feelings · mental health

Get real

I recently went on a bit of a rant with a friend, complaining about people who are not transparent or open, and how I’m just authentic to a fault and it’s important to me but maybe not to everyone else. But what I’ve learnt though, in the last few months, is the importance of authenticity within your mental health journey.

It was in a moment where I was joking with a colleague (followed by me questioning why I was oversharing to such a degree), about how I keep myself so busy to avoid my feelings. And then my psychologist red-carded me for doing the same with my therapy. So there it was. I avoid my feelings. And that is one of the things that was making my mental health journey inauthentic and stagnated.

I put a lot of work into my self-esteem and self-love journey, but for me to start healing in a big way, I need to stop running and start acknowledging those feelings.

Cartoon of characters representing different emotions in Inside Out movie.
Inside Out movie

We always hear how we have to be true to ourselves, but what exactly does that even mean? I was called out for not have “self-integrity” and while I consider myself to have a lot of integrity in normal everyday life, I was forced to admit that that was true.

It comes from being a people pleaser. We do and say whatever we think the other person wants to hear. And we deny ourselves. Zero integrity for self. Because what if what they are saying is against your values? What if it’s in direct contravention of your beliefs? Why are you not standing up for what you believe in?

And when it comes to your feelings, and your needs – are you denying these? Are you allowing the feelings and needs of others to be more important to yours, and thereby, denying yourself feeling your feelings? Are your behaviours in line with your values, and what you believe in and your needs and feelings?

For example, I hurt my wrist recently, and instead of resting, I have been doing all the things, because I don’t want people to think that I’m lazy or unhelpful. But the reality is, I am denying myself the healing process.

Woman posing with flowing dress.
What depression looks like – me looking happy just before a psychiatric clinic admission

And it’s the same with being our authentic selves and staying true to what we need. If we go against what we truly need in a moment, we are not being authentic towards ourselves. We are denying ourselves. And we don’t always consciously do it, sometimes, we do it out of habit, fears of rocking the boat, fears of not being liked. But if it costs our mental health, it’s not worth it.

And it’s not about being mean, or cruel, or hurting others – it’s just about staying true to yourself. So, if you need to rest on the weekend, and a friend invites you out, say that you cannot join, because your need is for rest and recovery. And that is more important than doing something for someone else’s reasons, and neglecting yourself.

A couple of years ago, a movie poster had the subtitle, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything”, and while it’s a cliché, I’ve never forgotten it. I was forced to remember it in this moment where I realized that the people pleaser within me was falling for anything. And for someone who has convictions as strong as I do, that was a hard pill to swallow.

Standing up for ourselves feels mean to us, because we spent our entire lives being mean to ourselves, by not standing up for ourselves.

I am pledging to look after my own needs and emotions. If I feel down, I am going to allow myself the space to feel that emotion, even though it may not be accepted by the people around me. I am not going to pretend to be happy just to appease everyone else. I need to experience the emotion to work through it.

I pledge to be truly authentic.

mental wellness

In the feels

When my good friend passed away last year, something struck me, related to my mental health journey. Whenever any of my colleagues, and family have approached me to express their condolences, and support, my response was, “I feel sad, because I miss her, but I’m glad she is no longer suffering.”

And that is what I realized the day after she passed. I’d been feeling sad. And I’ve been able to acknowledge that. And as I was walking into the office on that Monday, I was thinking about it. People will often say, “I feel so depressed…” but what you’re actually feeling is sadness. And while yes, I was going through a depressive episode at the same time, but, regarding my friend’s passing, I felt sad. And I was able to differentiate between the two emotions.

And while that may seem so minor, for someone who struggles to express emotion because for her entire life she was told that nice girls don’t get angry, and good girls don’t feel bad emotions, it’s a massive step to tease out sadness from depression. To be able to say that yes, I am depressed, but what depression feels like is a weight on my body, resulting in me not being able to get out of bed, or wash my hair, or eat. Whereas sadness, is a feeling of sorrow, of wanting to be around my friend, or wishing to hear her jokes, or spend time dancing with her, or looking at old photos, and realizing we will never have another photo together, nor share a birthday together again. It’s a feeling of longing.

Yes, this is a small win, but if this is you, give yourself a pat on the back. A lot of us have grown up being told things like,  “Do not throw a temper tantrum” (when you did not have enough words to express your anger as a toddler), or “Oh come on, it’s just high school, it will be over soon” (when something made you sad as a teenager). And of course, “Nice girls don’t get angry” and “You would be much prettier if you smiled”. Let’s not forget, “Man up” and “Boys don’t cry”.

We’ve been taught, especially as women, that we always need to be happy, and that nice girls don’t get angry, so we never learn how to express anger in an appropriate way. And boys are taught that you need to man up, and that the best way to resolve a conflict is to fight it out, so they never learn the appropriate way to express anger either.  And the same goes for other emotions. “Boys don’t cry”, but also, women shouldn’t be “too emotional”. How do I know what too emotional is? If I never learnt what the correct amount of emotion to express is?

And then as adults, we don’t even understand what is going on in our bodies when we feel emotion. And we have to re-learn how emotions feel, and how to express them, and the words for the different emotions, and also, how emotions feel in our bodies.

Last year, I learnt about expressing different emotions, and how to differentiate them from thoughts. So I may be mentally exhausted from working too hard, so it feels like tired, but instead of taking a nap, maybe I need to watch a silly show on TV to rest my brain. Or, know that I think that you your actions are unfair, but the emotion I am feeling is rejection.

The next step that I’m currently learning, is how my emotions feel in my body. We feel anger long before it erupts in shouting, for example. I have acknowledged that my anxiety is in my gut, and in the tension in my jaw and in my shoulders. But what I am learning is to pick up on the building of the anxiety before it’s a full-blown panic attack and then I have to take a lot more drastic measures to return to normal functioning, rather than picking it up while it’s still manageable. And maybe all I need to do is roll my shoulders or breathe deeply three times.

Another example, is knowing that when your partner starts making a statement that is a trigger for you  and before he’s completed the sentence, your stomach is already in knots, and reading that feeling in your body, and being able to say to yourself that you are feeling anger, and frustration. So that instead of responding in anger, you respond by expressing the emotion that you are feeling, and stating that you cannot respond to the content of what he is saying, until you have a moment to calm down and think rationally again.

What’s also important to know, is that we don’t just experience emotions in our heads. Emotions are felt throughout our bodies, and we can pick up the signs in our bodies first sometimes. A small tingling in your fingertips, to suggest that you don’t feel comfortable somewhere. Before it becomes panic in your mind, and a sinking sensation in your gut, before you are in full-blown fight or flight mode. So start paying attention to your body, it’s more intone than you think. And it alerts you to your emotional state before you recognize the emotion.

It’s so important to be able to express emotions, and that means being able to name them, and to know the difference between sadness, and anger. And to know that expressing emotion is not bad, if done correctly. What we’ve convoluted, as a society, is expressing emotion with how that emotion is expressed. And that is where the problem lies.   

Photo Credit: The Mighty

It’s acknowledging that your partner, for example, is allowed to be angry with you for something you said or did, but not allowing them to degrade you, or violate you because of their anger. And then for you to depersonalize the anger, by saying to yourself that they are angry with something you did as it upsets them, and it has nothing to do with who you are as a person. It’s feeling anger yourself, but not allowing the anger to forever colour your feelings towards another person.

All feelings are ok. It’s what we do with them that matters.

Useful Resources:

The emotions wheel (useful for identifying emotions):

https://themighty.com/2018/11/i-feel-nothing-wheel-of-emotions/