Making progress: Learning to crack open to break free

Note – this is a post I’ve been wanting to write for a while. I think it might help explain some aspects about me, plus maybe help someone else. But I’ve been nervous that it might read as if I am blaming others, which isn’t the case. As I work through the reasons behind my self preservation approach for living, I find there are a combination of reasons for it (plus, if I didn’t have the loving family I do, I might still be stuck, rather than making progress). I didn’t have any big event that caused this, and I grew up in a caring family. It’s the way it was, and things are slowly changing within me. So, with that caveat, read on.

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Growing up

I’ve always been someone who keeps her thoughts and emotions to herself. I grew up believing – without actually being aware of my belief – that if I can be calm, predictable, not overly emotional, do all the right things and not get things wrong, life will remain in control. I’m still working out why I developed this belief – I wasn’t told it, as I can remember – but I certainly took it on board. Control has been important – chaos is scary, and I would do anything to avoid scary.

As a result, I built up emotional barriers that I couldn’t see, didn’t realise I had until they were pretty solid, and certainly couldn’t break through them. And on some level they served their purpose. Yes, I did fairly well at school, at uni, at work, and in other areas of life. And yes, I would rarely provoke anyone to anger. I was so reliable, and compliant, that most things were  fairly smooth. Which is not to say I wasn’t anxious. I was – very. But my anxiety often turned out to be misplaced. Mostly, things worked out ok.

What did happen, however, is that despite my involvement in lots of activities, I faded into the background.

I’ve since realised that this approach wasn’t a good way to live. I could rarely accept, fully, shared euphoria and would watch, bewildered, as friends would shriek with excitement or the thrill of special times together. I found it hard to let go, and to be free to celebrate the good times too (because closing one emotion tends to close off others, as I’ve since discovered). Nor could I express the anger I did feel when things went wrong, when things were unfair. I didn’t have the language, I didn’t have the voice to express it. So I internalised it. And the anxiety built up.

However, I didn’t recognise this as anxiety – and neither did my counsellor or my GP. After a good part of a year spent in counselling, swiftly avoiding any issue until the last couple of minutes of the hour session (yes, the counselling didn’t work), my GP prescribed antidepressants. And they soothed the anxiety – for a while. But they further closed off the emotions – for a while.

 

Breaking down

What I’ve found, though, is that emotions do need to be felt. Anger needs to be recognised – even if it’s not expressed directly. Fear needs to be acknowledged if it is to be overcome. And life is grey without expressing joy. Not only that, but emotions can’t be suppressed. They go somewhere − in my case, in headaches, and sleeplessness, and ever so slight nausea that sometimes seems like it can be overcome by sugar (chocolate and icecream and soft drinks in particular – which create their own problems, including mood swings. A topic for another time). And a jumble of incoherent thoughts and feelings that grew and grew until I felt I needed to burst because they were too big to contain.

And, about five years ago, these thoughts and emotions could no longer be contained. And I broke – literally. It built up quicker and quicker, until I was broken. Yes, I had a breakdown. It took several months – actually, almost a year – and lots of help, to put myself back together. But I did − and, without realising it, I tried to reinstall the emotional barriers, because that’s what I knew, and it felt secure. Except I didn’t manage to install them in the same way.

I’m no longer the same as I was. I’ve lost the same degree of reliability – I am less punctual, and not so good at remembering things – and I am more emotional.

I’ve recognised this for a while and have hated it until recently. Especially the emotional part – for, after all, wasn’t it the emotional aspect, the lack of self control, that led to my breakdown?

 

Cracking open

However, I’m slowly realising that I was wrong in attributing it to lack of self control. It’s the other way around. My emotions were actually helping me – I needed to break apart in order to heal properly. I’m needing to learn how to release, to show, to share in my emotions and those of others – but I need to learn how to do so in a less emotionally explosive way than five years ago.

I need to acknowledge my emotions. I’m learning to accept that there are actually no bad emotions (although there are definitely alternative approaches to expressing them, and some forms of expression are hurtful and wrong). Keeping the emotions locked up doesn’t work.

And so, slowly, I’m learning how to crack through the barriers, without breaking apart completely.

I’m learning to identify the underlying emotions to some of my reactions which completely confuse me. For instance, punctuality.

I have always struggled, but battled, to be punctual. Recently, however, I’ve seemingly lost the ability to be on time.  And then I’m angry – with myself, with the people I’m late to see, and with the situation. That anger isn’t solving the problem though, because I’ve needed to work through the reason behind it. It comes from resentment about my reliability in the past and where it got me. It’s me acting out what I didn’t in childhood – a form of defiance, essentially ‘stuff them, I’ve been so reliable for so much of my life and where has it got me?‘ There are better ways to express this anger and resentment, I’m coming to realise.

 

Breaking free

I’m learning to acknowledge the overwhelming (to me) emotions I feel. To let them out, even if, as I sit at the computer, I wish the tears would stop streaming down my face. Because, sometimes, it’s only through feeling something powerfully that the reasons become clearer. And long held pain can be aired, and healed. And, as I become more accustomed to it, I learn how to better direct these scary emotions and they lose their scariness.

Plus, joy, buried somewhere beneath, can somehow get to the surface when I allow the other issues burying it to be exposed and addressed. And joy is something that is actually wonderful to experience – who knew?

To paraphrase that often quoted Leonard Cohen song ‘Anthem’,

Sometimes you have to bring forward your ‘imperfect offerings’ − to share and embrace all of your life – even though you might have to allow ‘the cracks’ in it to show.

Through these cracks, as Leonard Cohen says, is ‘how the light gets in’. 

But it’s more than that:

It’s also how you let your own light shine out. 

I’m glad I’m finally realising this − and working out how to express it.

 

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So, not to end on a down note:
Let’s ‘Ring the bells that can still ring! – and let the light in, and out.

 

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20 thoughts on “Making progress: Learning to crack open to break free

  1. What a journey you’ve been on! Cracking a little to let the light in (and the joy out) is the only way, I’ve found. And yes, writing is my therapy. Don’t know what I’d do without it.

    Beautifully, honestly written. Thank you xx

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  2. Good on you for sharing! It would’ve been difficult as I understand and know all to well writing and sharing some things make all the emotions and feelings flood back to you. You should be proud of where you are now and where you are going – moving forward.

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  3. Thank you for being brutally honest with yourself and us. You’ve come such a long way!
    Not showing emotion I think is also part of our cultural social etiquette….
    Do the Italians have a lower incidence of anxiety/depression? I wonder….

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    1. Thanks so much, Ils – your support through this whole process has been so valuable (I don’t know if I can fully express how grateful I am!) As for the cultural background, I’m sure there’s something there, but given I’m someone who talks a lot with her hands, I don’t know if there isn’t a bit of Italian in my background anyway! xx

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  4. Hi Helen.

    I have read this post several times and was stumped as to how to reply at first. However it is one of the bravest pieces of writing I have ever read and I really relate to it personally on a number of levels.As your mother I have to fight the impulse to defend you but I realise you don’t need to be defended because you are such a strong, brave woman. You have broken through in a way few, particularly women, have done. Your honesty is breath taking and long may it continue. Your relationship with Al and the children will deepen because of your honesty. We are so proud of you- we always wanted independent yet loving daughters and that’s what we have.

    On a personal note, I have realised that blame and fault are terms that should be avoided as stuff just happens in many cases. I have battled this myself regarding my birth family and now feel a lot more peaceful with help. However you have gone a lot further and at a much younger age which is truly commendable.

    Congratulations, Helen, and lots of love,

    Mum xx

    Sent by iPad power

    >

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    1. Thanks Lila – I have a feeling that there are others who probably share some elements of this, and it would be great if it helps them – it certainly helps me to get to the point where I am better able to articulate where I am, emotionally (it’s a relief, to be honest).

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  5. “What I’ve found, though, is that emotions do need to be felt. Anger needs to be recognised – even if it’s not expressed directly.”

    Funnily (or not, because I have the same control thing you do) – I only came to this realisation recently. Brooke’s ‘Feel the feelings’ if you will. Still trying to make it actually happen rather than putting unpleasant feelings away in a box inside my head. But it’s definitely been interesting

    PS: love the new header image xx

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    1. Thanks Kelly! It was interesting timing – the therapist I’d been seeing was talking about the fact that closing off what I’d tended to see as ‘bad’ emotions was also closing off ‘good’ ones, and I think shortly afterwards I heard Brooke saying something similar (and it also made sense of the Acceptance Commitment Therapy I’d tried and didn’t really understand – you know, notice, and observe the emotions without judging them, etc). Thanks for the comment about the heading – temporary, as I am planning something more comprehensive re the blog appearance, later this year, but yes, it definitely looks better – thanks for the tip! xx

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  6. I can’ imagine it must have felt so liberating for you to write this – not only an opportunity to unload, but also a huge step towards learning to share more about your thoughts and feelings.

    Learning to be vulnerable to other people can be terrifying for the person who is used to seeking control, but the friendships and support networks that arise as a result of it are on the flip side.

    Best wishes as you continue along your journey x

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    1. Thank you Lauren! That’s a good way to put it – it really was liberating to write it. And yes, vulnerability doesn’t come easily, but it’s bringing its own rewards, I’m finding x

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  7. What a brave post about your experience and your learning curve about yourself, Helen. I have and still do struggle with my emotions a lot – I feel they rule me actually but it’s because they just pour out – I have no hope of holding them back. Similar to you, for a long time I felt that was the wrong thing, the bad thing, that I was weak and childish – especially at the extremes of misery and euphoria – but these impulses need to escape out of us to allow us to be us, to participate in the world, to let the light in and most importantly, to make way for our individual, beautiful light to shine out. Such a great analogy xx

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