Tag Archives: emotions

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.


Emotional Processing

I’ve noticed in recent months that there are some emotions I don’t process quickly. This has been true for some time – years certainly. Before that, I think I just didn’t get round to feeling them at all. I don’t tend to become cross or upset in the situation causing it. I can have a rapid response with a panic trigger, but often in the short term with those I just freeze.

It can take me a few days to work out that I feel cross, hurt, upset, unfairly treated, let down and things of that ilk. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with the realisation – I suspect the unconscious parts of my mind are better at processing this. During the figuring out process, I have tended to spend time asking if my response is fair and reasonable. Am I over-reacting? Should I be more understanding of the situation? Is it ok, and is it safe, to express distress?

I’m now questioning that fundamental issue of whether my responses are justifiable. I recognise it comes from times when I would have to justify my emotional responses – usually to someone who was not going to be persuaded of the validity of my feelings.

It’s a significant thing for me to have got to the point of saying I do not have to justify how I feel. I don’t have to explain myself to anyone and I do not need anyone’s permission for my emotional responses. I may need space and distance to feel safe with my own emotions, I’ll give that whatever room it needs. I don’t have to make sense to anyone else. I don’t have to be reasonable. If I feel something as a consequence of my history, it is valid, even if it makes little sense in the context.

With hindsight I can see that not being allowed my own emotional responses cost me a great deal in terms of sense of self. It cost me self-esteem, confidence and feelings of personhood. These experiences taught me to mistrust myself, and to surrender authority to others. To be the kind of person whose emotional responses are preposterous, unfounded, and who needs putting straight about it is to be treated as immature and childish. It is to be invalidated. I would not, I realise, even treat the emotions of a very small child having a tantrum with the same disregard and belittling that’s been shown me in the past.

To feel on your own terms is to be properly a person. To be able to express something of those feelings is a measure of being safe. To have those feelings taken seriously is a measure of being loved, respected and valued.


Hormones, feelings and identity

In recent years I’ve been making space for feelings as they happen within my body. I’ve paid more attention to my emotions and not tried to suppress them, and I’ve started to explore how to better embody and express those feelings. And then there’s the hormones…

I’ve spent the majority of my life inhabiting the hormonal shifts of my menstrual cycle. In the days before I bleed, I tend towards melancholy. When I’m bleeding, if anything is wrong in my life it will become much harder to ignore. I listen to the wisdom of my angry blood these days, and I deal with whatever comes out of that time. I get a few days off before the reproductive urges kick in, and a quieter patch after that. I know my cycle well and I know who I am within it, and I identify with those emotions. Who and how I am shifts during the month and I experience all of it as being intrinsically me.

Now, peri-menopausal, or as I prefer to call it, living with the menoporpoise, everything has changed. Hormones turn up as late night tsunamis that I can drown in, that sweep all before them, and wash away my brain and sense of self. I think things I wouldn’t normally think – levels of anxiety and despair and pointlessness that just don’t fit with who I am the rest of the time. There’s no rhythm to it, so I can’t adapt. Even as I pay attention to my emotions I’m in the uneasy position of having to acknowledge that this is happening in my body, but I can’t own it as part of how I feel. It is both me, and not me, and that’s quite challenging.

When the menoporpoise hormone tsunami hits, I can tell what it is. How I experience it is more in line with how I experience having taking something that impacts on me. Only what I’m taking here isn’t pain relief or alcohol, or a sugar high. It’s a wash of misery and horribleness. I can see how easy it would be to become this, to be persuaded by the bodily experience that these are my feelings and experiences.

In some ways I am advantaged by years of body ambivalence because I don’t assume that if I feel it, it must be me. I’ve dealt with physical pain and emotional trauma acting on my body, and I have a sense of self that holds those as part of it, but doesn’t give them the steering wheel. My identity is not entirely formed by my experiences, but also shaped by my deliberate choices. I’ve had to learn how to chose my way around damage inflicted, and intrinsic issues that I don’t want to be dominated by. This is another round of things happening in my body that I can’t do much about, but aren’t of my choosing. I experience them, but I do not become the experience. It makes me realise that there is always this potential – to embrace or reject making an experience a part of your identity.

 


Attachment and the Druid

It finally dawned on me that part of what bothers me with non-attachment/mindfulness thinking is how simple a narrative it gives us about our own feelings and needs. By avoiding attachment to our own feelings we avoid creating drama, we live more peacefully and we’re able to be more compassionate. This is the description of mindfulness given by many websites, and while it might not be the only understanding out there, it’s clearly one a lot of people are working with.

There’s an assumption that our first response is ego-led, in the sense of being driven by our fragility and self importance. If our first emotional impulse was towards care, compassion, patience, generosity or motivated by deep love, there would be no need to retrain ourselves. Certainly, some people’s experience of growing up and living will have encouraged them towards less benevolent impulses, but I think most people are basically ok and well meaning, and that the first feeling is not necessarily the worst feeling.

Are we better people if we don’t get too attached to our own feelings? We may be calmer people, but is calmer actually better? Is it better for all of us? The question is, what do your emotions do in your life? If your own emotional responses lead you to act in ways you don’t like, clearly you need to make changes. If you mostly suffer as a consequence of how you feel, then again you might want to change things. But what if your emotional life feels like something rich and blessed in the first place? What if you bubble up with love and joy, what if you see your grief as a measure of your love and experience anger protectively and in productive ways? What happens if you have a good relationship with your emotions? And then what happens if you practice stepping back from those emotions and seeing them as something that passes through and not an intrinsic part of who you are? Are you better off?

If you think that life is illusion, and that self is illusion, a path that helps you see this more clearly is obviously what you want. But what if that isn’t your perspective? What if you see yourself as a distinct entity and at the same time part of the network of all existence? For an animist, this separate togetherness is a possibility for understanding your place in the world.

Are you worse off if you want to identify with your own emotions? Are you less enlightened if you want a path of involvement with your own feelings, building a sense of self out of your emotional responses to life? For me, Druidry has always been about deep immersion – identifying as a feeling and living being in a world that is alive with intelligence and feeling. My feelings are my response to life, and also part of what I give back. I do my best everything when I give a lot of space to my emotions, take them seriously and invest in what they show me about what’s happening. I’ve started to consider the idea that I may be practicing attachment.

What you need from life depends on who you are and what you want. There’s scope for great diversity here and many different ways of being. For some people, mindfulness and non-attachment makes perfect sense. I have no doubt that for many people it is a rewarding path. What bothers me is the narrative that comes with it about what it means to be human, and a very few options about how to relate to ourselves and live well. It may well be that for those who dig deeper it is more complex, but what’s floating around increasingly in mainstream awareness is painfully narrow.


Landscapes of the mind

The way in which we use the language of ‘up’ to express positivity has been on my mind since I read Ecolinguistics (review here). Moving forward, going up, rising – these are all presented as good things both in mental health, and in other aspects of western, capitalist society. Growth has to go up to be good. Sales going up are good – and no matter the reason or the cost.

I can experience entering a state of depression as a sinking feeling or a fall – there is a bodily sensation I associate with it that has a definite trajectory. However, that’s just the beginning, and it is normal for me to stop falling. Once I’m in depression, I may experience it as being more like a confined space that I don’t know how to leave, or a plateau in a landscape where all the colour is washed out.

Imagine only seeking an upward trajectory. That means constantly seeking a new high, and when we use that language, what is evoked is not bliss, but addiction. If you are always trying for a bigger high, you’re probably using substances, or addicted to adrenaline. In the landscape of the mind, always going higher isn’t a good thing, but we don’t talk about the process of feeling good as much as we talk about depression, so beyond the uplift of recovery, it’s not really explored.

Our natural emotional states fluctuate. Our inner landscapes tend to be like physical landscapes that have some diversity in them. We go up and down. We have awkward bits and easy bits, fertile bits and arid bits. In a physical landscape, the highest places you can go are mountains, and it is worth noting that people don’t tend to live on the tops of mountains because while they may be exciting, they are neither safe nor sustaining for us.

In a physical landscape, the furthest down you can go is into cave systems – which can be dangerous, but people have lived in caves. Down at the lowest level on the ground tends to be where you find the most fertile soils and the river valleys that have supported human civilizations for a very long time. Low ground tends to be suitable for us, sustaining and inhabitable. Has the metaphor broken down now, or is there more to it?

We use ‘high’ and ‘low’ to describe power, status and value. High is always good, low is always bad. Even when we’re talking low cost to the buyer, we all know that it means a lack of quality, it’s the crappy stuff for the poorer people. In terms of our inner states, high and low are both problematic. Most of us do not thrive when living at emotional extremes.

Sometimes, the dark journeys through the cave systems of our mind are necessary. The Dark Night of the Soul is a spiritual experience. Sometimes we have to break down to break through. Our ‘negative’ emotions are part of a healthy and engaged response to life. Grief, fear, pain and anger aren’t things to reject, but to acknowledge as part of what it means to be human. If you care, you will also worry, and hurt and grieve. We would be better off if we did not treat our own ‘low’ places as states to avoid, but were able to make room for them.


Emotion and responsibility

How much should we hold people responsible for our emotions? And how responsible should we be for other people’s emotional responses to us? This is a question that is so often relevant in situations of bullying. Bullies often treat their victims as responsible for how the bully feels, and for what they do, while taking no responsibility for how their behaviour impacts on the other person. “You made me do it” is a really problematic thought, an act of victim blaming. Equally I’ve seen memes suggesting that no one else can make us feel anything and how we feel is totally our own responsibility and I find that unhelpful, too.

We all have feelings, and we all respond to what we encounter. We all hold responsibility for ourselves, and some degree of responsibility for how what we do impacts on others. I think the first question to ask here, is whether the person being blamed can choose to do differently. For example, if someone in your household is loud when you need to sleep, they probably don’t need to be loud and it may be fair to expect they can stop being loud. Their loudness isn’t necessary to them, your sleep is necessary to you. At the same time, your need for sleep is not something you have control over, nor is how you feel when sleep deprived.

However, sometimes we may make people responsible for things they have no power over. If I find you very attractive, and I make you responsible for that feeling and act like because of it, you owe me love, or sex, this is not ok. Whether or not you find me attractive in turn is not something you can choose. How your face is, does not make you responsible for how I feel about your face.

It is fair to ask a person to take responsibility for the feelings they cause in some contexts. If you shout abuse at a person, you are responsible for making them feel like shit, for example. It is not usually fair to make someone else responsible for how you behave in response to your feelings. If your feelings lead to violent responses for example, the violence is your responsibility, not caused by the other person. If your feelings leave you needing to act protectively, it’s worth remembering that this is your choice because if you feel like you’re just reacting, that can leave you feeling powerless.

Power and responsibility are very much linked to each other. The person who takes no responsibility will likely feel they have no power in a situation. This may encourage them to keep making other people responsible, and to be angry about how powerless they feel, without having looked at how they are giving power away. Most of the time, most of us have choices about how to respond. If you don’t, then that’s a serious red flag. If you don’t feel safe about responding by changing things so that they would be better for you, look carefully at what’s going on. If you feel so obliged to humour another person that you regularly do so at the cost of not meeting your own most basic needs, there is a problem. Not wanting to choose differently is not the same as not being able to, although we may tell ourselves otherwise.

When it comes to behaviour, you should feel free and able to choose how to react, respond and express yourself. If you feel someone else is ‘making’ you behave in certain ways, look hard at this. If they have that much power over you and you have no scope to choose, you should seek help, because that level of control is abusive. If you’re making someone else responsible for your actions because you feel like it’s their job to take your emotional backlashes and answer your every need, then the problem is you, and you may need help to change.

One way or another, if you cannot control your own behaviour in a situation, seek help, and if you cannot tell if you are the bully or the victim, get professional advice. A belief that you have no power doesn’t always mean that you are the victim. Some of the most bullying people I’ve encountered had stories about how it was other people ‘making’ them act in certain ways. It can be really convenient to cast yourself as powerless if you want to spend time hurting people. It can be an easy way to control well-meaning people, who will try harder to make you feel better every time you tell them they are responsible for what you do. It’s a hard thing to deal with, and no doubt a hard thing to see in yourself and undertake to change.

If you’re seeing this from the outside and cannot tell if a person is a victim or a perpetrator, encourage them to seek professional help – either way, they need it.


Affirming each other’s feelings

When we affirm each other’s feeling, we affirm the right to feel, which is a key thing for good self esteem. We may also be affirming the right to be different. In accepting and honouring each other’s feelings, we have the chance to properly know and understand each other. We don’t oblige the people around us to only express the things we are comfortable with. Undertaken as a small, everyday activity, affirming each other in this way enriches and deepens relationships.

My personal feeling is that no emotion is ever wrong. How we express it may be open to question, but a genuine, felt response is what it is. Sometimes what I feel doesn’t make much sense to anyone else. It can be easy to hurt, shame or ridicule me when this happens. I’m used to being told I over-react or that I make no sense and am ridiculous. I’m also very aware of what happens when dealing with people who don’t rubbish me. When I’m allowed to explain so that I do make more sense, or when my not making sense is acceptable. When I’m given that space I feel more like a real person and more able to navigate.

Telling people off for doing drama and being irrational is a really quick way to shut someone down. We don’t all come to a situation with the same perspective. Some of us have triggers. Some of us are carrying terrible baggage. Some of us are panicked overthinkers, able to see potential problems others would never imagine. Most of us who are this way have got here through experience – it may be out of date knowledge but it most certainly isn’t irrational or unfounded. I note that the people who have done me most harm in life have also been the quickest to rubbish my feelings.

Listening to each other is powerful. Being willing to admit that you don’t understand, is powerful. Acknowledging that something doesn’t have to make sense to you for it to be real, is powerful. Ask how the people around you feel, and let them speak. Don’t argue with people if you think they *shouldn’t* feel a certain way – instead, show them respect by acknowledging this is what they’ve got as a starting point. Let people be as they are, and they can be honest with you.

So many things are more tolerable and possible to get through if you are allowed to be yourself while doing it. Being told off for how you feel is an identity-wounding experience. It’s often inflicted on people who are grieving and who hear that they should be over it by now. Depressed people are told to pull themselves together. Anxious people are told to stop making a fuss. None of those instructions alleviate distress, they just protect the person seeing it from having to keep on seeing it. My discomfort at your pain is more important than your pain – nothing devalues a person like treating them this way.

When we take each other seriously, we can lift each other up. But what, I hear you ask, do we do about the people who manufacture drama, and make a fuss, and over react, because that happens…? My guess is that where this is true (and I think it often isn’t) you’re dealing with someone who desperately needs attention. If they get attention on a day to day basis and are treated like their ordinary feelings matter, there may be a lot less incentive for the manufactured stuff. If the need for drama comes from wounding, dismissal or feelings of having no personal power otherwise, the affirmation of being taken seriously is the one thing most likely to shift this. If you’re going to challenge someone, it’s a good deal more effective if you know what’s going on with them first. Out of date coping mechanisms can need challenging, but it helps when that’s done kindly.

Whatever is going on with a person, no one becomes better, or more functional as a consequence of having their feelings rubbished and ignored. It is however an effective way of silencing complaint and distress, which is why rubbishing the victim’s responses is a normal part of bullying and abuse.


Acting on emotions

Few things wind me up more than people who do something crap, and when called on it, say it was just an unconsidered, off the cuff, spur of the moment thing. As though that somehow excuses it. It can be useful to know there was no conscious malice, but for me, lack of care and attention is also an issue.

We have experiences. We have emotional responses to those experiences. We get a choice, usually, about how we express those emotional responses. People who are triggered into panic attacks and PTSD flashbacks don’t get a choice about how that manifests, and need as much slack cutting as possible. People whose trauma makes them respond in ways that make no sense to onlookers need kindness and patience. There’s a great deal of difference between that kind of response though, and one that comes from carelessness.

Something happens, and you have feelings. Do you give yourself permission to act on those feelings? This, for me, is one of the big problems with too much living in the moment – that it discourages people from contextualising their behaviour or taking proper responsibility for it.

Small children react based on what they feel. They do so with no perspective – they have none after all. They do so with no consideration for how their screaming, violence, destruction or tears may impact on anyone else. We teach small children perspective, and they learn it from experience. If you are a decent carer, you teach children about how their behaviour impacts on others, about what’s fair and reasonable, and what isn’t.

And yet, so many adults still do the equivalent of throwing all of the toys out of the pram when they don’t get their own way. I assume that in part this comes from a sense of entitlement and a belief that their feels must be the most important thing. I wonder also if it is to do with attention.

For small children, attention from adults functions as a reward. If the adult attention comes from acting out, you keep doing it. Attention for tantrums, and screaming fits and making yourself vomit can be a real incentive to keep going with that. In school, the worst behaved children can be motivated by a desire for attention from classmates and teachers, and may not believe they can get that attention any other way.

An adult who gets their own way for having a tantrum is an adult with every incentive to keep having tantrums. We learn to do more of what works. If we’re rewarded for crying, we’ll cry. If we’re rewarded for stoicism, we won’t let anyone see those tears. If making drama puts us centre stage, we’ll make drama. None of us exists in a vacuum, and who we are can so easily be shaped by how other people respond to us. Still, anyone can choose at any time. We do not have to live out the unconscious consequences of how we’ve been taught to behave.

We do not have to do anything. We do not have to respond to feeling angry by shouting, hitting or breaking things. We do not have to scream and shout when things don’t go our way. Equally, we do not have to hide our grief or always act like everything is fine no matter what. We can choose. In those seconds when an emotion happens to us, we can make conscious choices about how best to express it. We can take a breath and imagine the consequences. We might go so far as to imagine how our reactions may in turn cause reactions in others. We can choose to act in ways that will not lead us into spirals of aggression. If you think someone else’s behaviour is making you act in a certain way, you need to take back control.

We can feel all of our emotions wholeheartedly without ever giving them control of our personal steering wheels.


Emotional Energy

For people who feel keenly (is that all of us, or only some of us, I’m never sure!) emotions take a lot of energy. I assume this works as a spectrum and that the more intensely you feel things, the more those emotions take up energy. I also find that the more powerful the emotion, the more time I need to digest it, process it, and accommodate it. This is also true for me in dealing with potent positive experiences.

The incredible high of something going amazingly well and being rich with excellent feedback, brilliant outcomes and wholehearted emotional engagement from other people can, if I’m not careful, lead to desperate plummets. Coming down off a high like that can be nothing short of a crash. However, I’ve found in recent years that if I give myself processing time in the aftermath, I cope a lot better. Walking home talking over whatever happened, writing about it, eating toast, drinking tea, bringing my body down gently.

I find anger takes a terrible toll on me. It’s not an emotion I’m prone to and I can only sustain it in very short bursts, and it leaves me wiped out. The aftermath of anger tends to bring massive anxiety and no confidence. I second guess myself, mistrust my first impulse, and can easily fall into depression. Historically, anger has not been a safe emotion for me to express in any way and I’m still learning how to make room for it without harming myself. No doubt this is part of why it leaves me exhausted. For other people, anger can be a source of energy and fuels feelings if self righteousness and power. We’re all different.

Squashing down sad feelings can seem like a way of avoiding negativity and staving off depression. My experience is that in the longer term, it has the exact opposite impact. Pains and griefs that are dealt with at the time can be let go of. Anything we repress or deny festers inside us, often to return with greater force at a later date. Unprocessed grief can become a very heavy thing to carry, and it can crush you.

It takes a surprising amount of energy to not deal with powerful feelings. Pretending that everything is fine is one of the most expensive emotional activities that I’ve ever encountered. Over time, it is exhausting, leaving me not only feeling threadbare and depressed, but also inauthentic and hollow. Having space for your own feelings is a key part of getting to feel like a real person, not some kind of robot. Feeling obliged to hide how you feel to appease others eats away at self esteem, identity and confidence. People who do not have room for your real responses are not good people to spend time with. If you can’t get out of that situation, making private, personal space for how you really feel is essential. A few minutes locked in a bathroom can be a sanity saver.

We associate being cool and in control with being mature and responsible. Our culture is suspicious of emotional outbursts and quick to label them as childish, irresponsible, or manipulative. You don’t get to be the kind of person who is always calmly in control by not feeling things. Not least because if you don’t let yourself feel, you never find out what you feel, and thus never really know who you are, and this is the egg from which future breakdowns in mental health will hatch.


Time off, regardless of the behaviour

I’m not really here. The internet is very good at letting me appear to be here when in fact I am not. If all has gone to plan, I may not even have climbed out of the duvet as you read this. I wrote this blog last week, when I was plotting my time off.

One of the things I have learned the hard way is that I can’t work an event over a weekend and then get straight back into a regular working week and expect to function. So, this year, after spending the bank holiday weekend at a massive and wonderful steampunk event in Lincoln, I will spend the next day recovering. Recovery time is essential to mental and physical health, to concentration, productivity, efficiency and getting to be a person. I’ve stopped treating it like some kind of luxury and started recognising it as essential.

I’ve also noticed how much my thinking is affected by time off. I think better when I get decent breaks from doing that. I am more likely to have good ideas when I’m not especially trying to have good ideas.  There’s a definite correlation between downtime and creativity.

I’ve also learned over the last few years that I’d been under-estimating how much time I need to process big emotional experiences. Emotions take energy. Suppressing them takes even more energy. Making space for them is good. I have a better head if I make space for the feels.

As I write this, I know Asylum will be full of feels. There are lots of people I adore and don’t see very often at all. Some only at this event, in fact. There are people involved I would go so far to say that I love, and spending time around them will impact on me hugely. I’m taking out two public displays, one to try and get people involved in The Hopeless Vendetta, and one song based performance, and that’s going to have an emotional impact. No doubt there will be things I didn’t see coming – there always are.

Time to reflect, to absorb, process, make sense, digest – whatever needs doing – is essential. I don’t want to be bouncing carelessly, thoughtlessly from one experience to another. I want to live a considered life. Often that requires more time in the duvet, just chewing things over.