Tag Archives: emotions

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.

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.

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.

Until God

‘Adieu’ in French doesn’t simply mean goodbye, it means goodbye forever. One of the things I love about French as a language is this need for the dramatic farewell. ‘Until God’ – because we’re not going to see each other again before then.

Of course we often don’t know when we’re saying goodbye for the last time. Every farewell has the potential to be farewell forever.

Say ‘farewell forever’ in English, and most people will hear melodrama. It’s not the sort of thing we have a cultural habit of saying seriously. That’s true of all big, dramatic emotional expression. In this language, we find it hard to take big things seriously – we hear irony, fuss-making, silliness. Say ‘this is goodbye forever’ and most people probably won’t believe you.

There are of course times when ‘goodbye forever’ is necessary. Some people, and some situations are intolerable to the point whereby leaving and never coming back is really the only sensible thing to do. Having ‘goodbye forever’ heard in that context might help others take onboard how serious it is, which could in turn lead to change. If not for me, then for the person who comes into the same situation after me.

Because of course it is personal, and not broadly hypothetical as I write this post today. I didn’t say ‘goodbye forever’ but I doubt what I did say will be heard as it was meant. I’ve made choices that mean there are people I will probably never see again, and to whom I said goodbye in person not knowing then that it was most likely an ‘adieu’.

Would a change of language have changed anything? Would the enormity and finality of ‘adieu’ have shaken people up to take me seriously? Maybe. Maybe not. English lacks the words for some situations, and as speakers of this language, we lack the mental framework for dealing with emotionally serious situations.

Until God, then, for some of this. (Curiously, ‘adios’ in Spanish has the same literal meaning but not the connotation of finality.)

Which as a Maybeist, is a fairly weird thing for me to say anyway, because I have no gods. There will be no afterlife for me that has everyone I care about in it where people can be re-united and past wrongs overcome. If it doesn’t happen in this life, it doesn’t happen, most likely.

The mechanics of exhaustion and emotion

In recent months, I’ve had the opportunity to observe the effects of exhaustion on my own mind and reactions, and to learn from other people with similar experiences. This is what I’ve learned.

Exhaustion distorts reactions. It doesn’t even matter if the exhaustion came from doing a good thing that you felt really positive about, it still has the same effects. It becomes harder to control the emotions, and outbursts are likely – tears become impossible to control, most notably. Everything seems bigger and more threatening than it would otherwise be.

My first thought was that exhaustion makes us over-react. On reflection, I don’t think this is it at all. How we respond to a crisis, or even what looks like a crisis in the first place, depends a lot on whether we have the resources to deal with it. If you can deal with something easily, it’s hardly a disaster. If you have no means to tackle it, you’re facing a serious problem.

It’s not the scale of the event that shapes our responses, but whether we can deal with it. Exhaustion means having little or nothing in reserve, and no resources to tackle even small things. What can seem petty from the outside, can be unbearable from the inside because there is no way to bear it on top of everything else.

When we’re watching someone else’s reactions, the temptation can be to judge the appropriateness of their response by what we’d do when faced with the same challenge. This misses out that way we all face challenges differently, with entirely different resources and vulnerabilities. Thus we can end up thinking someone else is over-reacting or making a fuss, rather than recognising that their situation is undermined by problems we don’t have.

Yes, of course there are people who over-react and make a fuss, but this comes from factors of personality and circumstance, and is part of where they start from when dealing with a problem. If you’ve never seen a mountain, you might be more intimidated by the proverbial mole hill. The worst thing you’ve ever dealt with, is the worst thing you have had to face, regardless of how it compares to other people’s experiences. This is really noticeable watching children get to grips with setbacks.

It can be hard, when your problem looks like a mountain and the next person is wailing about what, to you, looks like a mole hill, but we all have our own hills to climb. Spending time getting cross with other people over how they deal with problems is a waste of time and energy. We will all have to make choices about what we can help with, and what we have to ignore, but in recognising how different experiences may be, we can make life a bit easier all round by not getting frustrated about it.

Retraining your emotions

Emotions turn up quickly, with a force and direction of their own that makes them feel like unassaible features of who we are. In many ways this is so – invalidating a person’s feelings is a sure-fire way of trashing their sense of self and causing them great discomfort. How we feel is a big part of who we are, but what happens if how we feel isn’t how we want to feel?

Emotions can be changed, responses can be altered over time. I know, because I’ve done it. While it’s possible to change how you think in a relatively short time frame – weeks are generally enough, the emotions can take months, or years to retrain. Panic triggers are a good example here. (Nothing triggery is coming up). Panic triggers happen when we experience something that brings a memory of trauma too close to the surface. If we aren’t in danger, we can still panic because the body responds with fear. That fear can be unlearned.

My main method (and there may be others, I don’t know) is to get myself somewhere I feel safe, and to think about the emotion I want to change. This can involve visualising the situation I react to, and working on telling myself how I want to feel about it. For example, go back a few years and a kiss from a friend would panic me. It took me months of deliberate work to change this, and while I’m never going to want random people kissing me without permission, I can now comfortably kiss and be kissed by close friends.

Where the thinking mind leads, the feeling part of a person will eventually follow. What works best for me is to think my way into imaginary situations that would provoke a response I don’t want, and to use a mix of thinking and feeling my way through, over and over again so that I can change how I feel. This can also be done by working in actual ways with other people – having very safe and supportive spaces has allowed me to feel easier about other people telling me what to do with my body (thank you Vishwam!). Working alone in my head can be quicker than waiting for people who can help, but there comes a point when you have to dive back in to actual situations and see what happens. Having supportive people to help that happen safely is invaluable.

Changing emotional responses brings up questions about sense of self. There are a number of emotional responses I can generate that cause other people problems – I get upset easily, I feel things keenly. There have been times when I’ve felt under a lot of pressure to tidy up my emotions so as to be more convenient for other people. I don’t recommend it. The time to try and change emotional responses, is when you don’t feel that how your body reacts is in line with your authentic self. This is a call only an individual can make, no one can or should try to make it for you. If your grief, or your anger, your distress or your fear are not manifesting in ways that sit well with who you think you are, then work to change it. These are probably maladaptive survival strategies that worked in some context, but mostly don’t work and are not, in fact, you.

It’s important to remember that our emotional reactions are not a manifestation of pristine nature. They are not a wilderness we have to protect. Our emotions seem very natural, but we have all been conditioned to react in certain ways – what we’re punished for, or rewarded for, what’s ignored, what’s taken seriously – the families and communities we grew up in have taught us patterns of acceptable feeling, and those feelings may not sit well with who we really are. Consider the many men who have been taught not to cry, but who have been allowed to shout. Consider the religious communities that bring up their LGBT people to hate who they are and feel guilty and worse… we do not learn to feel in isolation, and sometimes what we have learned needs to be unlearned.

I decided a long time ago that I would believe that my most authentic self is the person I choose to be, the person I work towards being. It may not be the answer for everyone, but when approaching dysfunctional emotions, I’ve found it a useful place to start.

Coping With Fear

In the aftermath of Brexit, I see a lot of people frightened for the future. The feelings of uncertainty, the not knowing what could be lost or how they might be affected. Then there’s the grief compounding it – grief for the loss of the idea of Europe. I admit that what happened with Greece had already left me questioning my idea of Europe. The loss of a dream is always a painful thing.
I’ve been coping with anxiety for years, and I’m finding all the things I have to do in other aspects of my life are just as relevant here, and so perhaps worth sharing.

You have to manage your thoughts. This means noticing what you are thinking in the first place and not letting thoughts run wild and cause distress. It is important to make time for whatever emotions are coming up – fear, anger, resentment, disillusionment – whatever you’ve got. But the trick is to give those feelings time without letting them take over. Perhaps the best way to do this is to watch out for and avoid the idea that how you feel justifies certain actions. I am afraid so I can run away. I am angry so I can lash out etc. Not only does this cause trouble out there in the rest of the world, but it gives power to your feelings. Run away because you were scared, and you’ll stay scared.

There are physical situations that need running away from to stay safe, but that’s about changing your relationship with the rest of the world. If the problem is your own emotions, running away doesn’t work.

Denial doesn’t work, either. Complex mental loops that allow everything to be for your higher good can leave you unable to process, or handle, your actual life experiences and their actual emotional impact on you. Self honesty is best, but self honesty doesn’t have to get so involved with itself that it becomes dysfunctional.

While looking at how you are feeling, it is important not to escalate things. Those of us with more darkly creative minds can see a thousand and one ways to go to hell in a handcart. There’s a technical term for this in mental health, it’s called ‘catastrophising’. If you take how you were feeling and imagine the worst possible ways it could play out, you will feel much, much worse about things. The emotions you were feeling will grow to unmanageable proportions and you’ll make yourself ill. It is possible to control your own thoughts, and if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it is very necessary indeed.
If you can stay in control of your own thoughts, it’s a lot easy to work out what you need to be thinking about. What, realistically can you do? What might be a useful investment against more likely troubles? When your head isn’t full of imagined disaster, it’s easy to get on with reducing the scope for actual disaster.

There’s a fairy tale about a bird who is so afraid the sky will fall on their head, that they aren’t paying attention to other things and end up eaten by a fox. Hold that thought. The sky probably isn’t going to fall, but there are plenty of hungry predators to avoid.

Not always seeking inner peace

There are times for inner peace – we all need safe spaces,calm and time off. I use meditation and walking to find calm, but I do not seek calm as my default state, and I am increasingly clear about this as a choice that relates to my Druidry.

I am not seeking to escape from this world, to transcend it, or to be anything other than my animal self, living as honourably as I can. I honour nature. Death, loss, grief, pain and frustration are all part of the natural experience of being alive. I try to approach them with equanimity, but I do not avoid feeling them, because they are part of being here. I grieve the losses, I feel the wounds, I allow the things that are wrong and unjust to impact on me.

Of all the emotions, fear and anger do the most to disrupt our inner peace. A life free from fear and anger would be one of great joy and ease, certainly, but at what cost? Injustice, cruelty and eco-cide make me angry. The extinction of species, the starvation of children, the destruction of habitats, makes me angry. I am afraid of what we are doing to our precious home. I am afraid of what rabid capitalism will do to us all. I try and bring some measure of calm to how I manifest my rage and my fear, but I do manifest them. I hold some calmness because I need to cope and stay viable, but I do not ignore these darker, more destructive emotions. They have important lessons for me.

I do not want to insulate myself from the horrors of the world so that I can feel smug and safe in a little cocoon of privilege.

Death and decay are part of the dying time of the year. Winter has always been a killing time. The longer we live, the more loss we are bound to experience. The more I experience, the clearer I become that to live a present and feeling life is to be open to all of it. I’m only interested in cultivating peace to the degree that it enables me to function more effectively. Rage expressed calmly, pain expressed calmly, these can be more useful than the flailing of emotions keenly felt but unmanageable. I want just enough inner peace and self control not to be ruled by my emotional responses, but I am not interested in a life free from suffering. I am interested in a real life, and I’ll take the consequences, all of them.

Finding the good bits

One of the apparently cruellest things about depression, is that it makes it very hard for a person to see and feel the good bits of their own life. Being wrapped in a blanket of personal gloom, good things struggle to get through and register. It can be hard for those on the outside, whose care and affection doesn’t get through the gloom layer to make any discernible difference – I’ve been there, too. When you want to be able to wrap love and support around a person and make everything better, but the gloom keeps you out.

I try to hang on to the idea that there will be good things. I have far more control over my mind than I have over my emotions, and I can throw logic at almost anything, so long as it occurs to me to do so. I do my best to carry the idea of good things, so that even on the days when I really can’t see them I still know that they must still be there. It’s a thought form that helps prevent the despair from getting an absolute grip.

I make deliberate time for gratitude – usually at the end of the day when I review what’s happened and try to spot the good bits. Some of those good things will be very small – a flower, a bird, a moment. Recognition of the friendship and support I have helps to keep me on a more even keel.

Alongside this I am careful to pay attention to my rage and distress, my ingratitude and to look hard at whatever is bothering me. To focus only on the quest for the good things can be to deny myself any hope for identifying and resolving distress. I spent a lot of years determined to see the best in things, and it kept me suffering when I could have protected myself had I only acknowledged there was a problem.

I find it easy to love the small things. The butterfly that came to my hand and stayed, and had to be gently persuaded to leave. It was easy to love the butterfly, and to smart at parting with it, the very smallness of it made that easier, somehow. I could not have had an exchange of physical closeness, adoration and parting with a human in that time frame, and I find that interesting to consider. Dogs bounce up to me and demand affection, and I give freely of myself for a moment or two before they depart. I touch without anxiety and accept the gifts of their easy affection and again, there is no way in the world I could do something as fleeting and generous with a human person.

I am blessed with a lot of lovely, brilliant, fascinating people – many of whom I do not know well, but who saunter along the edges of my life. People who come to this blog, or talk to me on facebook, people I know a bit in the less-virtual world. I treasure the passing encounters and unexpected exchanges.

Sometimes, it is hard to see the bigger things, the constants. I fear taking for granted anything or anyone who is more familiar, closer, more available to me. If I cannot always see the small good things, can I see the big ones? Probably not, and they are, emotionally speaking, harder to sneak in under the gloom. Small things can sometimes get through when bigger things cannot. A butterfly can land on the hand I would find it impossible to let most people touch, because humans are bigger, and our physical interactions so much more loaded. There is always meaning, implication. The rejection of a dog is easier to bear. The irritation of a butterfly would not break my heart.

In looking for the good in small things, I have come to recognise that my gloom is often protective. It is there to keep people out, and to help me mistrust what presents itself warmly, because I’ve been trapped and wounded by that more than once. I don’t let many people inside the gloom, because it is a level of trust and vulnerability, and I have not learned how to arrive like a dog or a butterfly and give without fear.

Stories of emotions

Most of us tend to start from the assumption that our emotional responses are inherently right – which is a sane place to be. Those of us who cannot trust the validity of our emotions tend to be badly damaged, and make very little sense to anyone else. It’s very hard to be a functional person with a belief that your emotional responses are fundamentally invalid. However, if you’re mentally ill, you may well be feeling anxiety, paranoia and depression in ways that are not a fair reflection of reality. Simply invalidating those responses leave the sufferer even more adrift, stuck with the feelings, unable to trust them and not having some magical way of moving beyond that.

How we relate to other people’s feelings is really important in terms of how we function within communities and whether we support or undermine each other.

On a few occasions now I’ve run into people whose fundamental belief is that we all feel the same sorts of things in the same degrees and for the same reasons. Take that as a starting point and your own responses become the yardstick for what everyone else should be feeling. When this doesn’t work, it can be easy to assume there is something ‘wrong’ with the person who feels differently. Rather than face the disorientation of admitting the model is flawed, and perhaps not even able to recognise this is a model, not a truth, it can be tempting to hang on to the story and invalidate the responses of anyone who feels differently. That approach precludes any meaningful interaction with most people or their emotional experiences, and narrows our capacity for empathy.

Often our ability to empathise depends on our ability to imagine, and on how good our imaginations are. Can we take our modest, first world problems and empathise with a person who has just come out of a war zone? We may be at risk of arrogance and assumption if we think we can, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try! There is a lot of commonality in human emotion, and there are far too many people whose reality really does feature the unthinkable. Trying to imagine and empathise without becoming too attached to the stories we create that way, is a very difficult balance to strike. It’s something I struggle with, and trying to think my way into other people’s experiences is a big part of what you do as an author.

We can also practice some very unhelpful forms of double-think, where what is true for us is not assumed to be true for other people: If I feel got at clearly the other person is being mean. If you feel got at, clearly I am being challenging and perfectly reasonable. If I question your Druidry and your right to call yourself a Druid, that is my right and I’m doing you a favour. If you question mine, you are bullying and abusing me. I’ve seen this far too many times. It shuts down dialogue and makes it virtually impossible to talk about real problems. If we cling too hard to the belief that we must be right, we cannot hear when we’re getting things very wrong. If we are too readily persuaded we are entirely wrong though, we open the door to anxiety, depression and paranoia. The person who is not well cannot trust their own emotions, but it is also true that the person who is persuaded not to trust their own emotions becomes unwell.

There is an immediacy to emotion, and perhaps the most pernicious story of all is that we cannot control our responses. This idea is used to defend violence and rape at the extreme end. “I felt it and I couldn’t not do otherwise” allows pretty much anything it occurs to a person to do. No emotion is wrong – they are simply what we get. However, as we grow out of childhood, and we grow through adolescence, we should become able to control our responses to enough of a degree not to be harming other people with them.