Tag Archives: emotions

Do we choose how we react?

It’s one of those toxic positivity ideas – that we can always choose how we react. It blatantly isn’t true – torture and brainwashing alike exist because we know perfectly well that in the right conditions people are robbed of their ability to choose how they react. We know that trauma often leaves people unable to control their reactions to certain situations. If we’ve been taught to respond in a particular way, it can take a lot of work to change our reactions.

Making it all about how a person chooses to react provides effective cover for bullies. It’s not them bullying you, it’s you choosing to feel this way about the situation! I’ve seen this in action and it is unpleasant indeed. It can protect people from looking at their own behaviour and actions, making the person who has been hurt wholly responsible for the situation. 

If your reactions are actually pretty reasonable and the situation itself isn’t, then a focus on how you react isn’t going to help. It can be a distraction from holding boundaries, seeking help or demanding better. If, for example, you are depressed because you are exhausted, choosing to react differently means getting to still be exhausted while gaslighting yourself over the depression. This only makes things worse. Sometimes the key to improving a situation is not changing your attitude to it, but getting the shit sorted out, which may involve getting others to take more responsibility.

People don’t tend to wave this sort of content about in response to joy. The odds are the only time you will have a conversation about how you choose your responses, is when you’re expressing ‘negative’ emotions. This can be a shut-down. All emotions are valid. Grief, sorrow, anger, resentment, bitterness and regret are all valid human emotions and you may need to work them through in order to either get somewhere better or figure out how to carry them. There’s nothing wrong with this – it’s actually the healthier choice.

Supportive people will help you work through whatever you are feeling. They will validate you, comfort you and help you find ways through. They may help you explore different possible responses to situations or suggest other ways of thinking about things, but they won’t invalidate your feelings. Toxic people will tell you that you get to choose how you feel – implying that you should have chosen a different response, and may even act like this information is a fabulous and benevolent gift.


Dealing with disbelief

I made the mistake of starting to suffer from chronic fatigue at a point where it wasn’t reliably being diagnosed. My doctor at the time did not believe it existed, and treated me accordingly – with scorn, suggestions that it was all in my head and the assumption that I just wanted to get out of PE. And yes, I did want to get out of PE because PE was hell, for a whole bunch of other reasons no one knew were issues. Whatever else was going on, my distress never seemed plausible to him.

I had no idea, as a small child, that most people weren’t in pain. Other kids did the things I couldn’t do, and seemed to be ok. I’m not sure why I concluded that they were all just making less of a fuss about it, but that’s child brains for you. I certainly had plenty of encouragement to think I was just making a fuss and not trying hard enough.

Now we know how hypermobility impacts on people, what was happening for me is no great mystery. Everything takes me more effort than is typical. Many things cause me pain. I hurt and damage easily. Taking my weight on my hands really hurts me. Also I have a lot of issues with being upside down, I still hate it, I still find it stressful but as an adult I don’t have to deal with people forcing me into those positions.

At this point I’m fairly confident that I don’t express pain – be that physical or emotional – in a way that makes much sense to a lot of people. My default is to explain, but I tend to be calm. This is to do with my coping mechanisms, and being used to pain. It meant I had a lot of trouble persuading anyone I was in labour, and went a long time with no pain relief as a consequence. It may have coloured all of my interactions with the medical profession. There are a number of people in my history I am fairly sure had a problem with it.

I’ve been told I come across as cold, unfeeling, uncaring. I’ve been told I seem manipulative. I guess if you expect people to present pain in more dramatic ways it might be hard to believe a person who is saying calmly that they’re in more pain than they can bear. Panic can make it impossible for me to present this way, but I’m not always panicked. 

Somewhere along the way I missed all the memos about appropriate expression of feelings. What seems normal to other people doesn’t always make much sense to me. I’ve spent a lot of years trying to figure out what it is that gets some people’s distress taken very seriously, and other people ignored. From what I read, I’m fairly sure privilege is a big part of it. The more advantages you have, the more likely you are to be taken seriously about problems you encounter. White men are more likely to get their abdominal pain taken seriously. Black women die in labour in disproportionate numbers. 

How we expect people to behave is clearly informed by all sorts of things. But it isn’t a fair measure. Ignoring distress because it isn’t being presented the way we expect, or assuming a person will overstate because of who they are, is really problematic, and there’s a lot of it out there. Much of it is far worse than anything I’ve had to deal with, but these are the illustrations I have to work with and I hope they are useful.


Not seeking calm

There are times when being calm is good – most especially when trying to go to sleep! Otherwise, I find it a state of questionable value. It has some value around meditation, but it’s not a very meaningful state to be in.

I find I am generally at my most calm when I’m depressed. It’s a state of disinterest, and unfeeling response to the living world around me. It’s not a state of wanting to move towards anything, nor one of wanting to let anything in. I see a lot of content online preaching about the desirability of calm, and I find I disagree.

There are states of being that I want to cultivate in myself. These are ways of being in the world that enrich my life and that open me to good things. Existing in a state of gentle curiosity is good. That opens me to experiences, to the alternative perspectives of other people and to investing care and attention in whatever is around me. 

I find it helps to cultivate a state of openness-to-joy. That’s not a toxic positivity that denies a whole array of feelings and experiences. It’s about being open to the small joys and beauties that can be overlooked if I’m not careful. Actively seeking that kind of joy definitely helps.

I’m also trying to cultivate compassion and tenderness. This will make me open to pain and distress whenever I encounter suffering. I do not want to ignore the distress and suffering of other beings, and I want to meet that with the best I can bring. A tender state means I will experience pain, but I can respond to it in useful ways.

I think part of the problem here is that we’re being offered a binary – stress or calm. The idea that being calm is the right response to everything only makes sense when that state is set up in opposition to stress. Calm isn’t the only state you can start from. A gentle, open, engaged response to the world can be full of feeling, it can bubble with the potential for excitement, and delight, and at the same time be open to facing the difficult things.


How not to be lonely

Loneliness is very much a modern plague and has terrible, health-undermining impacts on people. Some of it can simply be attributed to the amount of time we spend working and the consequences of being exhausted from that. People are often quick to blame TV, streaming, computer games, the internet and anything else involving a screen. I’m doubtful about that – I’ve formed some powerful, life-changing relationships through the internet. Turning to screens for comfort and distraction strikes me as being a symptom more than a cause.

Relationships aren’t things that happen by magic. They depend a great deal on what we’re willing to give of ourselves, and I think that’s where a lot of people get into trouble. Relationships require you to be emotionally available and honest, to be willing to be vulnerable and to make the time for someone.

Along the way I’ve run into so many people who were clearly averse to doing some or all of those things. People for whom investing time and care in other people seemed too much like work. People who wanted the freedom of being unaccountable. If you feel uncomfortable about people caring about you, then you aren’t going to have much of a relationship with them. If you want to be able to disappear off for days, or weeks on end without checking in, you can hardly expect people to invest in you emotionally and just put up with not knowing what’s going on. A person cannot keep everyone else safely at arm’s length and realistically expect to have substantial relationships.

Of course there are many ways in which we can have fleeting, superficial contact with other humans. We say hi to the person at the checkout, we nod to people we see each day when commuting and so forth. In face of desperate loneliness, these small points of contact can offer some relief. But not much. Being around people doesn’t ease loneliness in the way that being involved with other people does.

I think there’s an emotional immaturity around wanting the unconditional care of a parent from people who are not your parents. The desire to have care and affection bestowed by someone to whom you feel no obligation in return is something I’ve seen repeatedly. Casting other people in the role of your mother (more often than making people into fathers, in my experience) and then feeling free to also punish them for being too mothering/smothering is a pattern I’ve seen play out a few times now. I have no desire to be cast as mother in the life of someone who wants to be a perpetual teenager cliche, acting out, demanding freedom and expecting unconditional love.

Unless we are willing to face each other as equals, with equal responsibility for the relationship and comparable investment on both sides, loneliness is inevitable. We should not be looking to other adults in our lives to replicate the relationships we had with our parents, or step into the role if that’s been lacking for us. People who cannot or will not give of themselves are bound to be lonely. If you’re waiting for someone to come along and offer you unconditional love, that’s the essence of your problem right there.

It is of course possible to be alone without feeling lonely. Not everyone wants or needs a great deal of contact with other humans. What’s on my mind in writing this is the people who talk about being lonely but also don’t seem to recognise that their unwillingness to give of themselves is a key contributor to all of that.


He made me do it

CW domestic abuse.

One of the areas of language use I’m currently scrutinising is how I use the idea of made/make. It’s interesting to ask where the balance of power really lies, where I might be abdicating or ignoring my own power, and how unhelpful habits of conventional phrasing are in this regard. He made me do it.

It’s a phrase that comes up a lot around domestic abuse. The idea that the victim made the abuser act as they did is something many victims are subjected to. You made me angry. You made me hit you. As though the abuser is powerless and has no choice in face of the victim’s actions. That sense of being to blame for what happens is part of what keeps victims trapped in abusive relationships as they try to fix things, atone and do better.

The idea that someone else’s behaviour made you react in a certain way is popular with small children. I think much depends on how the adults around you then handle things. Which brings me to the flip-side of this issue – that it is equally problematic when people deny all cause and effect and insist that we are all responsible for how we react to things and not responsible for what we provoke in others. Upsetting someone isn’t an excuse for following through with violence, but at the same time, emotional harm needs taking seriously. If someone says you are making them miserable, the answer is not to tell them that they are wholly responsible for how they choose to feel. 

We can and do make each other feel things. The person doing the feeling has some control over that process, but it isn’t total control. People can make you feel things you do not want to feel. Our words, actions, inactions all impact on other people emotionally. It may not always go as we intended, but if you want any power over the outcomes you have to be willing to also take responsibility. Can we make each other take action? I think how we act on our feelings is normally an issue of personal responsibility, but there are times when it isn’t.

People can be trained to act in certain ways. My understanding is that this is an important principle in military training. We often train creatures on these terms, with fear and threat of punishment so that they do exactly what is wanted of them without hesitation. We may choose to use rewards in the same way. If the threats and rewards on offer are significant enough, saying no isn’t really an option. If you’re given an electric shock every time you do the ‘wrong’ thing it won’t take you long to learn and stick with the ‘right’ behaviour.

I suspect most of us prefer to believe that we couldn’t be trained in this way. Sustained programs designed to train us will have that effect over time. Most of us cannot effectively resist such things. It’s not a comfortable thing to consider. 

When it comes to writing, I’m comfortable discussing things in terms of how I am made to feel. I watch out for inadvertently saying ‘made to do’. At the moment, no one is running power over me in a way that makes me do anything – although that has been an issue historically. I’m watching out for the times when I give too much power away, ascribing too much significance to whatever prompts a feeling and not recognising how much is intrinsic to me. I take it seriously if someone habitually makes me feel uncomfortable. I step away from people who want to make me responsible for their actions. I’m not going to make anyone do anything, if I can help it.


When not to be positive

It is true that a positive attitude and a willingness to make the best of things can help a person in many situations. However, it isn’t always the right choice. Too much forced positivity distorts experience and cuts us off from our authentic emotions. We need to feel those ‘negative’ things as well, and they serve us in many ways.

Anger is protective. Good anger helps us hold boundaries and recognise when things are not as they should be. Anger is not necessarily violent or aggressive. Making room for it enables a person to take better care of themselves and everything and everyone they care for.

Grief and pain are the inevitable consequences of love. There is no love without loss, and there is no grief without care. You can’t have one side of this equation and not the other. Un-dealt-with grief just builds up in a person and will rob you of energy, or burst out in some sudden and uncontrolled way.

Resentment, envy, jealousy and bitterness don’t go away just because you focus your attention on something more positive. In my experience, the worst people for passive aggression and backstabbing are those who profess to be invested in love and light. If you don’t let yourself look at your less appealing characteristics, you won’t notice when you’re expressing them. If you don’t process these feelings and find ways to deal with them, the result is usually vicious.

There’s no such thing as a ‘wrong’ emotion. All feelings are valid. What we choose to do in response to them bears thought and scrutiny. The first emotional response we have is not necessarily the most authentic – it could be what we’ve been taught, or it could come from out of date coping mechanisms, for example. It’s better to make room for those feelings and find out what they are and where they come from.

It’s easier to be a more positive person if you don’t expend a lot of energy tying yourself in knots to try and deny the bits of you that aren’t upbeat and relentlessly cheerful. It’s easier to be positive if you have made space to deal with your baggage. It is easier to be kind and cooperative if you know how to make the space for grumpy, frustrated and unhappy feelings when they come along.


Riding the Waves of Me (Maybe)

A guest blog by Irisanya Moon

I originally wrote this as an Instagram post that came into my mind while out for a walk the other day. I use my walking time in the morning to chat with myself (yes, sometimes out loud) and to sort out my feelings. I recognized that my energy had been vacillating between joy and sorrow, and to be even more specific, extreme joy and anxious sadness.

Up and down, up and down.

It used to worry me that I wasn’t ‘okay.’ I worried that since I wasn’t always happy, I was doing something wrong. But on that walk, I remembered what a spiritual teacher of mine said: emotions are like the weather.

Right.

My energy waxes and wanes.

When moving toward the new moon

I am fresh, new, open

I find opportunities

And openings

For a few days

Then

I get tired, sluggish, unmotivated

I need to be still, to have space, to breathe more deeply

As I move from new to full

My energy expands

I am creative and wilder

I build, arrange, and share

I have bundles of energy

And sleepless nights

I then move into anxiety

And wanting to do all the things

Before the shadow grows

It is a brave thing

A serious thing

To ride the waves

Of being human

And the stories I assign

And the feelings

That just want validation

And chocolate

Or a good cry

And a wide laugh

This business of being

Invites me along

Hold on

I invite you to track your emotions, your weather patterns, and just see them for what they are. Moments. Hours. Days. Weeks. But always passing. Always shifting to something else.

And thank goodness. This business of being human certainly offers its share of pain, though I also know (and remember) that delight will not be far behind.

Irisanya Moon is an author of four books: “Pagan Portals: Reclaiming Witchcraft,” “Pagan Portals: Aphrodite, Goddess of Love & Beauty & Initiation,” “Practically Pagan: An Alternative Guide to Health & Well-being,” and the upcoming “Pagan Portals: Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow and Messenger of the Godds.” She is also a blogger at Patheos Pagan and teacher and priestess in the Reclaiming Tradition of Witchcraft.


Thinking about feeling

If you just give your emotions the steering wheel every time they surface, you’ll be at their mercy. You may even be confused by your own responses to things and you will likely feel out of control. It can seem like our immediate emotional reactions are the most authentic ones, but, I don’t think this is true.

Why we feel as we do is a complicated mix of things. Our personal histories are in there, and so are the stories our families tell, or the stories we tell about them. Our culture is in there, our class background, educational experiences, previous relationships… and much of this is simply stuff that happened to us, it isn’t who we are.

If, for example you’ve grown up being told that being queer is disgusting and a choice, you may well not feel good about any queer feelings you have, and you may feel that you should be able to make yourself be not-queer. This way lies a great deal of pain. Finding your authentic self means getting rid of the things you’ve been taught to feel.

When you think about your feelings it becomes possible to question where they come from. Are they really yours? Is this what you’ve been taught to think and feel? For anyone unpicking trauma or trying to deal with depression, anxiety, abuse legacies, ancestral wounding and the like, these questions open the door to changing things. Once you know where a feeling comes from you can start to change your relationship with it.

This is a slow, often arduous process. Things you’ve been taught to feel from an early age aren’t easily pulled out of you, but it can be done. Once you start to loosen their grip, there is more room to find out what your own feelings might be. When you’ve found your own feelings are, life gets easier, there’s more room. It is exhausting and demoralising fighting yourself because what you’ve been taught to feel isn’t right for you. It’s not an unusual experience for people coming out of religious backgrounds they found oppressive and into Paganism.

Powerful emotions are persuasive. They seem like they must be authentic, but we can be trained to feel in certain ways, and that training can be undone and sometimes needs to be.


Processing Emotions

When we deal with emotions at the time of the experience that prompts them, it all makes a fair amount of sense. We grieve the dead, and other heartbreaking losses. We work through the fear in the aftermath of whatever scared us. We get angry and protect ourselves from threats. These feelings seldom do anything that complicated to a person.

However, if you don’t have the time, resources, space or safety to deal with emotions at the time, this gets complicated. It is an issue for people who have suffered bullying and abuse. It is often an issue for people who have dealt with situations that were stressful over extended periods. When you have to hold together and keep going, the feelings you didn’t have time to process don’t really go away.

Eventually, they come back. When they come back, there’s no context to help you make sense of them. It isn’t always obvious what the original source was. So there you are, sobbing inexplicably, or full of rage but with nothing to rage at, and it is deeply confusing. This is hard stuff to deal with.

One possible way of dealing with it is to seek fiction that allows a context for the feelings. A film you can cry over, a story you can get angry about. It gives your body chance to work the emotions through in a way that makes some kind of sense. Sometimes, along the way, the original source becomes obvious and you find you’re crying for someone who died years ago, or for that summer when you had to be strong and do all the things and there wasn’t time to deal with how afraid you really were…

Emotions can be strange things to deal with, they seem to have their own rules and ways of manifesting, and there is only so long you can deny them for before they will rip through you and find a way to manifest. Best to deal with them when they come up, but if that hasn’t been possible, be patient with yourself and try to be kind as they come through in all their chaos.


How to change everything

Our thoughts and feelings are malleable. Given  enough time and effort, anyone can change any aspect of how they think and feel. It is my considered opinion that our first responses are most likely to be what we’ve absorbed unconsciously, and that your most authentic self is the person you deliberately choose to be. So, some notes on doing that. This isn’t in depth, it’s just an attempt to lay out the territory.

Firstly you have to notice what you are thinking and feeling. This is easier said than done. Check in with yourself, ask how you feel, pay attention. Try and notice your thoughts and responses. Focus on areas of your life where you aren’t happy about how things go for you.

Secondly, interrogate those responses. Sit down with them, examine them and ask where they come from. Why do you think as you do? Whose voice is that in your head? Where do those emotions come from?

This is also the work that allows us to identify where our cultures have fed us racism, sexism and other prejudices. This is how we find what privilege is telling us, or where we carry ancestral wounds.  This is not easy work.

Changing how you think is fairly easy. We can add new ideas to the mix. We can even break out of long held patterns of thought if we try to. There are tools for this – CBT is relevant here. Changing how we feel tends to be slower, and harder. It’s best to tackle the thinking and let that shift the emotions over time. You can practice thinking differently – write yourself affirmations, or little mantras, or statements of intent. Do some spells. If your thinking isn’t helping you, it can be changed. You can go to a therapist, or a mutual support group or find resources online. You can take control of your thoughts.

When we start acting on these changes, we build feedback loops and after the first few rounds it starts to get easier. It’s a process and it takes time to change yourself.

If you do this work, beware of toxic positivity. Learning to be more loving and patient is not the answer if you are being abused. Gratitude over things that are harming you, is not a terribly good thing. There’s a lot to be said for having people to talk to about what you experience and the changes you want to make. If your circumstances are awful, there is only so much you can do by changing your thinking – really what you need to do is change your circumstances. If you can’t do that – as is often the way with illness, you are allowed to be angry about it. Hold whatever headspace really works for you.

This week, in the midst of falling apart, it became apparent to me that I have some unhealthy ideas around the reasonableness of people punishing me, and how I should respond to being punished. I’m going to need some time to unpick that. But, I’ve seen it in action, I’ve seen what it does to me, and I’ve seen how I can change. Now, I just have to do the work.