A significant cause of some of my mental distress and dysfunction over the years has come from a relatively recently-discovered realisation. Namely, I’ve tried too hard to protect both myself and others from strong emotions, either positive or negative.
I’m sure we’re all familiar with unhealthy coping mechanisms. They’re a pretty integral part of having wayward mental health. The idea of healing and getting better is to develop positive coping mechanisms that allow us to deal with our symptoms and triggers.
My psychologist has pointed out several times that I’ve been using coping mechanisms for a long time that have served me, but are no longer doing so. It’s time to let go of them. Say thank you for their efforts, and kindly explain they’re no longer needed. Yes, your thoughts are correct. That’s definitely easier said than done.
The coping mechanisms I’ve employed have involved me shielding myself completely from strong emotions. I’ve pushed them down fiercely, terrified that to express them in some form or another would be ‘wrong’ somehow. To acknowledge or vocalise that I feel distress, upset, or anger would, in my mind, inevitably be shot down. Others would ridicule, dismiss, or challenge me. My emotions would, therefore, make my existence and theirs more uncomfortable.
There’s no empirical evidence to suggest this would have been the case. I haven’t had a sequence of such terrible life events to make me assume as much. It’s just the way I’ve wired myself. To say nothing, to keep the boat well and truly un-rocked.
It got to the point that I wasn’t even keeping emotions a secret, feeling them myself but not letting on to others. I wasn’t even feeling them myself. My ‘coping’ mechanisms had become so strong, so ingrained, that I subconsciously stopped myself from feeling, well, just about anything.
A breeding ground for depression
Suppressing human emotion is a rife breeding ground for depression. It’s almost too easy to slip into numbness and apathy if you aren’t letting yourself feel anything else. My intense fear of feeling things stems from anxiety, a fear that I’ll somehow be wrong and judged for my emotions. The result of this is, of course, depression.
Very bad depression. A depression so deep and profound that I barely even knew it was there at times. It coloured every aspect of my life. I just thought it was normal. I thought I was functioning, and I was, but only superficially. About five years ago, when my ex and I split up, I had to Handle Things. I had to find somewhere to live, move out, and I’d just got a promotion at work. I had Things to Do, and I didn’t have time for Emotions.
I didn’t handle the break up well, and very much martyred myself. In my eyes, I had to be the strong one. The one whose heart didn’t get broken by a cold-blooded lizard woman. I didn’t deserve to feel sad because I was the initiator. Do you know what happens if you brave-face the fuck out of a situation? Other people believe it. Everyone else thought I was okay, and internally I was screaming at them for not bothering to ask otherwise.
To me, that reinforced the notion that I should be okay, and that I didn’t deserve to feel sadness. So, I pushed it all down and got on with things. Then, one evening after a very uncomfortable encounter with my ex and some friends, I ended up at the hospital following a significant self-harm incident.
Guess what? Suppressing my feelings hadn’t done me any favours, and I’d fallen deep into self-loathing and depression with barely a backwards glance. That incident prompted me to go to my GP and seek help, and I’m still under his care and the care of the psychiatry team four and a half years later.
What’s the moral of that miserable story? Well, my fears of how I was perceived, how my emotions would be perceived, and the terrifying prospect that someone might call me out for daring to feel things in a situation I determined to be of my own making caused me to sit on everything until I exploded. I always considered myself fairly emotionally intelligent, and I am. The cruel irony is, of course, that I’m as thick as pig shit when it comes to my own emotions.
Attempting to protect oneself from unpleasant things sounds pretty reasonable, right? We don’t actively throw ourselves into unpleasant situations because it’s, well, unpleasant. Unfortunately, shit things happen in life, and it’s not healthy to pretend that we’ve dealt with the associated emotions by ignoring them.
More damage than good
I was trying to protect myself, yes, but it ended up doing more damage than good. Not to mention that the reason I wanted to protect myself in the first place was, shall we say, less than reliable. I assumed my emotions would be met with derision, laughter, and a row of firmly turned backs. As I said earlier, there was no real proof that it was going to happen or that I’d become some sort of social pariah.
I have had some frustrating incidents where I’ve dared to show emotion and been met with a less-than-helpful response. Do you know whose fault that was, though? Theirs. Not mine. A truly valuable thing I’ve learned along my journey is that feelings are real, but not necessarily reality. The best way to honour someone’s feelings is to let them feel it – even if you can’t understand why they’re feeling that way.
Did you make an ill-judged comment and upset somebody? It doesn’t matter that your intentions were innocent, you know. If somebody got upset, they have a right to feel that, regardless of whether it makes you uncomfortable. Apologise, talk about it, acknowledge their feelings. Honestly, it isn’t difficult.
Practice what you preach
So, why is it so hard to apply this to myself? I can be a generous, benevolent being with others, encouraging a flow of emotions I would never allow in myself. If you’ve had a bad day, and spilling your cup of tea after work makes you cry, I’ll be there with tissues and a hug. I’ll never tell you that what you’re feeling is wrong.
If I were to try and feel some perfectly justified sadness at the end of a long-term relationship? Fuck. That. What a ludicrous idea! Who on earth do I think I am? You can see the problem here.
As a bonus, my misplaced desire to protect myself from feelings also extends to other people. I don’t want my friends or family to be exposed to my negative emotions. Much as I don’t want them to think badly of me, I also don’t want them to worry or be upset.
I know, it’s painful isn’t it? Anxiety has a great way of making one sound completely self-obsessed. Do other people really think about me or my feelings as much as I think they do? NO. It’s a very interesting (read: exhausting) balance between constantly thinking everyone is looking at or talking about me, to being convinced no one cares about me or even knows I exist.
What may have started as well-meaning protection turned into fear. Of course we don’t want our nearest and dearest to feel bad or upset because of us, but who is that really helping? Okay, they get to carry on in ignorant bliss, but what good does that do?
Life happens, and with it a whole shitstorm of things we can’t control. Of course I didn’t want, as a teenager, my parents to know I was self-harming. It would upset them. It would also mean I’d have to acknowledge that something wasn’t right, and I didn’t know how to do that. It’s a lot like Elsa’s line in Let It Go, “Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know.”
Yes, I’ve just made a Disney reference. Let’s move on. The role of ‘protector’ is one we’ll probably all fulfill at some point in our lives. We want to protect our family, our children, ourselves. It’s necessary sometimes, but we don’t need to be scared of human emotion. Yes, it’s difficult and messy and unpredictable. Yes, we might feel stupid for being angry or upset at something small.
It’s important to let the feelings out, though. Let them breathe. If you’re crying because you dropped a plate, what else is going on? Have a poke around. I mean, you might really just be crying because you dropped that goddamn plate and you’re hormonal. That’s cool. But, maybe you’re also crying because your boss was a dickhead today, or it’s the anniversary of a loved one’s death.
Hiding emotions away doesn’t do any good
Emotions are tricky and they manifest themselves wherever and whenever they want. In order to truly protect ourselves and others, we need to feel them. Hiding them away doesn’t do us any good. Having a decent sense of emotional awareness and an ability to express them does far more to protect us than denying our feelings does.
If your child sees you cry, they know it’s okay to cry. If they see you vulnerable, they know it’s okay to be vulnerable. If they see you bottle everything up and brave-face your way through life, well, maybe that’s what they’re going to do. It doesn’t always work like that, of course, and I’m not a parent so really, who am I to say?
From my own experience, though, I’d be a lot more mentally robust if I’d known all of this when I was younger. I’m not blaming myself – anxiety is deeply ingrained in me, and this is how it’s chosen to manifest itself. Be pleasant, be fun, whatever, but don’t show those feelings. Are you annoyed with someone? Bottle that shit up. You’re probably wrong. You don’t want to risk being wrong.
By showing our emotions, crucially, we can also show that it’s okay to be wrong. It’s okay to be human, and we can’t have it together all of the time. Keeping ourselves safe includes allowing access to whatever’s inside, no matter how unpleasant.
I remember, almost a year ago, starting this blog to hold myself accountable and to share some of the insights I get through therapy. This is an important one. I’ve written it down, I’ve put it out there, and hopefully I won’t forget. I’m trying to let myself feel things, but old habits die hard.
Don’t be like me. Don’t try so desperately to protect yourself or anyone else that you forget to honour yourself.