I have been reading another book by Brene Brown. I’m really interested in this. The current book is Daring Greatly. I know it wouldn’t have helped me a few years ago. I needed at that point to figure out regulation. I’m still working at it, but three years ago, I didn’t even know that’s what I needed to do.
I knew I needed to “take care of myself” and “self-soothe” and I had no fucking idea what that actually meant. I thought it meant something that people kind of do as a luxury or an indulgence. As in, “I took care of myself and got my hair and nails done.”
Well, it turns out a lot of people self-soothe by intensifying their own sense of membership in a group. If other people in their perceived group have nice hair and nails, they self-soothe by proving they are one of them with nice hair and nails of their own.
A lot of what people do when they feel stressed is to heighten visual and linguistic markers of their group identity. It suggests to themselves that we are part of a group that will protect us.
It doesn’t work for me.
We’ll get back to that.
I didn’t quite get that I needed to get a sensation in my body going that I hadn’t experienced in 30 years, and that was intensely evocative of pain and loss to try to remember.
I figured it out. I know how to do it. It’s just hard, and under stress, I can’t do it. I couldn’t do it this morning when the young man next to me was playing really angry music I could hear through his headphones. I couldn’t help but experience him as a threat, and I couldn’t get my body to calm down. I recognized that the social expectation is that people get to play whatever music they want to with head phones on, even if i can still hear it, and I also recognized there were no other seats and I didn’t want to stand. So I stayed where I was–knowing if I said something to him, i would just feel more ashamed.
After a while, he asked what stop we had just passed. I told him, and I asked him where he wanted to get off. He was getting off where I thought he was–a local community college. Then I started to realize: he’s armoring up. He was well-dressed, looking sharp, going off to something that makes him nervous, and he’s playing tough-sounding music in order to prepare himself. i don’t know if he was on his way to class or a job or even an interview, but he was dressed for something important, and it was something he felt nervous about.
I do that too. It’s not the same kind of music, because I am not a young black man, but I do it.
I was glad I hadn’t said anything to him.
The interesting thing is after we spoke, he changed the music to something more mellow. Then he switched it off completely.
When he got off at the next stop, he said, “Have a nice day.”
I don’t know how to say this, but some of what’s going on with me is just coping with feelings I can’t calm down. His music made him feel threatening to me–I really felt like hitting him, just getting him away from me. I sat there. I tried to calm down, even though it was hard and basically I couldn’t. And it was worth it. I had a nice exchange with him that I was glad I had had.
It’s not my fault it’s hard to calm my emotions down. I didn’t create the circumstances which made me sensitive to threat, or that made my emotional response to threat be so intense, nor did I give myself a parent who couldn’t teach me how to calm down. I didn’t choose to be this way.
But neither did the kid next to me who is trying to screw up the courage to wow someone as he’s foraying out into the world as a young and vulnerable adult.
Until a few years ago, I think I had a pretty simple idea about things: my family was bad and the rest of the population is good. Or people who don’t intentionally cause harm are good. Or maybe people who don’t fall into recognizably selfish categories are good. Or something. But it’s not like that. It isn’t anywhere near that simple.
I am the way that I am, and I have to figure out how to work with that given the world that exists around me. That’s just how it is.
I’ve been thinking about therapy and why that went wrong for me for so many years. I have been thinking what helps generally is empathy: if someone can see things from our perspective, we feel supported, but it’s also this person who can see from our perspective but maybe with some additional information or with a bit more calm who can then help us problem-solve and strategize about where to go from there who can help us move forward.
And I didn’t have that. I don’t know if it’s out there, and I didn’t choose it, or if it’s just not very common among LA-area therapists. Or even if I just didn’t extend myself and allow myself to be seen enough to get it.
I do know that what interferes with empathy is our own tendency to confirmation bias. So you walk into a therapy room with a therapist who has learned that clients frequently feel a particular way or do things for a certain set of reasons. Given that, they will gravitate towards parts of what you are saying which support the ideas they have already learned and, in their own minds, they will minimize what doesn’t support it.
Why didn’t their pre-conceived notions fit my feelings or experiences?
Maybe because what they were trained for was what I used to think I needed to do in order to “recover” from childhood abuse, which was to stop feeling the things I was feeling.
What I think the therapy I was getting was designed for was to allow me to relax my control over the impulses I was constantly restraining to not have difficult feelings for a specified block of time (during therapy), and then work harder at constraining them the rest of the time.
One issue that has come up is that I can’t actually restrain them for as long as I was trying to. Strong feelings mean strong impulses, and I can’t reasonably restrain them for 14 hours a day seven days a week. My self-control was giving way, and it was giving way partly in the form of numbing. That was leading to a cycle of hopelessness: we can’t selectively numb, and without joy, I had no energy left to get through the grief I needed to process.
In addition, so much of my attention was devoted to self-control that I had no energy left to process what was going on in my life. I couldn’t think about what was in front of me, because my brain was basically maxed out trying to keep myself from feeling difficult things, trying to keep myself from saying and doing things that would harm myself or others, trying to keep myself from thinking about painful things. There was very little left over for, “What might the best course of action be in this situation?”
And it wasn’t happening in therapy either, because what I got in therapy was essentially, “This is my view. Try to think like me.”
Because “interpretation” is essentially the therapist’s view. I was providing a sense of alliance to my therapist, trying to provide my therapist with empathy. And I wasn’t getting any. My therapist couldn’t step into my shoes, but I was trying valiantly to step into hers, thinking that would help me.
I have all of these layers of shame to work through–all of these layers of ways I have fallen short of someone’s expectations–and that includes being a good therapy client. Today I just don’t care. Today, I’m thinking that was never the right approach. I’m not looking to stop feeling my pain. I’m not looking to vent my pain for an hour or three a week and trying to be more obedient the rest of the time. I’m trying to have a connected, authentic life, which actually does involve pain. It involves a lot of pain and a lot of grief.
One of my really connected thoughts recently–one of those thoughts which hooks into specific, sensory memories and to emotions–is that my mother really did not want me. I don’t know the reason, but I know she didn’t want me. She didn’t like me. She didn’t want me to be me. This hurt.
I couldn’t process that I was hurting, because my hurt did not seem to be real. It continued to not get processed, because when I talked about feeling–in a roundabout way perhaps, but it was there–that I didn’t feel allowed to exist, what I heard was I ought to stop blaming myself.
Well, this isn’t about whose fault it is, is it? This is about what happened.
So I don’t care what anyone has told me about what will make me better. I’m not trying to do what they thought I wanted to do. I’ve been getting directions to one place, but I’m trying to go somewhere else.
What will help me is to provide empathy to myself, because I need to understand myself in order to explain myself to someone else.