Friday, 10 February 2017

I cannot be 100% happy 100% of the time (and there is nothing wrong with that)

I just walked past a shop window and saw a book, titled “For every minute you’re angry, you lose 60 seconds of being happy”. I stopped walking. Snowflakes were landing in my hair, and I could feel my nose beginning to turn red with cold, but I was struck by something in that book title so I stood there for a few minutes considering it.

In some of my unhappier times, I have spent time reading messages about forgiveness. I have pored over poems about happiness and healing. I have imagined myself as the person who forgives people for her own happiness, who finds healing in it, who does not spend time being angry. I have equated anger with a disease, with toxicity festering inside me, making me unwell.

But the problem with those poems, and with that book title, is that they presuppose that your anger is toxic. They presuppose that you have the luxury of being able to forgive people at will, to let go, to just refocus your energy on being happy. They presuppose that healing is linear. They presuppose that anger cannot be productive.

I went to someone recently and told them I thought that I was going crazy, that there were two people inside me - one who was well-adjusted, and happy, and healed, and one who was bitter, and angry, and terrified. The second self, who I tried so hard to repress in my pursuit of linear healing, in my pursuit of happiness, would occasionally burst out of me at inopportune moments. I’d have an argument with someone and have an urge to smash something, to scream. The rage really scared me. Anger, especially that kind of unbridled rage, was not something which I associated with myself. I was well-adjusted, kind, capable of forgiveness, capable of being happy all the time. I could choose not to be angry. So why did I feel like I was losing it? Why did I feel like I wasn’t in control?

The person that I told this listened impassively. She seemed vaguely concerned, but I had expected her to be terrified. I had expected her to tell me I needed serious help, that I had lost my mind. She said “All of these feelings are normal. You are allowed to have them. You are an emotional person, who feels things, and trying not to feel them is what is causing this. You repress and repress and repress and it suddenly bursts out of you. Allow yourself to feel. Allow yourself to be angry.”

I was shocked. Allowing myself to be angry was not something I could reconcile with being a happy person, with being someone who was healed. But the problem was that I could not differentiate between the two different kinds of anger. There is the anger which eats you alive, which keeps you awake at night. The anger which makes you into a person which you are not, which festers, which makes you jaded and bitter. Then there is another kind of anger. A productive anger. An anger which drives you forwards, which helps you to heal, which helps you to realise things about yourself, which helps you to process when something awful happens because it makes you angry that it happened, it makes you realise that it was not your fault. 

Sometimes life is hard. Sometimes things come out of nowhere and knock you off your feet for a second. Sometimes there is a pressure to get straight back up, to find your happiness again, to ignore it. There is a pressure to forgive too soon, to avoid processing your feelings because you are avoiding the negative in the pursuit of the positive. 

For every 60 seconds I spend allowing myself to be angry, allowing the feelings to come, to help me process, I have another 60 or 600 or 6000 seconds of being able to be happy without repression. I have a motivation to move forwards. I have a sense of my rights as a person, of my boundaries. I am calmer, I am kinder, I am happier. I am able to harness the productivity of my rage without allowing it to consume me. I am in control of when I let it out, rather than a dormant volcano waiting to explode at the people I love.

So I don’t think that book has it right. I haven’t read it, but I think that the title speaks from the privilege of not having anything real to be angry about, of never having had anger come to you even when you don’t want it, even when you want to cast it aside and be healed. It jumps from A to B without any consideration of how hard it is to get there. 

Eventually I know and believe that I will get to the point where it doesn’t help me anymore, where it begins to dissipate, where I become that person in those poems about healing and forgiveness that I read. Right now I am between being angry and being healed and able to forgive, and that is okay. I will get there. And anger - the non-toxic, productive kind - is one of the things which drives me forwards.

Sometimes you cannot replace anger, or sadness, with happiness. Sometimes you cannot refocus your energy. Sometimes you need the bad feelings to help you heal, to help you to get to the good feelings. Being angry sometimes does not mean I am not a good person. Being angry sometimes does not mean that I am not capable of being happy. Being angry sometimes does not mean I am not healing.

Monday, 6 February 2017

On self-criticism and fear.

(cartoon by Liana finck)

I am not always very good at being nice to myself. I’ve addressed this briefly in other blog posts in relation to my anxiety, but I wanted to give it its own post, because it’s an issue I’ve been struggling with especially recently.

I’m writing this from my bed right now. I’ve got an essay due in tomorrow evening, which I haven’t done any reading for, but I woke up this morning feeling fluey and tired and all my plans to have a productive day and do some exercise have gone out the window. I know that what I need is to rest, but there is a voice in the back of my head saying ‘you’re lazy’, ‘get up, you’re not even ill’, ‘it’s going to be a crap essay, like last week, if you don’t start work now’, ‘why are you so bad at managing your time - you should have worked more over the weekend’. It’s relatively quiet right now, but it's there.

Some weeks it’s really really loud. I’ll slip up and say something stupid, and spend the rest of the day inwardly abusing myself - ‘why do you always do this’, ‘why do people even like you’, ‘you should just stop talking altogether’. My essays are never good enough. If I forget to do an admin job, or miss a meeting with someone, I convince myself that they’ll hate me, that I’m incompetent, that I should never have taken the job on in the first place. It’s like I’ve got an inner self, and I can sometimes tune her out, sometimes even shut her up completely for a while, but as soon as I am feeling overworked, or tired, or stressed, there she is again. The opposite of a personal cheerleader. Someone really put it in perspective for me recently when they asked if I would ever talk to someone else the way I talk to myself sometimes. I was horrified even thinking about it.

I’ve never really known why it is that I have this - I’ve attributed it to anxiety before, to low self-esteem, to any existing mental health issue that I’ve had at any one time. I always try and attach her to an external factor, because then I don’t have to face the facts that her voice is my voice, that it is me that is the problem. 

Last week I was at a session with a new counsellor, and she said - in my first session with her, bear in mind - “I think you live in a lot of fear”. This woman, who had known me not 40 minutes, hit the nail right on the head. I am afraid. Afraid that people won’t like me, that I’ll let people down, that I’ll never be ‘good enough’, whatever that means. And this fear drives me to intense perfectionism - everything I do has to be the best, otherwise people won’t like me, people will think I’m a fraud.

In my first year I had an obsession with deadlines. If I was off by even half an hour I’d freak out, sometimes even cry - I knew I was being dramatic but it felt like the worst thing in the world. I did a personality test towards the end of the year (the Myers Briggs - it’s pretty cool if you’re into that kind of thing) which gives you 4 letters to describe yourself: I got ENFP. My friend, having watched me freak out numerous times over deadlines, was surprised that I was an ENFP, not an ENFJ. I’ll highlight the differences here: “ENFPs tend to withhold judgment and delay important decisions, preferring to "keep their options open" should circumstances change.”, whereas “ENFJs tend to plan their activities and make decisions early. They derive a sense of control through predictability.”. The reason for my deadline obsession wasn’t a wish for predictability, but fear - fear that my tutor would hate me, that I would be seen as a bad student, that people would realise I was a fraud and that I shouldn’t be here (imposter syndrome am I right?).

The truth is that I am so hard on myself because I am scared. I am scared that if I cut myself some slack then my work won’t be good enough. I am scared that if I say something wrong then my friends will decide they don’t like me anymore. I am scared that if I miss a deadline my tutor will hate me - which actually isn’t true, because last term when I apologised for handing 3 essays in a row in at 3am the day before the tutorial, 9 hours late, my tutor brushed aside my apology and said he was ‘impressed that I had poured my blood sweat and tears into getting the work done’. But it’s not always easy to listen to logic.


I had such an epiphany last year about ceasing to judge myself based on other peoples’ perceptions of me, and I really thought that I had come past that, but it turns out that I haven’t. The voice is still there because I haven’t let go of that fear yet. I am not yet ready to rely on myself, because that is the scariest thing of all. But I am going to start trying to be brave, and let go. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Healing from trauma


At first, it will be easy to pretend that nothing has happened. You will think that you are over it. Everybody will believe that you are over it. They will see you laughing, smiling, being your usual self. They will see you being friends with that person. You will convince yourself that it was insignificant, that you were making a big deal out of nothing, that you deserved it, that you don’t have a right to be upset. You will carry on.

Eventually cracks will start to appear - someone will make a joke which reminds you of something, and you will feel like vomiting. But you will smile, you will laugh. No one will notice anything. They will touch your shoulder in a harmless gesture, and you will want to recoil, but you will not. You will smile, you will only tense up slightly. No one will notice anything.

These cracks at some point will become too hard to bear, so you will begin to distance yourself, to save your smiles for people who are completely unaffiliated with them. You will not even notice that you are doing this. You will think that you are just ‘branching out’, ‘making new friends’. You will stop spending any time in college at all. You will ‘explore other libraries’, ‘start new hobbies’. You will think that you are just busy. You will not notice that these are avoidance tactics.

You will miss your best friend’s birthday pub trip to go and do sport. You will think that it is because you want to stay fit. You will not recognise that the real reason you are not going is because you do not want to be exposed as a fraud. You will not realise that you are not passing up spending time with those people because you are busy, but because you are scared of doing or saying something that lets on how you are really feeling. You will leave your friend looking sad because you’re missing her birthday. You will carry on.

Eventually you will be unable to keep smiling. A joke which goes wrong will bring your entire facade crashing around you. You will laugh. You will smile. But something will short circuit, and before you know it you will be in floods of tears. You will see people looking confused. You will feel ashamed. but you will not be able to stop. You will feel angry. You will feel scared. You will try to bring the facade back together. You will try to tell people that you are fine. You will try to accept responsibility for your own actions, but will find it difficult to figure out what exactly you did wrong. You will still beat yourself up.

You will report what happened. You will think that this will make you feel better. It will not. Even when the person you tell says ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘This is not your fault’, you will still think that it is your fault. You will lie on your friend’s bedroom floor and cry. You will feel like a selfish mess. You will be terrified that you will be told that you are wrong, that you will be told that you have made it up. You will beat yourself up again for being so pathetic. You will go home to your family for a while because even your best friend’s room doesn’t feel safe anymore.

You will come back. Everything will be resolved by people higher up than you. You will think that this will make you feel better. It will not. You will feel like it is your fault. You will alternate between terrifying, burning rage and overwhelming sadness. You will stop eating for a few days. Someone will tell you that your feelings are similar to grief. You will feel like you do not deserve this analogy because you have not lost anything, except maybe your sense of self. You will feel like you are drowning. You will find out what people are saying behind your back and want to scream ‘YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT HAPPENED. YOU DON’T KNOW HOW I FEEL. YOU DON’T KNOW HOW MUCH YOU ARE DAMAGING ME’. You will not. You will stay silent. You will do your work. You will avoid college. You will carry on.

Eventually, after a while, you will feel like you are healed. People will have stopped talking about it. They will have moved on. You will feel like you have moved on. Everybody will think that you are fine. But you will see that person and have a panic attack. You will feel pathetic again. You will feel like it is your fault. You will spend increasing amounts of time in your room. You will realise that this is an avoidance tactic. You will come out of your room. You will spend time with friends. You will start to feel happy and safe again. 

Sometimes you will have bad weeks. Sometimes you will feel like you are about to lose it completely. You will beat yourself up for not being over it. You will feel weak. You will try to get it together. You will get it together. You will remind yourself of your own strength. You will carry on.