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.