by Jenny Rose | Mar 11, 2023 | Emotional Intelligence, Feelings
In January, my brother and I traveled to Colorado to transition our mother into memory care.
As some of you know and many can imagine, a journey into dementia is an unsettling one on good days, by which I mean relatively calm days. On bad days, days of panic and confusion, days of anger and restlessness, it’s heartbreaking.
One of the greatest challenges for me is the chaos of my jostling feelings, all mobbed together and struggling for attention. I can’t feel everything at once, and I can’t focus on one thing at a time. One minute I’m entirely relieved because I know she’s in a safe, protected environment being well cared for, which has not been the case for the last ten years. Knowing she was living alone, driving, walking her dogs, and slowly losing her ability to function and manage her own life and I could do nothing about it took a daily toll.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
The next minute empathy and compassion overwhelm me and I’m reminding myself to maintain boundaries. She is not me. I am not her. My attention needs to be on taking care of my own feelings. If I could have effectively helped and supported her, I would have started doing it when I was five years old. I never found a way because there is no way.
Then I’m angry. Angry because I tried to avoid this particular outcome. Angry because she wouldn’t help herself when she had the ability to. Angry because I’m still in the position of parenting and taking care of my parent, which has always been the case. Angry about her suffering and confusion, and mine.
At the end of every conversation we have on the phone, I tell her I love her. It’s true. I have always loved her, but was not allowed to say so. She would ignore such a statement, or dispute it. She says it back to me now. It always makes me a little bit mad. It was a thing she would not say outright before. She’d sign herself “Love, Mom,” but she wouldn’t say it. She’s not a person who offers or accepts any kind of touch. Does she really love me, or is she merely participating in the familiar ritual of the exchange? Did she feel it all along but couldn’t say it?
Even before her dementia onset, Mom wouldn’t have answered these questions. I will never know.
I’m also sad. It’s not a sobbing, tearing grief, but a gentle, diffuse one, like watching a teabag steep in hot water and gradually turn it into tea. I don’t feel it all the time. There’s resignation in it, and acceptance, and surrender.
Mom is receiving palliative care under a local hospice organization. They recommended a book to me, titled The 36-Hour Day, by Mace and Rabins. I bought a copy. It was hard to read because it stirred up uncomfortable feelings, but it’s also a goldmine of information, including the latest research and standards for dementia care. It’s enormously validating. I read about specific behaviors and the stages of dementia and realize I have been struggling with Mom’s gradual disintegration for years. Nobody else saw it, so I was alone with my fears and concerns, but I knew she was slipping and I suspected this time was coming.
What I was most hoping for from the book was a script for dealing with difficult questions and conversations. I have some professional experience with dementia and am comfortable with refraining from using logic or trying to bring anyone back to reality. Mom has always believed entirely in her narratives, which often were distorted, paranoid, and inaccurate, so I have a long and painful history of managing her stories and beliefs. However, now the briefest conversation is fraught with pitfalls I don’t know how to respond to or address. I spend a lot of time on pause, frantically trying to figure out the best way to engage with her.
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The book didn’t give me a script, per se. What it gave me was a simple strategy for everything: reflect and validate feelings. Not the stories (thoughts), but the feelings. Emotional intelligence strikes again.
This was good news for me because I’m highly emotionally intelligent, even in this difficult personal context. I know how to recognize, name, and manage feelings. On the other hand, it seems like so little to offer. It’s hard to provide comfort in the context of dementia. Language feels pointless. Nonverbal communication is useless over a long distance and, in this case, in person. Mom has flinched away from me too many times for me to even think about touching her. On the phone, all I have is language. Following my impulse to reassure, to explain, to provide some kind of structure, only makes things worse for both of us. I measure my effectiveness by the level of her distress, which is eerily like measuring my effectiveness by the degree to which I can please her. Even that may not be accurate. Mom’s distress has always been extreme in the face of boundaries, limitations, the word “no,” and any questioning of her particular narratives and beliefs. It’s a personality trait having nothing to do with me personally. The mere fact of her feeling confined (which is accurate) may be the root of her distress rather than anything I’m saying or doing. Or not saying or not doing.
It occurs to me feelings live inside the just-born infant. Maybe before that. Certainly, we experience feelings long before we master language. I’m realizing intellect, logic, language, can all fall away at the end of life, too, but the feelings remain. I assume our need to be heard and validated remains.
Conversation with Mom is like wandering blind through a meadow filled with rabbit holes. Dementia is at once simple and extremely complicated. I never know how she will be or what she will say next. Sometimes she sounds down and depressed. Sometimes cheerful. Sometimes calm. Once she even told me she was “content,” a word I’ve never associated with her before. Sometimes she’s anxious, sometimes angry, sometimes groggy and hardly responsive.
When we talk, I work to set aside (temporarily) my own feelings, thoughts, memories, expectations, and predictions. I ask her how she is and listen to her response, looking for the feelings. When she tells me she needs to leave there because “everybody steals,” I sidestep the stealing accusations and acknowledge it must be an uncomfortable and discouraging way to live, and I can understand why she doesn’t like it. She perseverates on this theme off and on, and I enlarge on how difficult the feeling of losing things is, how unsettling to not be able to find our possessions. After all, she’s lost her whole previous life. Her feeling of loss, of things missing, is based in reality. On the other hand, her paranoia and fear of people (including me) stealing money from her was in place long before her dementia. I was never able to persuade her they did not reflect reality. I certainly can’t do it now.
Reflecting and validating her feelings back to her feels inadequate. It even feels condescending. But there’s nothing else I can do, nothing else to say. Witnessing her feelings is all I have left.
And, after all, maybe that’s a lot. We’re not very skilled with feelings in this culture. It’s not easy to find someone who will just listen without trying to fix or solve. Perhaps great healing lies in being heard with nothing added. I hope so.
Another constant theme is one of buying a car and going shopping when we visit. When I ask her what she needs, she can’t tell me. She needs “things.” When I ask her if she’s started a list, she never has. We are not sure she can read or write anymore. I realized when we went out to move her and worked in her house she’s a shopper. She has enough clothing for three women. Her closets were filled with shoes, both old and worn and newer. She had six or seven open bottles and jars of the same products. Her cupboards were packed with supplements and vitamins for both herself and the animals, many of them outdated. As her confusion grew, it appears she self-soothed by shopping and receiving packages in the mail. So, we talk about how much fun it is to take a day and shop for this, for that. We talk about having new things, buying special gifts for ourselves. She doesn’t want to make a list and have someone else get her what she needs. She wants to go on her own and play, buy what she wants, choose what she wants. She wants to feel free, independent, and empowered to give herself that.
She cannot understand that’s no longer possible. Even if she could, the feeling of wanting what she once had would likely persist. It breaks my heart.
Photo by Gemma Chua Tran on Unsplash
I have feelings, too. I turn to journaling, to writing. I’ve tried without success to find support groups in my area; then I found a mental health professional experienced in family trauma to speak with. I talk with Mom’s hospice team regularly; having worked for hospice, I know they want to support the whole family system. I extend to myself all the gentleness, support, and patience I extend to Mom. I hold my thoughts loosely and hug my feelings. They need comfort. They need expression. I think about boundaries and regulate my empathy. I’m newly appreciative of my own freedom and independence. I look for reasons to laugh, reasons to smile. I look for ways to connect to others. I intend to learn to receive as well as I give.
As I write this, an exuberant spring wind blows outside, pushing snow off roofs, tangling our wind chimes, shaking the lilac branches with their new, hard buds. One of the cats is stretched out on my desk in the sun. My desk calendar was in his way, so he kicked it off with his back feet. A glass paperweight pins down a card for Mom, the envelope addressed and stamped. Every Monday I put a card in the mail for her. I do it for me. She does not acknowledge them or remember receiving them. I hope they’re all displayed in her room, but I don’t know. I’m not sure she can read them. I imagine a staff person or hospice team member reading them to her. I’m not sure she can connect them with me at all. But it makes me feel better to make the gesture, and I enjoy picking out cards I think she’ll like. I’ll write a couple of lines about the weather, about the moment, about spring. I’ll sign it with the word love. I’ll put it in the mailbox and raise the flag, and the mail carrier will take it in an hour or so.
Feelings are pure. Feelings are simple. It’s our thoughts about our feelings that fester, tangle, entrap us. I want to soothe uncomfortable feelings, make the pain stop, dry the tears, turn aside the rage. All my life it’s been my role to take care of Mom, fix whatever was going wrong. I still feel her emotional dependence. I still feel the responsibility to solve every problem for her.
But Mom has traveled now to a place I can’t go and she can’t come back from. She can’t follow me, clutching at my clothing, needing, wanting, pleading, demanding, rejecting. I can’t walk beside her in a way she recognizes. We have separated. I am relieved. I am absolved. I grieve for her anguish. Witnessing her feelings without taking action to assuage them is perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever done in a lifetime of hard things in caring for her.
But I cannot fix this. Neither of us can go back. There’s only feeling our way forward.
- What has been you experience, if any, with dementia in a loved one or family member?
- What are your thoughts and feelings about hospice care?
- What’s the hardest thing for you in supporting an elderly loved one?
- Do you worry about developing dementia yourself? Have you made a plan?
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by Jenny Rose | Nov 19, 2022 | A Flourishing Woman, The Journey
I was taught, as a child, it was my job to alleviate distress. One must always respond immediately and help the sufferer. It went far beyond duty and obligation. If I did not fix the distress of others, my childish world would fall apart. Everyone would leave.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
For a child, such consequences are death.
I was also taught “help” meant doing anything and everything I was asked to do, immediately, unquestioningly, and unendingly. My own distress was of no consequence at best and a direct threat, an unwelcome competition, at worst.
That core teaching stayed with me as I grew up, and has been a keynote of my behavior and experience most of my life. I wanted to help people. When people around me suffered, I felt an overwhelming, painful panic, as well as complete responsibility. I had to do everything I could, give the situation my all in order to “help.”
I also grew up with an inability to respond to my own distress. Hunger, thirst, fatigue, emotional and physical pain, were all ignored. My disconnection from my own needs and experience led me into chronic pain, eating disorder, depression, and anxiety. I was unaware of my traumatic wounds. I had no interest in helping myself. Helping myself was selfish, bad, and unloving.
Then I studied emotional intelligence and all the work and therapy I’d done over the years with guides and teachers as well as on my own (see my Resources page) wove together into an intention to reclaim my health and my self.
This blog has been a key part of that work.
I still don’t like to watch people suffer, but I’m more careful now about “helping.” I’ve learned suffering is not necessarily the enemy. We get ill, have painful emotional and physical injuries, have uncomfortable feelings. We age and our bodies and sometimes our minds wear out. To be human is to experience these things; they’re inescapable. We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we deal with such events. When someone is suffering, I’ve learned to be less reactive, to remember it’s not my fault or my responsibility to fix it. I’ve learned to notice whether the sufferer is helping themselves before I jump in.
Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash
I have learned a bitter lesson: No one can help someone who will not help themselves.
I realize now we can’t always go back to where we were before we were wounded; we can’t always heal the wound itself. Sometimes our wounds and suffering are taking us into something new and what’s called for is not healing, but tolerance and patience.
What does “help” mean? This is an important question. Does help mean we respond promptly to all demands, whether or not they are safe, sustainable, or even possible? Does help mean we make thoughtful, intentional choices for safety and practicality even if those choices go against what we are being asked to do in terms of “help?” Do we decide what the best “help” is, or does the sufferer get to choose what kind of “help” they want?
I’m still uncomfortable talking about my own pain. Honestly, I’m still uncomfortable even noticing it, but I practice every day at staying present with how things are with me. It feels selfish and wrong, but I know that feeling doesn’t mean it is selfish and wrong, just that it’s very different from my early training. Sometimes the choice that feels worst is the best choice. Sometimes suffering is the only possible road forward into peace, growth and resilience.
None of us has the power to help anyone avoid suffering. I confess I’ve argued with that reality all my life, but it hasn’t done a bit of good. In fact, it’s done harm, most of all to myself.
I have occasionally, in the depths of anguish, asked for help. When I do that, what am I asking for?
Nothing tangible. Not money or a thing. Not love. Not sex. Not a gallon of ice cream. I’m not asking for someone to come along and fix it all, or take responsibility.
I’m asking to be heard. I’m asking for someone to say, “I’m here. You’re not alone. I believe in you. I know your goodness, your strength, your courage.” I’m asking for a safe place to discharge my feelings. This might involve snot, wet Kleenexes, rage, and a raised voice.
A safe place is not a place where someone else takes responsibility and fixes, or asks me to stop feeling my feelings, or is clearly uncomfortable with my suffering. A safe place is provided by someone with healthy boundaries who is willing to witness my distress without feeling compelled to fix it.
Witness. A witness. That’s ultimately what I want. Just someone to be there with me for a little while. I can face my own demons and challenges, but I can’t do it all alone.
Photo by Gemma Chua Tran on Unsplash
None of us can. We are social animals. But we can witness for one another. We can sit quietly, holding a safe space without judgment or a fix or advice, and just witness. Pass the Kleenex.
It’s the hardest thing in the world for me to do. Simply witnessing seems so passive, so weak, so useless. Someone right in front of me is deeply distressed and I simply sit like a bump on a log witnessing? Are you kidding me?
Surely, I can do better than that. I can do more than that. It’s up to me to make their suffering stop!
And yet. And yet. Isn’t finding a witness incredibly hard? How many people in our lives can take on such a role? What an inestimable gift, to be willing to walk beside someone who is suffering, to be willing to stay, to not look away. What if our boundaries were so healthy we could do that? What if we weren’t afraid of suffering? What if we were wise enough, strong enough, to make room for it and sit down beside it?
Someone I love is in great anguish of spirit. They beg me for help, but a very specific kind of help which is ethically and practically impossible for me or anyone else to give. Which makes me an enemy. Which makes my loved one even more alone than they already feel, more victimized, more powerless, more confused.
There is nothing about this that doesn’t suck. I dread the phone calls beyond words because I don’t want to witness this suffering. It feels unbearable. But my loved one must bear it, and if they have to, I can. I choose to witness. It feels like nothing. It’s not what’s wanted. But at this point it’s all I can do. So I will keep calling and answering calls. I will get up in the morning and talk to case managers, nurses, CNAs, palliative care consultants, nursing homes, and whoever else will talk to me. I will update friends and family. Then I will get up the next morning and do it again.
I pray there is some power in witnessing, some rightness. I pray that somehow my love and willingness to remain a witness does a little bit of good, provides some small comfort, lights a candle in the darkness of dementia, even for a moment.
And I search inside my own suffering for wisdom, for healing, for grace, and for faith.
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by Jenny Rose | Sep 11, 2022 | Choice, Power
Probably every child is told we all have to do things we don’t want to do.
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Children are concrete, and I was no exception. When I heard we all have to do things we don’t want to do, I thought it meant that’s what life was supposed to be about, a kind of slavery to all those things we don’t want to do. No one talked to me about balance, or doing the things we do want to do.
It made life seem like an unhappy business, years and years of unending duty, responsibility, and doing what I didn’t want to do. No recess. Or maybe what I really wanted to do was bad and wrong? Maybe I should want to do what I didn’t want to do. I wasn’t sure. A part of me went underground. I didn’t want anyone to know how bad I was, how flawed. I worked hard at the things I didn’t want to do and hid the things I did want to do, in case they were wrong.
But I couldn’t conceal the feeling of wanting and not wanting from myself. I used to make hidey holes in whatever house we were living in at the time and go to ground with a book, but I always felt guilty. I wanted to read. Doing what I wanted to do was bad. I should have been helping my mom do all the things she didn’t want to do.
The pronouncement that we all have to do things we don’t want to do is stated as a Cosmic Truth, especially as an adult tells it to a child. It’s loaded with feelings and experience a child can’t possibly understand, but the subtext was clear to me:
Life is not much fun.
I can’t resist picking apart Cosmic Truths as an adult, and as I think about this one it occurs to me it really has to do with personal power more than wanting or not wanting. It’s not framed in terms of personal power because our emotional intelligence is so low. Making choices based on whether we want to do something or not is childish. Power resides in the act of choice, not in the wanting or not wanting.
Steering our lives solely by our desires is hedonism, a belief that satisfaction of desires is the purpose of life. Desire, though, is so shallow, so fleeting. And it’s never permanently satisfied. No matter how well and pleasurably we’ve eaten, we’ll be hungry again. Desire is a treadmill we can never get off.
This is not to say we shouldn’t ever choose something we want or say no to something we don’t want, but our desire is easily manipulated. That’s why advertising works. If we can be easily manipulated, we’re not standing in our power. Addiction is based, at least in the beginning, on wanting and not wanting.
A more useful question than What do I want to do? is What would be the most powerful thing to do? We might want to eat a carton of ice cream, but a walk feeds our health, well-being, and thus personal power much better. After all, one carton of ice cream leads nowhere but to another. Personal power can lead us to joy and experience a carton of ice cream never dreamed of.
- If we don’t choose to do difficult, frightening, or new things, we’ll never grow.
- If we don’t choose to take care of our bodies, they won’t function well.
- If we don’t choose to be self-sufficient and resilient, we’ll be dependent.
- If we don’t choose to learn anything, we’ll remain ignorant.
- If we don’t choose to plan ahead, prepare, or manage consequences, we diminish our choices, waste resource, and weaken the contribution we’re capable of making.
- If we don’t choose the responsibility of commitment and making choices, someone else will make our choices for us.
And so on.
I’m changing the frame. I’m less interested in what I want and what I don’t want and more interested in how my choices affect my power, and the power of those around me. I’m willing to do what I don’t want to do if it’s a step on a road leading to integrity, power, healthy relationship, or anything else important to me. At the same time, I can exercise my right to say no to things that won’t take me where I want to go.
It’s about power, not desire. Any three-year-old can want and not want. It takes an adult to manage a healthy balance of personal power.
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by Jenny Rose | Aug 20, 2022 | Connection & Community, Emotional Intelligence
Trust: Firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of someone or something (Oxford Online Dictionary)
Mistrust: General sense of unease towards someone or something
Distrust: Specific lack of trust based on experience or reliable information
Leo Babauta recently published a piece on practicing trust which has given me much food for thought.
Trust is an uncomfortable subject for me. For most of my life I’ve considered myself to be shamefully distrustful. As I’ve learned emotional intelligence, I’ve realized I have plenty of good reasons for my mistrust and distrust, but there’s still a part of me that feels I should be more trusting, more willing to give others a second, or third, or hundredth chance, less guarded, more open, more forgiving.
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Except I know intellectually forgiveness does not mean an automatic reinstatement of trust.
In my heart, I feel like a bad person, especially a bad woman, because throughout my life people who say they love me have appeared to be hurt by my lack of trust. Yet those same people have given me reasons not to trust them.
When I wind up in these confusing emotional cul-de-sacs, I blame myself. I’m being too dramatic (again). I’m being a bitch. I’m mean. I can’t love, or let anyone love me. (Does trust = love? Does all love automatically come with trust?) When I explain the specific events leading to my mis- or distrust, I’ve frequently been told the other party doesn’t remember saying what they said or doing what they did. This implies I’m nitpicking, ridiculously sensitive, keeping score, or even making it up. I wonder if I’m being gaslighted, or if I’m just not a nice person.
Years and years ago I made a rule for myself: give every situation or person three chances before deciding not to trust. It still feels fair to me. Sometimes things happen. We have a bad day. We say hurtful things, or don’t keep our word, or make a boneheaded choice, breaking trust with someone. I know I’ve done it, and I’d like to be given the benefit of a doubt.
The benefit of a doubt is fair, right?
I still follow that rule. It feels appropriately kind to others and like good self-care. Yet I feel guilt nearly every day over the people in my life who I want to trust, feel that I should trust, and don’t trust.
Babauta’s article specifically addresses signs of distrust of ourselves, and some ideas about practicing self-trust. I never connected problems with focus, fear or uncertainty, procrastination or indecision with lack of self-trust, but I can see they might be. If we don’t trust our priorities, resilience, or choices, it’s difficult to be decisive or take risks with commitments and problem solving.
If we don’t trust ourselves to cope effectively with sudden changes and reversals and frightening situations, uncertainty and chaos disable us, making us vulnerable to anyone or anything promising relief, certainty, or help.
The boundary between trust in ourselves and trust in others is permeable. If we define ourselves, as I do, as “having trust issues,” presumably that includes issues with ourselves as well as others.
It makes me shudder to imagine living with no feeling of belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of anyone or anything. How could anyone sustain such an emotionally isolated condition, not only from those around them but from themselves?
I do have people in my life I trust. Is it possible I don’t have trust issues? Is that just a polite, apologetic, and roundabout way of avoiding a direct “I don’t trust you?”
Do I have to answer that?
It’s true I trust far fewer people than I distrust.
But it’s also true I give people and situations a chance. Three chances, in fact. At least.
Why does it seem so cruel to tell someone we don’t trust them?
Trust, as I experience it, is not all or nothing. I might trust a person to be kind and caring but never allow them to drive me anywhere. I might trust a person with money but never trust them to be on time. I trust myself to be there for others, but I haven’t trusted myself to be there for me.
Consumerism is about distrust. We’re actively groomed to distrust ourselves. Yesterday I was laughing with a friend about articles on MSN. There was an article about trends and fashion in decorating, as though it matters. Shiplap is out. White kitchens are out. Accent walls are out. Then there was an article about how to properly fold plastic grocery bags. I’m not kidding. Did you know you’ve been storing plastic grocery bags the WRONG WAY all these years? How could you be so incompetent? A capitalist culture only survives as long as people buy things, and advertising (and a lot of other media) is about the ways you need to improve, do it right, be better.
Advertising is manufactured distrust. We’re inadequate, but a widget would make us better. We buy, and we discover we still don’t feel good enough, and another ad tells us we need a nidget. So we buy that, but then we see a gidget on sale that will make us even better …
Who benefits most from our lack of trust in ourselves?
I believe information is power. I believe education is power. I believe in science, data, and critical thinking. I trust those things.
Who benefits most from the breakdown of public education, the demonization and gutting of scientific organizations and communities, manufactured misinformation, manufactured disinformation, and “alternative facts?”
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The Center For Nonviolent Communication says trust is a human need; it’s listed under connection needs. When our needs aren’t met, our health (mental, physical, emotional) suffers. If we are unable to trust we’re wide open to conspiracy theorists, ideologues, authoritarians, and other abusers and manipulators. Predators happily gorge off the results of manufactured distrust.
This is a big, big, problem, because it stands between us and managing things like climate change. Which, depending on who you talk to, isn’t even real because science has been the target of so much manufactured distrust.
One day, sooner rather than later in the Southwest, a switch won’t deliver electricity and a faucet won’t deliver water. Scientists have been talking about consequences of climate change and drought in the area for decades. It was one of the reasons I left my lifelong home in Colorado and came to Maine nearly eight years ago. A combination of manufactured distrust, denial, and the misplaced priority of winning the next election have effectively stopped any kind of collaborative or cooperative problem-solving around water usage throughout the Colorado River watershed, and here we are, on the brink of multi-state disaster that will affect the whole country.
Trust is a choice we make many times a day. Do we trust our families, coworkers, and friends? Do we trust the headlines we read, the news anchor we hear, or the algorithms providing us with “information” on social media? Do we trust what lands in our Inbox or the unfamiliar number calling us? Do we trust the oncoming car will really stop so we can safely walk across the busy street?
More importantly, do we trust our own instincts, feelings, and capability? Do we actively teach our children to trust theirs? Do we encourage our friends and loved ones to trust themselves? Or do we tell people they have it wrong, it didn’t happen, they’re being ridiculous, they don’t understand?
Choice comes with consequences and responsibility. Choice is dynamic; do we trust if we make a choice that doesn’t work out the way we hoped, we’ll choose again? Do we trust ourselves to be wrong and learn something before we choose again? Do we trust our ability to problem solve, bounce back, and do the best we can most of the time?
I suppose somewhere between having no trust at all and trusting everyone and everything lies a fine line of willingness to trust. We could approach new situations and people with curiosity and an open mind, be big enough to give the benefit of the doubt, and have healthy enough boundaries and the self-trust to disengage when we have evidence and experience indicating our trust is misplaced.
The first step in rejecting manufactured distrust is building trust in ourselves and demonstrating our own reliability, truth, ability or strength as we engage with others.
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by Jenny Rose | Apr 23, 2022 | Emotional Intelligence, Feelings
All my life I’ve been told I overreact and I’m too dramatic, two labels which automatically invalidate my experience, feelings, and any attempt I make to communicate honestly.
Being told we’re overreacting is a sure way to shut us down, especially when we hear it regularly. It makes us question our own experience. It breaks connection and trust. It isolates us in shame.
It’s an insidious form of gaslighting.
Photo by Jonathan Crews on Unsplash
When I went through emotional intelligence coaching, I understood being told I’m dramatic is code for, “Your feelings make me uncomfortable.” It’s not a message about me at all, it’s a message about the person with whom I’m interacting.
As a child, I believed I exaggerated and I was too dramatic. I pushed my feelings down and hid them. I didn’t respond to my own distress. I didn’t ask for help. I trusted no one with my real emotions. I taught myself to become stoic and uncomplaining, to focus on the positive, to carry on no matter what.
My feelings became my enemies. I was deeply ashamed of them. They were bad and wrong and they hurt other people.
Now, decades later, I think a lot about feelings as I struggle with my re-triggered autoimmune disease. I know my current physical pain mirrors my emotional pain, which consists of passionate, intense feelings. Learning to manage those feelings more effectively is a work in progress. I do well with one at a time, but right now I’m overwhelmed with emotion. Emotional overwhelm is the trigger for physical pain. I keep right on keeping on through difficult feelings, but once the anguish is translated into back spasm, I can no longer hide or ignore my pain. Everyone else can see. Everyone else knows. I can’t hide my physical disability.
My body betrays me.
Horrors. I cringe, waiting to be told I’m too dramatic and I overreact. My feelings are wrong. They make others uncomfortable. They’re shameful, immature, crazy. I have nothing to complain about. Others have much harder lives than I do. It’s my business to support, not ask for support.
But my body tells the truth. Physically, everything hurts.
The truth beneath that truth is my heart hurts. I’m scared, I’m angry, I feel alone, I feel supported and horribly vulnerable, I’m excited about new beginnings, I feel guilty and ashamed about struggling, I feel relieved, and I don’t know how to bear my grief, both current and past. But I’m still too distant from my feeling experience to encompass all that, let alone manage it effectively.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
So, back pain.
In the middle of this experience, I read an article by Courtney Carver from Be More With Less titled “5 Thoughtful Ways to Help You Underreact.” As you can imagine, it caught my eye.
Every day I think about this list of five strategies, and the difference between overreaction and feelings.
Overreaction is defined as a more emotional response than is warranted. Who decides what kind of an emotional response is warranted? Some people feel things very strongly and vividly; others do not. Certain events and situations trigger deep emotions for all of us. Do any of us have a right to judge another person as overreacting, especially when we can’t possibly know the entirety of their private emotional experience? Certainly, some people appear to overreact frequently, but do we stop to ask ourselves, or them, for more information? What is going on? What is behind the perceived overreaction? What need is crying out to be met? What are the feelings involved in the overreaction?
Feelings are value-neutral raw data we’re all biologically wired to experience. They’re simple. Mad. Sad. Glad. Scared. Ashamed.
We’re largely not in control of the complicated neurological and chemical experience of our feelings. We are able to control how we think about, express, and act out our feelings.
Thoughts and feelings are not the same thing.
I’m familiar with some of the strategies Carver writes about in her piece, but I’ve never seen such a concise and useful list of ways to manage habits of thought leading to “overreaction.”
It’s not our business to be concerned with onlookers who attempt to shut us down because of their own discomfort with feelings. Our business is learning how to refrain from shutting ourselves down or allowing anyone else to do so. Our business is taking care we don’t hurt ourselves as we feel our feelings.
Here’s Carver’s list:
- Do what you can. Let the rest go.
- Determine if any action or reaction is useful or effective in the first place. Does this deserve my time and energy?
- Don’t take anything personally.
- Distinguish between inside and outside. We can’t control what happens outside us. Our power lies within us.
- Closely related to the last strategy, if we feel we’re overreacting, what else is going on? Are we sick, hurt, dealing with unfinished feelings or unhealed wounds, struggling with addiction, lonely, tired, hungry? We need to focus on supporting ourselves.
Some people don’t want to deal with feelings, their own or anyone else’s. I understand. Such people will always struggle with someone like me, who feels deeply and expresses vividly. To them, I will always look as though I’m overreacting.
What overreacting means to me, though, is the intensity of my feelings is negatively affecting my health, and I need to find ways to support myself. I don’t want to feel less. I want to feel better.
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash