[TW for mention of self harm]
When I was a teenager, I was convinced that if I could just cry about everything that had happened to me, if I could properly grieve, I would feel a lot better and less self destructive. I found it really hard – virtually impossible – to cry, but did have regular panic attacks, which I suspected were all those scary pent up emotions forcing their way out in whatever way they could, seeing as the exit via the eyes was locked up so tightly. Part of the not-crying was down to feeling unsafe at home. The walls were thin, there was no privacy, and being caught crying was dangerous. It would lead to aggressive questioning by mum: what’s wrong with you? Why won’t you talk to me? If you’re trying to hurt me by shutting me out, it’s working! There’s nothing seriously wrong with you, you’re just after attention. Nothing really bad has ever happened to you, I don’t know why you can’t just pull yourself together. We spoiled you too much when you were little and now you expect everything to be easy. Why won’t you talk to me?
It was exceptionally rare that I cried, and even more so that I was caught.
Recently, crying has become more of a common phenomenon. It’s still difficult, but I have become better at noticing the physical and psychological sensations that accompany sadness. The specific heaviness in my chest and abdomen, the feeling of pulling behind my eyes and in my throat. I feel mentally heavy too, and like I need to curl up and hide. I find myself shrinking into the sofa in a sort of vertical foetal position. When I notice these things I usually report them to my wife, and we talk until we work out what it is that I’m sad about. Finding the exact right words generally makes me cry. It’s still a rather convoluted process, but it’s also infinitely preferable to the way things were even six months ago, when emotions seemed to be instantly transformed into urges to self harm, and I wouldn’t realise I was distressed at all until I found myself having to attend accident and emergency. This is definitely progress.
Sadness is difficult and scary, but tolerable as long as I recognise it and talk about it. However, other emotions seem to be giving me a lot more trouble. A couple of months ago, walking back from therapy, it hit me just how much shame I carry around with me. I’d always considered myself to have reasonable self esteem, despite the mental health problems. If asked, I can name good things about my personality/behaviour without guilt or hesitation, and I generally think I’m a decent person. Both of these things are a world away from how I felt as a teenager, so by comparison, I must have good self esteem, right? But what hadn’t occurred to me was that any sense of self esteem I had was entirely dependent on me not behaving, thinking, or feeling certain ways.
There’s a concept in humanistic counselling known as conditions of worth, which is related to unconditional versus conditional love. Loving someone unconditionally means loving them for who they are, regardless of what they do. Obviously this could be difficult taken to extremes, but in every day circumstances it looks like the parent who explains to their child why a behaviour was dangerous/hurtful without shaming the child (avoiding labels like “you’re so bad/stupid”), cuddling them and validating their distress when they are upset rather than telling them to pull themselves together, or supporting them if they’re struggling with school instead of getting cross and insisting they’re just not trying hard enough to make friends/pass tests. All those alternatives – labelling children, shaming them for expressing certain emotions, blaming them when they find situations difficult – and more, over time, send the message to a child that they are only lovable if they meet certain conditions.
This is very much how I was made to feel. Outwardly, my mum used to tell me it didn’t matter if I didn’t always get As at school, what sort of job I ended up with, how I chose to live my life as long as I was happy. Covertly, I received all sorts of messages about what was acceptable to her and what wasn’t. It wasn’t acceptable to be gay – it was unnatural and disgusting. It wasn’t acceptable to be physically unwell, because she was “a rubbish nurse”, and anyway, you could keep yourself going however bad you felt if you applied enough willpower. Similarly, it wasn’t acceptable to be sensitive, either physically (to temperature, certain materials, foods, crowds, noise) or emotionally (to criticism, bullying, etc). It wasn’t acceptable to be upset without a reason she deemed good enough. It wasn’t acceptable to take your problems outside of the family. It wasn’t acceptable to tell her if she said or did something hurtful. Emotions, in general, were not acceptable – you had to function however bad you felt inside. Vulnerability was not acceptable, because it was weakness, and weakness was dangerous, it allowed people to hurt you (your fault, not theirs). Having a different opinion to her on ethical, social, or religious issues was unacceptable, although my dad was much worse for that when it came to politics. I was lovable when I was being clever – this got me the most attention as a child – well behaved, and not making a fuss about anything. I was unlovable when I was anxious, upset, angry, overwhelmed, or showed any physical or emotional need she didn’t understand or deem ‘valid’.
I’ve carried that into adulthood, and every time I feel something that pushes those buttons, I feel immense shame. My rational side thinks I’m a pretty good person, who deserves to be treated with respect and kindness – the scared little child inside me is furious that I am pathetic and weak enough to ever require support, encouragement, information, rest, or love. This makes me hugely defensive if someone tries to explain something I think I should know (even if I don’t know it), turns me into a complete doormat if my opinion conflicts with someone else (so I agree to medical treatment I don’t want, or walk out of the hairdressers in tears because I hate what they’ve done, but couldn’t tell them), and makes me feel incredibly self destructive if I need something from someone that they can’t give, or if I’m angry with someone.
Anger is another emotion I struggle with. It is unacceptable to me, so it seeps into bitterness, self harm, and passive aggression. I feel huge amounts of shame about those responses too, especially any sort of passive aggressive response, because I associate that with mum. It’s probably no coincidence that the most outwardly stable I’ve ever appeared was when I was involved in campaigning and advocacy with an eating disorder organisation. This served the dual purpose of giving me an outlet for the anger I felt over past mistreatment (particularly poor quality NHS mental health treatment, but also the misunderstanding I got from mum over my eating disorder), while still being acceptable to my conditions of worth. I wasn’t blaming mum, I was blaming poor understanding of eating disorders. I wasn’t asking for support, I was campaigning for others to receive better support. I didn’t have to appear vulnerable, because the sense of community I found in the others involved with the organisation helped maintain my recovery. The position they took on eating disorders (“biologically-based brain disorders”) was non-threatening, because it didn’t require me to consider the abuse, but still took all blame off of me. This all came at a price, and gradually I became more and more uncomfortable with the focus on biology, more aware of how precipitous my recovery was, and of how I had been affected by my parents’ behaviour as I grew up. But for a while, it seemed to stabilise me, superficially.
I don’t know what to do with anger that threatens my sense of what makes me a lovable and worthwhile person. I don’t know what to do with all that shame, except to keep dragging it out of the shadows to show people, to watch their reactions carefully, to test whether I really am all that bad or whether maybe I can start expanding the definition of acceptable a bit. But it took me a long time to become aware of how sadness felt, and to get used to talking about it rather than suppressing it. Maybe noticing and thinking will eventually lead to feeling and processing these other, far more unacceptable emotions, as well.