Feelings — and what to do with them

By Caitlin Kelly

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A box full of comforts…

Having them, acknowledging having them, processing them, talking about them, reflecting on them.

Sharing them.

Brrrrrr!

Several bloggers who reveal their painful and difficult emotions, (without becoming maudlin), are Anne Theriault, a Toronto mother of one who has written eloquently about her struggles with depression and anxiety at The Belle Jar and Gabe Burkhardt, whose new blog has described his battles with PTSD.

Ashana M. also blogs lucidly about hers, as does CandidKay, a single mother in Chicago.

Here’s a gorgeous essay about coming to terms with yourself.

It takes guts to face your feelings and try to work through them, certainly when they’re painful or confusing. I’ve found it simpler to just ignore and/or bury them.

Writing publicly about your most private emotions? I’m still deciding how much of it I want to do.

I’ve not struggled with panic attacks or severe anxiety, occasionally with depression. I haven’t been sexually abused or attacked. Therapists — starting in my teens when I was bullied in high school for three years — have helped.

I grew up in a family most comfortable expressing a limited set of emotions, often anger. There was usually plenty of money, and good health and interesting work, so there was no obvious source for it. Material wealth and a sort of emotional poverty are a challenging combination.

No one got hit, but verbal attacks weren’t unusual.

My mother is bi-polar and hated how her medication tamped down her energy and creativity — so her terrifying and out-of-the-blue manic episodes were a part of my life, beginning at age 12 and continuing into my 30s. These included police, consular officials in three foreign countries and multiple hospitalizations, including a locked ward in London.

As an only child, my father (then divorced) usually off traveling for work, I had no backup.

She also drank a lot, and smoked, both of which eventually have ruined her health. No one seemed to care very much, which was both understandable and heartbreaking. She was Mensa smart, beautiful, funny.

We gave up on our relationship in 2011; I live a six-hour international flight away from her.

It’s a source of deep and un-resolvable pain. I don’t write about it because…what good would it possibly do?

I have three half-siblings, each from different mothers; we’re not close.

When people rave about how awesome their family is, I feel like a Martian; I left my mother’s care at 14, my father’s at 19, to live alone.

I hate explaining this. It feels like telling tales out of school, or people react with pity or they just can’t relate to it at all.

Which stops me from writing about it, except for here, something, I suppose, of a trial balloon. I still don’t have the distance, or skill, to make it all beautiful, an amuse-bouche presented prettily for others’ enjoyment.

I wonder if I ever will.

My parents divorced when I was 7, and I spent my childhood, ages eight to 14, shuttling between boarding school and three summer camps. Camp saved me. There, at least, I felt wholly loved: as a talented actress and singer, an athlete, a friend and an admired leader of my peers.

But you quickly learn, when you share your bedroom with strangers, none of whom you chose, to keep your mouth shut. Guarded = safe. There’s almost nowhere completely private to cry, or comfort yourself.

At my private school, no one ever just asked: “How are you? Are you OK?”

The ability to be emotionally intimate is very much a learned, practiced skill.

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Not surprising, then, that I became a nationally-ranked saber fencer!

I also work in a highly competitive field — journalism — where emotional vulnerability can provoke (and has) attack, ridicule, gossip and bullying. A friend in India once defended me there against a lie that took root in Toronto, where I worked, carried overseas by someone who thought this was a cool tidbit to share.

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 Jose

Luckily, later in life, I met and married Jose, a man fully at ease with having and expressing his feelings and hearing mine, a deeply loving person. He was the much- cherished youngest child of his parents, a small-town preacher and a kindergarten teacher. He was a late-life surprise baby, born after the stillbirth of a brother.

A fellow career journalist, working at The New York Times for 31 years in photography, he’s also quite private and cautious about who he lets in close.

I’m so grateful every day for his love and support.

How do you cope with your difficult feelings, of sadness or anger or loneliness?

Do you share them and/or blog or write publicly about them?

Whose (nasty) voices live inside your head?

By Caitlin Kelly

She was pretty, in an elegant black dress, nylons and shoes. Her hair was carefully highlighted, her gold jewelry tasteful. Likely in her late 50s or early 60s, she radiated elegance and confidence.

But, as she turned the corner the wrong way to head to the five-star hotel dining room, I heard her mutter: “Pathetic!”

To herself.

Who was living inside her head and why were they — still — so cruel?

I later saw an interaction with her husband, a soft-spoken and highly-educated retiree, as she made another meaningless and minor error anyone could make — and he immediately chastised her.

It was painful to watch, both his attitude and her reaction.

Don't stay trapped!
Don’t stay trapped!

Here’s a smart and helpful piece from Alternet via Salon:

Loser! You messed this up again! You should have known better!

Sound familiar?

It’s that know-it-all, bullying, mean-spirited committee in your head. Don’t you wish they would just shut up already?

We all have voices inside our heads commenting on our moment-to-moment experiences, the quality of our past decisions, mistakes we could have avoided, and what we should have done differently. For some people, these voices are really mean and make a bad situation infinitely worse. Rather than empathize with our suffering, they criticize, disparage and beat us down even more. The voices are often very salient, have a familiar ring to them and convey an emotional urgency that demands our attention. These voices are automatic, fear-based “rules for living” that act like inner bullies, keeping us stuck in the same old cycles and hampering our spontaneous enjoyment of life and our ability to live and love freely.

Some psychologists believe these are residues of childhood experiences—automatic patterns of neural firing stored in our brains that are dissociated from the memory of the events they are trying to protect us from. While having fear-based self-protective and self-disciplining rules probably made sense and helped us to survive when we were helpless kids at the mercy of our parents’ moods, whims and psychological conflicts, they may no longer be appropriate to our lives as adults.

One therapist I know calls them “old tapes” — possibly a meaningless phrase to anyone under the age of 30: “Tapes?” (As in: tape recordings on cassette or [gasp] reel-to-reel. Things we keep re-playing and listening to, even if they’re toxic.)

I felt so badly for this woman, whose external appearance and life of ease — retired, dividing her time between two homes in lovely areas of the country — initially might have intimidated me.

Because I know all too well what it’s like to have a nasty voice, or several, echoing in your head.

Some of us try to drown them out with alcohol or drugs or food or shopping, costly ways to self-soothe.

Some of us spend a lot of time and money in therapists’ offices, trying to make sense of why these voices still resonate so loudly, sometimes decades after we first heard them.

They can carry such power and pollute or destroy so many other relationships, whether with friends, lovers, our spouse, co-workers, a boss…

Is there an unwelcome and nasty voice inside your head?

What are you doing to silence or exorcise it?

 

Anxiety is toxic and contagious — chill out!

By Caitlin Kelly

 

You have no excuse to bully others. None.
You have no excuse to bully others. None.

 

Last week brought two unprecedented experiences in my 30 years as a freelance journalist.

Two editors each apologized to me by email. One had driven me nuts with micro-managing while the other snapped my head off verbally and hung up on me for daring to (politely) argue my point.

Yes,  I could have shrugged it off. But I didn’t.

Being repeatedly subjected to others’ anxiety and unmoderated rage leaves me shaking head to toe.

When I told a third editor — also a veteran of our industry — her reaction shocked me a little, because such incivility is something we’re all just supposed to ignore and shrug off.

“You’re lucky,” she said. “Many people would not have apologized.”

Why is it our job to absorb, ignore or deflect your toxic anxiety?

People in my industry, and in many others, are running so scared that many are behaving like terrified toddlers lost in a sea of unfamiliar knees at Disneyworld.

The sexy new word for this latest debacle of American employment-at-will — (i.e. they can fire you anytime, anywhere for any reason at all. No reason, even! And the law makes it impossible for you to sue or claim redress. Yay capitalism!)precariat.

From The New York Times:

Thirty years ago, a vast majority of Americans identified as members of the middle class. But since 1988, the percentage of Americans who call themselves members of the “have-nots” has doubled. Today’s young people are more likely to believe success is a matter of luck, not effort, than earlier generations.

These pessimistic views bring to mind a concept that’s been floating around Europe: the Precariat. According to the British academic Guy Standing, the Precariat is the growing class of people living with short-term and part-time work with precarious living standards and “without a narrative of occupational development.” They live with multiple forms of insecurity and are liable to join protest movements across the political spectrum.

The American Precariat seems more hunkered down, insecure, risk averse, relying on friends and family but without faith in American possibilities.

Here’s a link to Standing’s 2011 book, which I want to read.

In my industry one-third have lost our jobs since 2008, most of which are not coming back. So those left employed are clutching their staff positions like a drowning man with a life-vest. They’re freaked out by anything or anyone that threatens their hold — literally — on the upper middle class.

I get it! A midlife, mid-career drop in income is deeply unpleasant.

But this widespread free-floating work-related anxiety feels toxic, whether coming from other freelancers — some of whom seem to tremble in the corner most of the time, persuaded they have zero bargaining power, too terrified to negotiate better rates or contracts — or bad-tempered staff editors.

My recent eight-day working trip to Nicaragua, even working long days in 95 degree heat, was totally different. We were treated with kindness, respect and welcome.

It made me viscerally understand that many journalists (many workers!) are becoming accustomed to being treated rudely and roughly.

That’s crazy. And I came home with a much clearer sense of this.

So people, it’s time to get a grip on your anxiety:

Meditate. Move to a cheaper place. Do whatever it takes to lower your living expenses. Work three jobs if necessary, and bulk up your savings so if you get canned or face a dry spell, you’re able to manage.

It’s time to stop flinging your anxiety (aka shit) at those around you, in some desperate attempt to offload it onto those in even more precarious situations — like unpaid interns and your army of freelancers, none of whom can even collect sick pay or unemployment benefits.

We’re already stressed, too!

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We are not monkeys in the monkey house.

Why Kids Get Bullied — And What To Do About It

Image taken by me on March 5, 2007.
Image via Wikipedia

Kids who get bullied face three challenges, a new study says.

The factors involve a child’s inability to pick up on and respond to nonverbal cues from their pals.

In the United States, 10 to 13 percent of school-age kids experience some form of rejection by their peers. In addition to causing mental health problems, bullying and social isolation can increase the likelihood a child will get poor grades, drop out of school, or develop substance abuse problems, the researchers say.

“It really is an under-addressed public health issue,” said lead researcher Clark McKown of the Rush Neurobehavioral Center in Chicago….

In two studies, McKown and colleagues had a total of 284 children, ages 4 to 16 years old, watch movie clips and look at photos before judging the emotions of the actors based on their facial expressions, tones of voice and body postures. Various social situations were also described and the children were questioned about appropriate responses.

The results were then compared to parent/teacher accounts of the participants’ friendships and social behavior.

Kids who had social problems also had problems in at least one of three different areas of nonverbal communication: reading nonverbal cues; understanding their social meaning; and coming up with options for resolving a social conflict.

A child, for example, simply may not notice a person’s scowl of impatience or understand what a tapped foot means. Or she may have trouble reconciling the desires of a friend with her own. “It is important to try to pinpoint the area or areas in a child’s deficits and then build those up,” McKown explained.

This is smart and helpful but it doesn’t address a large issue — kids who bully. What options are there for a kid who’s being bullied? Shout back? Get into a fist-fight — or worse? Girls, especially, socialized to use their tongues, not their fists, as weapons of choice, can be extreme cruel to one another verbally, but how many of them would dare throw a punch at one of the mean girls to settle it?

As someone who was viciously bullied, daily, for almost three years in high school, responsibility for fixing the nightmare can’t solely be laid at the feet of the victim. Far too often, teachers and others in authority simply turn a blind eye instead of confronting the bullies and addressing their behavior.

I didn’t turn to drugs or drop out of school, although I spent many afternoons heading home in tears. Without a group of really good friends, and the knowledge that the hell of high school would not last forever, I could never have survived it.