and properly acknowledge what I’m feeling and treat it with respect, then hiding it feels very different. I am not made smaller. I am not crushing myself.

There are a lot of things I cope with by bullshitting. Physical pain is a constant in my life. Depression and anxiety are often present in my head. I’m often short of energy. I don’t find that dwelling on these helps me, and I prefer, for my own dignity and comfort, to put a good face on it. But this also means that most people are dealing with my fakery, and have no idea what’s really going on. Recently I’ve been experimenting with saying how things are but acting as I normally act. I’m working out who responds well to that information, who shares honestly in return, and who says ‘how are you?’ as a social gesture expecting ‘fine thank you how are you’ as the only possible reply. Because it’s not about genuine care, it’s about presenting socially in the right way.

I also find that where I make space deliberately for other people to be honest with me, and they take me up on that, I feel more confident about expressing myself. It gets easier to do the good stuff, too. To be exuberant, wholehearted, affectionate, to laugh wildly, and all those things, in the company of people who have room for it. Once again I find myself obliged to point out that mental health problems require community solutions. I did not get into that mess alone, I have not got out of it alone.


The logic of emotion

We tend to think of emotion as inherently irrational, and thinking as holding the scope for logic and reason. However, emotion is basically body chemistry. It is a series of chemical events in response to whatever’s going on and if we knew all the details, we could no doubt express emotion as chemical equations.

Many things impact on our emotions – our blood sugar, circadian rhythms, exposure to sunlight, our physical health, events we experience etc and of course what we think about those experiences. There’s a straightforwardness to this. A person who has gone too long without food, a person who is too cold and wet, will feel lousy.

However, rather than taking our emotions at face value, and dealing with them, we tend to get our minds involved. Often, the impulse is to blame someone else and take out negative feelings on them. The low blood sugar becomes ‘you never listen to me’ or somesuch. Good experiences can leave us with all kinds of crazy stories about worth, meaning, and entitlement.

Unlike our emotions, our minds are capable of incredible, creative irrationality. We can imagine and wonder. We look for explanations, patterns, causes, and we can be persuaded that correlation is causality. We can be persuaded of all kinds of illogical, unreasonable, unsubstantiated things. By way of evidence for this, I offer you social media, fake news, and rather a large percentage of religious activity. We think our minds are rational, but we’re persuaded by emotive fact bending, by blame and shame, hate and anger, the desire to get one back against some imagined infringement. We don’t think logically.

Emotions are like weather systems – not always good, or useful, but a physical reality caused by complex influences. There is a logic to them. We have the means to change our internal weather, and the choice of what meaning to apply to it. If we treat our emotions like weather, we can take them seriously (sun hat or wellies today?) while recognising that none of them are permanent. They are the truth of our body existing in the world, they are not inclined to lie to us, although we can develop weird feedback loops if the mind gets too involved.

Treat the mind as something with the potential for irrationality, and things change. The assumption that an apparent line of logic proves something, becomes a good deal less convincing. The interplay between mind and emotion becomes more visible. If we ignore what our emotions are trying to tell us and let our minds make up explanatory stories, we can end up in all kinds of muddles.

Sometimes, it’s just indigestion. Sometimes it’s just that there hasn’t been enough sun lately.


In search of a lost, manic pixie

There’s a concept in a lot of shamanist traditions, of soul retrieval. The idea that bits of us get lost along the way – often in a context of trauma – and that we need help to bring those parts of soul back. I’m not a shaman. I’ve felt for a long time that I had indeed lost vast swathes of my identity. Go back six years or so and I had no idea who I was, what I felt, or thought, wanted or needed. I’ve spent years rebuilding, and looking for tools for rebuilding.

One of the things I’ve done is to look back at who I was at a time when I felt that I recognised myself, and made sense to myself. I can’t be who I was at any point previously, but it gives me some guidance for working out what I need to explore.

As a teenager, I danced. A Lot. I danced like a wild and demented pixie, with a shameless joy in my body, and the movement of my body that I also felt when swimming, and playing musical instruments, but not in much that involved other people. A lot of the time I felt really awkward in my body. That stayed with me, and the times of feeling good in my body reduced.

I started dancing again this summer. Awkward on my feet at first, not confident of my balance, and trying to work with a sore, stiff body that couldn’t dance like I used to, and needing to totally re-learn how to move. It was not easy re-starting – I felt very exposed and it also meant dealing with all the emotions tangled up in my messy relationship with my own form. My dancing was not what I wanted it to be, and I accepted it, and did what I could.

I’ve put in a lot of time – primarily working on my balance, so that I can be easier on my feet. Working with each part of the body in turn to find out what can move, and how to move. Working out how far I can push in terms of energy use, how not to jar myself, how to work slowly when the music is fast. I re-learned that one of the things dancing does for me is to give me a space to express and process the kind of complex emotions that cannot be dealt with just by thinking about them.

Dancing in spaces with other people, my confidence improved. I started feeling safer, and acceptable. Part of the block to going back to dance had been a sense that my body would not be acceptable to other people – too fat, too awkward, too ugly, too ungainly… I have a lot of body-image issues and tend to project them, imagining everyone else is going to see me as I do, and as a few people in my life have been very explicit about seeing me. But, I can go to a space where people dance and not face shaming, humiliation or anything like that. I’ve found accepting, nurturing space. I’m learning how to feel acceptable.

As a consequence of this, I’ve got easier in my own body, more willing to experiment and push my own boundaries with how I move, and it has done me considerable good.

Then, at the last session, a magic thing happened. I pushed just a little bit harder, and found that in small bursts, I could dance like some sort of demented pixie. It doesn’t matter that I can’t now do that into the wee small hours, it doesn’t matter that I have to do little flurries and take breaks – because for minutes at a time, I can still dance with my manic pixie self, and feel something like what I felt as a much younger human.

I can’t change my history. I am only going to get older and weirder with this cranky body of mine. But I can still dance.


Permission to cry

If there was a time when it felt safe and reasonable to cry when hurt, I do not remember it. The further back I go, the patchier memory becomes, but I’ve no sense of crying ever being ok. I learned early to mute how I was feeling, to hide the tears of pain and frustration at school when I was teased, hit, humiliated. Sometimes I lost it, but I managed more stoicism than not.

Crying has too often just made things worse, and over the years I’ve added new reasons why I am not to do it. I might hurt or embarrass someone else by revealing that I’m in pain. It might feel like emotional blackmail. People might think I was faking it to get attention. Last year I broke down in panic when a group of kids charged at me and I was already in a lot of pain and couldn’t bear to be touched. Their first reaction to my tears was to tell me I was faking it. Better not to be seen than to be put through that, I have felt. Better not to make someone uncomfortable, not to implicitly demand care, attention, or something different by being so inconsiderate as to cry. Other people’s convenience has always seemed more important than whether I am in pain. Add to that the telling off for crying, the accusations of melodrama, and manipulation, and I don’t express if I can help it.

I’ve gone dry eyed through many a funeral. I can spot when the urge to weep is rising and I will lock it down, turning everything on the inside into stone if I can, so that nothing of what I’m feeling gets out. Sometimes the body pain, the fear, and panic attacks, the distress is too much and the tears get out, but the urge to hide it remains, and I’ll be silent, and I will keep my body still so that the motion of sobbing does not give me away. Failing that, I’ll remove myself and hide. If I’ve cried in front of you, then either I really, really trust you, or I was so broken at the time that I failed to maintain control.

It always feels like failure to cry, or to succumb to a panic attack. I feel ashamed of it. It’s a natural bodily reaction to pain and distress, but unless I am entirely alone and it goes unnoticed, I feel ashamed of my own tears.

In the last few days I have come to recognise how dehumanising this is. It’s a denial of my basic animal self, my natural self. To treat my own pain as unacceptable, to not allow myself the freedom of grief when I am hurt, is doing me a lot of harm. I’ve taken the decision to cry when I need to, regardless of the consequences. As a self employed person I have the luxury of not needing a brave face for work. In the short term, to have the space to handle my own distress, (and there’s been a lot to distress me this last month) I will mostly be stepping away from people. I need to feel safe about crying, and I need not to be worrying about how it’s going to impact on other people. That feels very selfish, but I’m doing it anyway. I’m going to see what happens if, for a little while, I let how I feel be more important than anything else for me.

There will be people who find me too difficult, and no doubt there will be people who again call it emotional blackmail and bullying on my part. They are allowed to feel that way. The right answer is for anyone who feels that way about me to spend no time with me. I’ve decided that no matter how much I love someone, if they have no space for me when I am in pain, they have no space for me.

I’m interested to see how the process of allowing my emotions – because I also intend to change how I handle panic and to totally shift my relationship with my own anger – impacts on my depression issues as a whole, and on the issue of body pain. I’ll share the results of the experimentation, because I think there are other people who will find they get similar outcomes, whatever those turn out to be.