Saturday, May 25, 2013

“What makes us say such mean things to ourselves?”

This was a question that came up in conversation regarding the way people with eating disorders, though often remarkable human beings and worthy of wonderful lives, think about and talk to themselves. Surprisingly quickly, I had my answer to this question.

For me, it was not knowing how to be who I really was/am. As a child, my parents did their very best with me. My sensitivity was accommodated in ways that others' is not by family. It was my own perception of how I felt, and judgement of the same, that caused the disconnect with my true self and thus, the negative self-talk.

I'm not sure if I have shared this memory in this blog; I know I have spoken about it in my face to face interactions.  It stands out from my childhood, and begins my explanation of why I became the way I was.

When I was 6, my mom's brother passed away after battling cancer. I had met him once, maybe twice. He lived on the other side of the country and we were not close. The day he passed (an expected death), the call came through to my mom and, when she hung up the phone, my dad asked how Bill was. Mom stated quite matter-of-factly, “He's dead.” and carried on doing the dishes as she had been before the call. I overheard this news and fled to my room with my eyes stinging. I remember standing in the corner, crying - sobbing in fact - and wondering why? It was my mom's brother and she was not crying, why was I so upset? The fact remained that I was but, the idea that my emotional response could possibly be wrong, stuck with me. From then, I wanted to be “stronger” – more like my mom, my hero.

As time went on, I tried to control my emotions but not in a way that worked because I did not have instruction/guidance.  In fact, I cannot imagine many, if any, people were aware of the effort I was making to be “like everybody else”.  Emotional control meant stuffing, stifling, and bottling my feelings. Within myself, I felt flawed. I still had my emotional reactions/responses but I hated myself for them. When I didn't observe other people having, or allowing expression of, their emotions, I had to wonder why I was feeling the way I was at any given time - certainly I was wrong.

It makes sense now, how the rest of the negative self-talk came to be. If one starts at 6 or so thinking that they are wrong and weird and tries to change with no direction, a certain divide arises:

I still had my feelings but I felt they were often the wrong way to feel and, therefore I, as a person, was wrong; eventually it was as though I were two people in one body. I did not lose my sensitivity but I sure tried to deny it, mask it, and suppress or change it. After years of telling myself and being convinced that I was not doing “it” right, what could the result be except extreme judgement and negativity?

Take it one step further, I figured that if I could not even feel the "right way", I must be doing everything else wrong too!  The snowball effect...

When I went through eating disorder treatment as an adolescent, I was finally allowed to be whomever I really was. At 17, I experienced, emotionally - in one year - what I imagine most people spread out over all the adolescent years of 12-18. It was challenging but freeing. However, despite being allowed  and encouraged to be myself, there was still no understanding of how I could contend with my sensitivity in the context of the “real world”. It was finally okay to be sensitive, it was seen as a gift, I accepted it...but to be allowed it and to be able to really deal with it, understand it, and celebrate it, are different skills.

As I progressed into chronological adulthood, I started to suppress again because my experience was too strong and too painful. I continued to see myself as doing things wrong and feeling too much or the wrong way. Thoughts like, I “should” be stronger; I “should” be able to deal with life. After all, I'd spent two years in intensive treatment and was in recovery from an eating disorder!

I look back and want to hug that young adult and tell her that it's okay not to have it all figured out. I want her to know that she does not need to numb out her feelings, though extreme at times, with mood stabilizers, anti-depressants, and anti-anxiety agents. I want her to see and understand that her OCD tendencies were just an attempt to structure her world when, internally, there was still chaos. I want her to know it's okay to ask for help and that she is still worthy of help even after the effort put into her during treatment; that needing support does not end for any strong human. Strength is found in vulnerability and removing the simple mask of bravery.

As the conflict between how I felt and how I thought I should feel arose again, the self deprecation and hate naturally followed. After all that, I was still doing it wrong. (By whose standards? By the image presented by the superficial elite of the world to be sure...) 

Additionally, I realized that I was not only feeling my own feelings but was highly perceptive of others' also. To experience others' feelings as viscerally as if the were one's own, while trying to contend with the deeply personal jumble inside, is an overwhelming task!

Eventually, I relapsed hard. Through the ED I was able to numb it all. I disconnected with myself and with the world as I became more and more obsessed.

When I entered treatment this last time, I expected a recovery similar to what I had when I was a young adult but hopefully with a bit more insight and "tools". The journey was far from the same and the result is extensively different.

Sensitivity, as a gift, is not a simply a belief anymore, it is knowledge to me now. The idea that I feel very deeply is okay and it does not need to destroy me. I am not doing anything “wrong” because there is no scale with which to judge the right and wrong of my feelings.

If other people do not think and feel the same way I do, it does not make anyone wrong, it just adds to the mosaic of human material.

I love my sensitivity now. I love that it allows me a completely different and wordless language/interaction with the world. I am okay with crying over the loss of a person or animal I barely knew or knew for only a short time. I know that my experience of the world is different than many others' and that is okay too. It is not wrong, it is just me, and how I feel, how anyone feels, can never be “wrong”.

Now, I also know how to really manage and care for myself. I might go so far as to say that I am an expert in me! I have never felt this way. I always thought that someone had to understand me, and what I was thinking and feeling, better than me. These days, I know me and I trust myself. I can comfort and reassure myself but am okay (and getting better) with the idea that sometimes, someone else can comfort me too. I am allowed all my feelings because that is all they are. I understand the power I have to choose my thoughts about those feelings (and about life in general) and that is a practice I engage with most of the time. I have stopped over-analyzing how I am feeling - what is the point? So that I can compare it to you or her, or him, or myself from a different time? I do check-in with myself when I am feeling unexpected or uncomfortable emotions but without judgement. It's kind of like I am asking myself to “tell me more. What is really going on?  Does this even belong to/come from you?”. In that way, it sounds like I am my own therapist and I feel like exactly that!!

It is amazing to know myself and be okay with whatever I am and who I am becoming. I can always improve on things. I have a list the length of my arm of areas in which I am making much effort to change and improve, but only because it serves my true self, and hopefully the world, better - not because I feel flawed.

So with all that, the negative self-talk has vastly improved. I remain human and have doubts and fears. I sometimes criticize myself more harshly than I would like to or need to. I do not think I am the “bees' knees” on any given day but I sure do not hate myself – ever. What is so dramatically different is that, although I remain hard on myself at times and push myself extensively to move forward, the real me is consistent. Consistently evolving, perhaps! The disconnect that I described earlier doesn't exist and therefore, less and less confusion. With this clarity, I can see myself for who I really am and that alright!!

I have proven to myself that I do much better with gentle encouragement versus harsh words to myself; learned to be curious about what and why I am feeling; and understand that my feelings cannot be wrong - regardless of what they are - but can be explained and offer insight.

If you ask yourself, who is the "you" you speak to in your thoughts?  Is the real you the speaker or the listener?  Both?  Why not visualize yourself as a child and speak to her/him as you would a young one?  Ultimately, you are your child and you are your parent.  You are your client and you are your therapist.  Everyone needs input from the outside but, in your thoughts: be the gentler speaker and the open listener - as one.

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