A Question On Neurosis

In this article on Quilette.com, the author discusses Carl Jung’s experience with neurosis: Jung suffered fainting spells after a playground accident with another boy and he welcomed this opportunity to avoid school.  Then, when confronted by the reality that his illness may be debilitating, he made the decision to “get to work.”  In doing so, his illness went away almost instantly, indicating that Jung was suffering from “neurosis” rather than a truly limiting illness.

The takeaway: “Embracing a status of oppression or affliction can be helpful, as it marshals needed care. However, when held onto too long, it can invite disengagement from life, and an avoidance of one’s fate. Worryingly, it also has negative implications for personal mental health, as it may foster a sense of helplessness.”

My response: This is honestly one of the most well-written articles I have read in years – and that says a lot!  Question: Research does show that subscribing to “psychosomatic” and similar models of self-induced illness (including “neurosis”) does undermine the biopsychosocial model of health and can prevent proper treatment.  This article on the other hand, makes a lot of sense.  How, then, do we identify whether a person is truly suffering and in need of help, from when a person is dealing with a neurosis? What separates the two?

I am putting this here in anticipation of answering my own question.

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Crocodile Tears: Why We Need Validation

I had a recent conversation with my mom on the phone. It was emotional. We argued. At the end I was in tears. I was distressed because she has this very pessimistic way about her (as the result of being let down too many times in her own life, naturally) and this pessimism affects me in a very negative way. In this instance it made me feel as though something that I told her about, something harmless that I personally wanted to do, was wrong in some way. It created an extremely intense level of guilt within me, to the point where I felt sick to my stomach by the mere thought of doing that thing. I simply became so distressed that I was lost for words and all I could do was cry. Then, she said something shocking, reckless, and disturbingly familiar.

“Stop giving me those crocodile tears” she said.

I went silent.

She said a few final egoistic words. I told her to take care and that I hoped she felt better (she told me that she felt ill earlier that day).

She hung up the phone and I sat there to think about the significance of this statement and what it meant to me personally, while I let out a few more “crocodile tears.”

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When I was a kid I reacted to this kind of treatment as any kid naturally would. I accepted the fact that I had done something wrong and I made it a point to avoid doing that wrong thing again in the future.

I didn’t realize just how serious of a problem this was until earlier this summer when I had just graduated from university and received my degree in psychology. I moved back in with my mom and now we make frequent road trips to go visit my grandma who is currently in the hospital. On the road we rant about different things, sometimes personal and sometimes random. It’s the personal stuff that always feels uncomfortable for some reason. I noticed that whenever I feel like sharing something with my mom, something just a little bit personal about myself, something that I would openly tell any one of my friends, I feel a bit apprehensive, anxious… and guilty.

On this particular day I found that feeling very curious. “Let’s do a test,” I thought. I told my mom something that I was honestly thinking about at the time. I told her that I was thinking of eating more raw vegan foods because I noticed that a lot of people were having very positive health outcomes from going raw vegan, and that I thought i’d try having one raw smoothie every day and see how it feels. Normal, benign, and healthy, right? Well, my mom immediately reacted with disapproval and negativity. She interpreted it as something that I wanted to do because I had “low self esteem” and that I should just be happy with myself without dabbling into “extreme” ways of living in order to improve myself.

“Hm” I said. And I sat to think on this for the rest of the ride as I tuned out everything else she was saying.

It really bothered me. Not because I needed her approval, but because it didn’t make any sense. There was absolutely nothing wrong with my idea of having one smoothie a day. If anything, it would be a really healthy thing to do. It wouldn’t hurt me or impose on my mom in any way. It was a simple, random, curious, and harmless idea that I got. Why did it really offend my mom so much then? The only thing that I could think of is that it’s simply not something that she would do – it’s different from HER norm.

I then wondered how often this had happened when I was a kid and what it was that I was doing when she reacted with disapproval (side note: I was an extremely curious and adventurous kid. I did some pretty questionable things :)). I recalled things like not going to bed when it was my bedtime and playing in the dirt when I was wearing nice clothes because we were about to go out to dinner. One time I attempted to resuscitate a dead squirrel from the road that got ran over by a car. A lot of things that any reasonable parent would get a bit upset or worried over (even though I would personally find it hilarious if my kid did the squirrel thing).

But there were also some really innocent things that I did which weren’t abnormal or wrong. When I recalled these events it scared me. There were things like… not getting into the car fast enough, leaving a bit of food on my plate after a meal, wanting to have steak for dinner instead of hot dogs, needing to go to the bathroom at an “inconvenient” time, accidentally tripping and falling for christ sake. Little, menial, NORMAL, and HEALTHY things that I did which my parents got EXTREMELY upset over. They would huff and puff and yell and scream over these things.

No, my dad was not exempt from doing this. I remember one time I had accidentally spilled some milk and his reaction was as though I did something reprehensible. If I asked him for a piece of cheese when he was cutting it for his lunch for work he got upset. When I told him about something I did that I thought was interesting and exciting he would always ask “oh, who told you to do/say that?” …as if I did not have a mind of my own and was not capable of doing interesting and valuable things by virtue of my own natural talents. He made me rush to hug my relatives upon meeting them and I was scolded if I did not run to meet them fast enough. Eventually (obviously!) I became shy and I was scolded for being that way too.

Holy shit, I thought. There are so many things here which weren’t even wrong. I just felt like they were wrong at the time because my parents had a meltdown when I did them. And who were they to know right from wrong? As a pretty wise kid, it was obvious to me that some of the things which they themselves did weren’t well regarded.

Well, it turns out that most of those things that I did which they got upset over were things that simply inconvenienced them in some way. When I was little I couldn’t have realized this, but now, with my educated adult brain, I understand that they got mad at me for doing certain things because those things imposed on them or whatever they were doing at the time. It was because they were stressed, they were self-absorbed, and that I wasn’t necessarily doing something wrong. Basically, if it wasn’t something that they would do and/or if it inconvenienced them, it was wrong. I bet, to some degree, they even controlled my behaviour like this in order to cope with a lack of control that they were personally feeling in other areas of their life, but I digress…

As a kid, it was as though by merely existing I was doing something wrong. There was something wrong with me and I, as a person, was not intrinsically capable of doing anything right or meaningful. At least that’s probably how I internalized it. It only makes sense then that I would often feel anxious, second questioning and doubting of myself, wondering whether or not whatever I was doing or saying was acceptable. But the question now is: how did this eventually affect me in the long run?

Screen Shot 2018-08-04 at 18.16.41Late last year I met an individual with severe bipolar disorder. When this person was triggered, he would go into isolation for extended periods of time because he was so overcome with feelings of guilt and shame. He felt as though he was not good enough for anyone and he did not want to be seen in such an “unworthy” and “unlovable” state. He was an academic perfectionist and a competitive athlete. As an adult, his triggers came from no one other than himself and his own fears of inadequacy. He told me that he discovered the root cause of this behaviour through therapy and that root cause was the frequent, unpredictable, and irrational disapproval of his parents during his childhood. Although to a lesser extent, I could relate to him.

It made me think a lot about how the constant disapproval and invalidation from my parents affected me. Is it restricted to how I feel and behave around my parents? Or does it leak into other areas of my life? I don’t lock myself away in isolation, overcome with shame, but is there something else that I do, or some unhealthy behaviour that I can heal with this new insight? I recalled past relationships, friendships, hobbies, events, school – any and all types of situations in which a person does things.

Here are some facts: I struggle with perfectionism. I often doubt myself. I am easily confused and manipulated. I am obsessed with understanding the inner workings of things. When I can’t understand the inner workings of things I feel inadequate and sometimes crazy. I can’t stand it when things are incorrect or untruthful. I absolutely hate being lied to. Being told (explicitly or implicitly) that I am not smart hurts. I abhor unsolicited advice (it assumes that I don’t already know something). I’ve been in multiple relationships with people who did not respect my needs or feelings. And finally (in terms of what is relevant), I cannot stand being invalidated.

No, it’s not that I NEED validation from other people. I don’t need people to tell me whether I did something “good” or “bad.” I am an adult who is capable and self-aware enough to know the difference between when I did something awesome and when I did something shitty. In fact (not that this happens very often, but) I am smart and strong enough that I usually just laugh when someone tells me that they didn’t like something that I did or said. I also don’t give the slightest care whether or not someone likes me.

It’s being INVALIDATED that gets to me. When I tell someone how I feel, when I am sad or upset, when I tell them that I am worried about something, or that I have some genuine concern …and they essentially tell me that I’m just giving them crocodile tears. It makes me sick to my stomach. And it is the absolute worst when it’s coming from someone that I care about, who claims to care about me too. I am overcome with anger and frustration when people say things like:

  • “You’ll get over it.”
  • “Oh come on it’s not that big of a deal.”
  • “It’s not hurting me so there’s nothing wrong with it.”
  • “I’m not going to have this discussion. It’s your problem. You deal with it.”
  • “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
  • “It could be worse.”
  • “You don’t really mean that.”
  • “You’re just tired.”
  • “It’s PMS.”

And it can also be done covertly: sometimes people will listen to the things that you tell them and then, in their mind, they will change the story to better fit their own perception of reality. You won’t realize that they did this, usually, until a few days later in a different conversation when they bring up what you said. Ever felt like someone “twisted” your words? Usually it’s because what you said was inconvenient for them on some level. It provoked them to step outside of their ego and actually take action to address whatever you were telling them or to at least acknowledge it. Emotionally immature people are uncomfortable doing that. Sometimes they’ll get defensive instead and gaslight the situation, saying that an event itself happened differently than the way it actually did. Usually that’s because the way it happened looks bad on them. This is also a very common reason why people lie.

Invalidation is, by it’s very nature, a form of emotional abuse. It is wrong, period. Nobody should ever question the validity of another person’s reality or emotions, and they especially shouldn’t use manipulative tactics to cope with it. The only purpose this serves is to help the person avoid taking responsibility for their own shitty behaviour or avoid addressing something.

But for me, invalidation stabs at a very deep wound. I find it infuriating. Obviously my childhood played a huge role in that but I think that most of this anger really stems from simply knowing the meaning behind it: when you invalidate someone, it is because you are assuming that their feelings are irrelevant, inferior to your own, unimportant, or incorrect. You are telling them that their reality is wrong and yours is right. The problem with that is: it can NEVER be the case that one person’s feelings are more valid than another’s. We’ve all had different life experiences which have shaped our unique brains and thus perspectives. Who are you to say that yours is the only right one? Invalidating others is a behaviour that operates on an incorrect premise and only serves to silence a person when their feelings are inconvenient for you. It’s this principle that makes invalidation bother me more than anything. It’s simply wrong.

And even if you disagree with a person’s logic you should never invalidate their emotional experiences. Validation has absolutely nothing to do with agreeing. Let me repeat that:

Validation ≠ Agreeing

For the sake of this article I am using “validation” and “emotional validation” synonymously but we are talking about EMOTIONAL VALIDATION here. Obviously I’m not saying that we should accept EVERYTHING that others tell us as the truth! To save us all some time and make sure we’re on the same page, here is an excellent definition:

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Unfortunately men invalidate women a lot. An evolutionary theory suggests that this is related to being “nagged” at by their mothers and now they naturally tune out the voices of women. Other theories look how men are socialized, essentially positing that men have learned to invalidate the feelings and realities of others because they were repeatedly taught to do so as children. Invalidating phrases like “it’s not such a big deal,” “man up,” and “men aren’t supposed to cry” are indeed linked to a dampening of the development of empathy in men (Lawrence et al., 2004). It’s why men are more likely than women to have narcissistic personality traits and be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (Grijalva et al., 2015). Some refer to this gender difference as “toxic masculinity.” Whatever you want to call it, it sucks. I personally remember being in relationships where my partners didn’t listen to the things that I had to say, who told me that my feelings were exaggerated or wrong or in some way, and who even laughed at me when I cried.

So should I release my need for validation because it gives others power to influence how I feel? Should validation only come from within? Is this an issue that I need to heal within myself?

The answer I’ve come to is no. Absolutely not – quite the contrary in fact. It’s the people with narcissistic tendencies who need to accept the fact that everyone should be validated emotionally, otherwise it’s abuse. And you can’t just “release” or “get over” a fundamental need. I’ll say this a million times: all human beings have a need for belonging so we do need other people. That means we need to learn how to live with each other rather than pretending that we are completely “strong and independent” and then wondering why we have relationship problems. That means we need validation. And for our own good we need to relearn empathy if our socialization has taught us to forget it.

This is a core reason why many people spend hundreds and thousands of dollars at therapy, whether or not they realize it. They are seeking emotional validation. Why? Because we live in a narcissistic society where our friends, family, and lovers think that we shouldn’t need it. Because thinking that way makes their lives easier. But we do need it. And they need it too, whether or not they are mature enough to admit it. This is why therapists and counsellors are professionally trained to validate. It’s also a major factor in the efficacy of psychological therapy as a general practice. Being asked “and how did that make you feel?” followed by a nonjudgemental response is actually HUGE.

And the extent to which being invalidated bothers us ultimately does not matter. Because, again, it should never happen in the first place. Personally, I have simply made the decision not to get close with anyone who hasn’t evolved far enough outside of their ego to validate the feelings and needs of other people. It’s the ultimate sign of weakness and immaturity. It’s cowardice. I used to think that validating was something that I could teach to others in my personal life who weren’t very good at it but I’ve since decided that I do not have the time nor desire to do that. Because if they can’t validate me then there couldn’t possibly be anything good enough about them that makes them worthwhile of spending time with. Even if they are intelligent or interesting they simply aren’t a good person in my book. And yes, it’s most likely because they have their own internal issues going on, but I won’t sacrifice my wellbeing in order to appease them with my care and presence anymore. I am more interested in meeting people who want to grow and evolve rather than do the more comfortable thing and hide from their relational problems. Such people are only capable of love so long as the needs and feelings of their “loved” ones are convenient for THEM. I am proud to be a grown ass woman who considers herself quite “strong and independent” but I also recognize that the people who I appreciate the most are the ones who are emotionally nurturing, the people who aren’t too scared or self-absorbed to say things like “that must feel awful,” “aww, are you okay?” and “can I do something to make you feel better?” Anyone with a fair amount of self-awareness and maturity will recognize that about themselves too.

I also want to encourage anyone reading this to implement the same way of thinking in their own life. Know that your need to be validated for your feelings is normal and healthy. Anyone who disagrees on this does not understand what emotional validation actually is and for that reason I will probably dedicate a nice long blog post to explaining it to them soon.

This is what us emotionally healthy people need to do instead of trying to “overcome” our need for validation: we need to set boundaries with people who invalidate us. And, if need be, we should cut them out of our lives completely. If someone is not listening to you, or telling you that your feelings are wrong, they simply don’t respect you. And we don’t need people like that in our lives.

Here’s another comment that I would like to make: I have spent a fair amount of time working with children and let me tell you that this phenomenon is not rare. In fact it is the NORM. As a part of my career I have been responsible for telling kids not to do a plethora of things which were not, in fact, really wrong. I had to tell kids they could only play with certain toys, that they had to sit at certain times and play at other times. If they felt like sitting during play time or playing during sitting time they were scolded. Their behaviour was constantly questioned and if they did anything outside of the “norm” then they were told that they were doing something wrong. They were systematically invalidated nearly every minute of every day. I saw this in schools, homes, and various other settings. Eventually I realized that most of these rules and “norms” were not even there to help the children develop into healthy individuals but rather to manage the stress and maintain the ego of their caretakers. I am so glad that I no longer work with kids for this reason alone.

I am no longer a child. I have to take my past experiences, learn from them, and cope with whatever repercussions they come with. I just hope that the parents of today truly give this some thought. It is incredibly easy for a child to suffer permanent and debilitating consequences from seemingly harmless childhood experiences. Parents, please ask yourself: are your kids learning right from wrong? Or are they learning what YOU think is right and wrong based on your own troubled past, upbringing, and education? Please think of your own mental health struggles and ask yourself: am I preventing my child from turning out like this, or am I encouraging it? When you scold them, did they ACTUALLY do something wrong? Or were you just stressed out and inconvenienced by their existence? The more things you disapprove of them doing, the more you are showing them that WHO THEY ARE is wrong. Choose what you disapprove of wisely.

I love my parents. They are flawed humans, just like the rest of us, who were probably doing their best to raise me in the midst of their own struggles and they also love(d) me in their own ways. They didn’t have the most ideal childhood themselves. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m complaining. I am using this as an example, to learn from it and to share what I’ve learned with others. Because my story is not unique at all – invalidation affects everyone, especially children. It fucks us up in both subtle and detrimental ways and it’s a pattern that continues to repeat itself over generations because of our failure to stop it.

The only solution is to acknowledge the problem, set healthy boundaries with others, and learn how to transcend our ego through empathy. By doing this, we will not only heal ourselves but we can also help to heal those who have suffered emotional trauma and prevent it from happening to others in the future. Because no one deserves to have their emotions invalidated. It’s disrespectful and abusive.

There is no such thing as crocodile tears.

References

Grijalva, E., Newman, D. A., Tay, L., Donnellan, M. B., Harms, P. D., Robins, R. W., & Yan, T. (2015). Gender differences in narcissism: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 141(2), 261-310. doi:10.1037/a0038231

Lawrence, E. J., Shaw, P., Baker, D., Baron-cohen, S., & David, A. S. (2004). Measuring empathy: Reliability and validity of the empathy quotient. Psychological Medicine, 34(5), 911-920. doi:10.1017/S0033291703001624

Is It True That The Stress Response “Overreacts” Sometimes?

We are taught that the stress response is unwarranted when our brain perceives things in our environment which are not a real threat to safety. It happens when we’re in a traffic jam, struggling with tight finances, and when we have a major test coming up. These things won’t kill us and therefore the stress response that we experience from them is something unnecessary and maladaptive. This is stress theory 101. It’s what you learn within the first minute of any stress-related psychology class: sometimes the stress response is silly.

Lately I’ve found myself questioning this premise.

We know that the stress response was designed to occur in the face of some perceived danger. When we need to “fight or flight,” a body full of stress hormones prepares us. The second our brain detects a threat it is triggered. ACTH and cortisol do their thing. Epinephrine sharpens our senses, makes our heart pump faster sending blood to our organs and muscles, the lungs expand so that we can inhale more oxygen for alertness, and triggers the release of glucose so that we have more energy. This temporary systemic imbalance equips us for serious action. But sometimes it gets triggered when we don’t need to act. That’s what we’re taught.

But let’s say we’re at work and we’re stressed out about work. Let’s say we’re stressed out because we’re not passionate about what we do or we’re surrounded by assholes. No, we’re not at the immediate risk of death, but is it really true to say that this poses no real threat to us?

Obviously our needs for food, air, water, and not-being-eaten-by-a-huge-scary-animal are essential for life on Earth. The stress response undoubtedly protects us when we’re at risk in that department. But we also have an inherent need as human beings to self-actualize and to thrive. If we don’t feel that this need is being met, isn’t it rational to assume that being stressed is a legitimate response? Maybe the stress response is our body simply telling us that we are in some general situation which is not good for us and that we need to get out. Maybe it’s not a threat to our life but it is certainly a threat to our identity, our authenticity, and our wellbeing.

Who was it that decided only a select few of our needs as human beings merit our bodies responding in an attempt to help us get those needs met?

I call your attention to the multitude of research studies that have a very straightforward conclusion: psychological stress is literally a threat to our life.

  • Chronic stress is associated with cardiovascular disease (CVD) and the evidence is strong (Dong et al., 2004; Gruska et al., 2005, Kawachi et al., 1995; Niaura & Goldstein, 1992; Steptoe, 2000). One study even showed that higher amounts of work stress were associated with a whopping 50% increased risk of developing coronary heart disease (CHD) (Kivimaki et al., 2006). Researchers Landsbergis and his colleagues (2001) concluded that the most consistent predictor of CVD is a particular source of this stress known as low decision latitude – in other words, having a low degree of control over your work. Considering CHD is the leading cause of death in the world, this is kind of a big deal.
  • Chronic stress is associated with inflammation and other immune-related conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and autoimmune disorders such as systemic lupus erythematous (Affleck et al., 1994; Brody, 1956; Danese et al., 2007; Dube et al., 2009; Straub & Kalden, 2009).
  • Chronic stress is associated with skeletal muscle conditions including headaches and bruxism (De Benedittis and Lorenzetti, 1992; Biondi & Picardi, 1993; Giraki et al., 2010; Ficek & Wittrock, 1995; Sauro & Becker, 2009; Venable et al., 2001; Waldie, 2001). Luckily, treatments for these conditions are more often aimed at addressing stress levels.
  • Chronic stress is associated with gastrointestinal (GI) disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), chrons disease, ulcerative colitis, and peptic ulcers (Hertig et al., 2007; Searle & Bennett, 2001; Talley & Spiller, 2002). For this reason serotonin treatments are currently being investigated but if you are experiencing symptoms of a GI disorder your doctor will most likely just tell you to exercise more and eat enough fibre/probiotics…
  • Chronic stress is associated with atopic disorders like rhinitis, asthma, and dermatitis (Chida, Hamer, & Steptoe, 2008).
  • Chronic Stress is associated with type 2 diabetes (Charmandari, Tsigos, & Chrousos, 2005).
  • There is even some supporting evidence that chronic stress is associated with cancer (Scherg & Blohmke, 1988; Levenson and Bemis, 1991; McKenna et al., 1999).
  • This list does not even include the annoying problems like weight gain, obesity, hormonal imbalance, and mental illnesses which can also be triggered by stress.

The pathways involved between these illnesses and stress are irrelevant and even deterring to the point. Here’s the thing…

The conclusions in the literature tend to reflect this pattern: chronic stress is associated with illness because of the stress hormones themselves wreaking havoc on our bodies over a prolonged period of time. Shortened telomeres, depleted vitamins, androgens, backed up livers, etc. are to blame. In other words, the problem is a malfunction of our BIOLOGY and if only we could just handle uncomfortable situations without experiencing a stress response then we would be just fine. We “can’t avoid” stressful events so we just need to meditate more often or develop better coping strategies.

Literature like the article “Too Toxic to Ignore” by Blackburn & Epel (2012) suggests that we focus on medical treatments or help people change certain maladaptive behaviours in order to address the the issue of stress.

But, what if instead of blaming ourselves and our biology we blame our shitty system which forces us to do things that don’t feel good in order to survive? Are we being inadvertently brainwashed to ignore something serious that our bodies are trying to tell us?

Low socioeconomic status (SES) is one of the strongest and most consistent predictors of disease and mortality and stress is a key mediator (Cohen, 2007; Kristenson et al., 2004); the lower you are on the social ladder, the poorer the health you can expect. Very few diseases are an exception to this fact. It makes sense – low SES individuals tend to face unhealthier living conditions and more stress.

In response to this, a lot of people will say “But look at all of the opportunities we have! We can go to university, or get a better job! We are free to choose whatever path we want! If someone is stuck in a shitty situation, it’s their fault for being lazy and not working harder to get out of it.” If you fall into this category, I’m afraid you’re a victim of the postmodern brainwashing. Getting out of a low SES bracket is incredibly difficult – so difficult in fact, that staying in the situation is sometimes healthier than going through the amount of stress required to get out of it. Ergo, low SES individuals DO NOT have true autonomy. Try getting good grades when you also have to work 25 hours a week and come home to cooking, cleaning, and possibly even caretaking everyday. Add a dance class, a modest beauty regimen, a workout, a meditation, and an occasional evening out on top of that. Good luck. Try getting a better job when you show up to the interview looking like shit because you had to take a 2-hour public transit trip in extreme heat, after running 10 other errands, going to class, doing a shift at your other job, and by the time you finally get there you’re so tired you can’t even respond properly to the interview questions so you’re perceived as “unmotivated.” This is the shit that the middle class will never understand. To them it sounds like bitching. That’s what they’ll think as they read this, probably sitting in an uber on their way to an avo toast brunch.

And the government, who so devotedly caters to the middle class, designs initiatives to address the issue of psychological stress by targeting individuals who are already suffering. They develop campaigns to reduce stigma, crisis support lines, support centres, and training programs for employers to help them support mentally ill employees. There are also wellness workshops and educational programs to teach people how to reduce stress and live healthier. But what the hell does enhancing education do when poor people still can’t afford to buy fresh produce or relax in a car ride home after a stressful day? What if you don’t have the time to meditate because you need to work for 12 hours a day to make ends meet? And if you think about it, this approach is kind of ironic because the very act of participating in such programs means more things added on to an already-stressed-out person’s to-do list.

In Canada, leaders are attempting to implement such “organizational changes.” The Mental Health Strategy for Canada outlines the initiatives. Nowhere does it talk about addressing the mental health crisis by increasing autonomy. Essentially, it talks about how we can improve the lives of those already living with mental illness. In a way we are being force-fed the idea that low autonomy is a fact of life and if you’re faced with it then you basically just gotta learn to deal with it and get support.

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As Jordan Peterson put it, “Everything improves when the poor get richer. We need to make them richer as fast as possible.” I agree. Money is a resource which can buy you time therefore increasing autonomy and giving you the freedom to pursue your passions. And it has been well theorized just how amazing and prosperous this world would be if we could all pursue our passions.

So what if the source of much illness is not within the people but in system that enslaves them? Despite the wealth of opportunity that capitalism has brought us, things are still imperfect. But is the lack of autonomy solely to blame?

Earlier this month, fashion designer Kate Spade made the decision to end her life. She was a highly successful, wealthy entrepreneur with a significant level of autonomy. Those who were close to her knew that she suffered from depression and a great source of it was relational. She and her husband had been living quite separate and unaffectionate lives and he eventually wanted a divorce. Being a family oriented woman, she didn’t. That was the very reason why she left the company in 2006 – to raise her daughter and focus more on the family. According to her sister, Spade didn’t even care that much for her massive fame and success. It stressed her out more than anything.

Spade is far from alone. I draw your attention back to the fact that we are in the midst of a mental health crisis, particularly with respect to depression. It makes sense given that depression is a mental illness which is often attributed to a perceived lack of control over one’s life – and in our current society, many of us are forced to put aside our passions in order to make a living at jobs where we are told what to do. What the death of Spade shows us however is that lacking control over your own life isn’t just about being held back from expressing yourself or achieving personal goals.

Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for people aged 15-34 (Millennials) in Canada, with depression being the most common illness among those who die (Statistics Canada, 2017). Coincidentally this is also a pivotal phase of life for developing long lasting intimate relationships. It’s when people tend to think the most about dating, love, and marriage. Erik Erikson’s famous theory of psychosocial development calls this the stage of Intimacy vs. Isolation, where the biggest psychological conflict that individuals are faced with is the task of forming loving relationships. Successfully making it through this stage results in fulfilment, whereas failure results in isolation and depression.

Among the suicide statistics, we do see that married people in this age range have a much lower death rate than those who are single, widowed, or divorced. It is theorized that the companionship and social support offered by marriage are the factors which decrease the risk of suicide (Kposowa, 2000). Keep in mind that these are fatalities, not attempts (women attempt suicide two to four times more often than men. Men are more successful because they tend to use more aggressive means [Krug, 2002]). Also worthy of noting is that cohabitation without marriage does not tend to show similar benefits.  I will discuss this further in a separate article.

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Back in 1983, Dr. Aaron Beck and colleagues presented a theory which suggested that there are two personality styles which make a person vulnerable to developing depression. More specifically, individuals with a high need for belonging, or those high in sociotropy, would likely become depressed when their social needs are not met, and individuals with a high need for autonomy would likely become depressed when their needs for personal achievement are not met. With this theory, they created the sociotropy-autonomy scale which was designed to predict a person’s likelihood of developing depression. Sato & McCann’s (2000) study used this scale and found that sociotrophy was in fact a risk factor for depression.

I would also like to emphasize however, that sociotropy is not a psychological disorder or symptom but a personality trait and it simply indicates a natural desire to connect with others which is higher than average. In other words, it is not, in itself, something maladaptive, or “wrong.”

Fast forward to today. Not only are we in the midst of a mental health crisis, we are also in the midst of a social crisis. Under the influence of postmodernism, we are being taught that autonomy is the be-all end-all of our existence. Traditional values of family and belonging go ignored, even shamed. To feel the need to belong is considered “needy” in our current culture. We see it everywhere – just go on any dating app and read a few profiles. The most sought after qualities in a woman are “a mind of her own,” “ambitious,” and “strong and independent.” Dependency is the most feared quality with very few people caring whether you’re mean or apathetic. Marriage is seen as outdated and relationships as transient.

Of course those who feel the need for connection are depressed! They are stuck in a situation that they have little to no control over due to the fact that they live in a society which makes them feel like their need for belonging IS NOT OKAY. Furthermore, it is a need that cannot be achieved through personal development – it can only come through positive relationships with other people. We can do our best to make relationships work, but ultimately we are not in control over the decisions that other people make. We cannot control whether our dates call us back, whether our family abandons us, or whether our partner asks for a divorce.

And as a result of this lack of control we seek love in manipulative ways – evident by the hoards of mainstream dating advice which are essentially different spins on how to play hard to get. They’re not wrong – people are wired to want more of what they can’t have. But what is the social cost of normalizing this behaviour? We are all suffering. We play these games to achieve power and control and in the process we leave others in a position of lacking control over aspects of their own life. Great relationships suffer, fail, or perhaps never even start because people are too afraid to be vulnerable.

The praise for autonomy is also reinforced by almost every higher education advertisement. Every other poster on the subway tells us to “Be a Leader!” and go to such-and-such university because we’re “Born to Make a Difference.” This advertising plants subconscious beliefs in people’s minds that it’s not good enough to be who they already are and want what they want. If anything it perpetuates the mental health crisis. It’s annoying at best and harmful at worst. What if I don’t really care about making a difference in the world? What if I am happy as a barista, or a mom, or a hairdresser? If I feel like being a “leader” I will fucking google nearby MBA programs. I don’t need someone else to tell me how I “should” be living my life…

Disney movies, TV shows, media – it used to be about saving the world or finding love. Now it’s all about finding yourself. As a rude awakening, get over “yourself.” Newsflash: We are SO much more similar than we are different!

Autonomy is incredibly valuable but it isn’t the whole story. As humans, we also need to feel connected to others. Abraham Maslow acknowledged this back in the 1940s when traditional family-oriented values were not only socially acceptable but something to be proud of. In his model the need for belonging was represented as being even more important than our autonomous needs:

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And we all know this model is legit.

Honestly though, how many stories have you heard about someone achieving great success only to become depressed because they realized they had no one special to share it with? Or someone who was so ambitious that they lost the love of those around them and ended up regretting it? They were looking at their needs backwards.

We are suffering because our society is suffering. We want to love and to be loved, and we also want to pursue our passions, but we are held back from those things because of the false widespread beliefs that a) it’s not okay to need others, and b) you need to work for a living and sometimes that means getting a job you don’t like.

So essentially, we have a mental health crisis as the result of imbalanced social values and we are addressing the problem with band-aid mental health programs targeted to individuals and their behaviour. We are praising autonomy while simultaneously refusing to address the fact that so many of us simply don’t have it. We are also devaluing belongingness while simultaneously ignoring that it is a massive buffer against stress and mental illness.

Back to the topic of disease – this problem goes beyond the social and psychological. We aren’t just depressed and naive. People are literally physically ill and dying as a result of illnesses which can be attributed to the stress caused by unfilfilment and a perceived lack of control over one’s life.

So what can we do about this?

Part 1 of the solution is balancing our values. We need to see the merit in both autonomy and belongingness. I believe that having personal autonomy and the freedom to pursue what you are passionate about is absolutely integral to health and wellness. However, I also believe that we need to start acknowledging the fact that we are social creatures with a deep need for connection, who need each other, and who can’t always do everything on our own. Not only that, but there is no real reason why we should have to. We evolved as homo sapiens because we learned how to work together. We are wired for it. Deep down, we all want (and need!) love and connection. It’s time we start acting and talking like it. Just as autonomy acts as a buffer in the stress-illness relationship, so does social support (in fact to an even higher degree). And if there is anything I’ve learned from psychology, it’s that we need to know when to ask for help. I’d add on that we also need to learn when and how to ask for love.

Part 2 of the solution is changing how we encourage people to contribute to society. Notice I didn’t say “work.” That’s because I don’t believe it should be work. We should be pursuing something that we are so passionate about it’s akin to breathing. I’ve met CEO’s, engineers, hairdressers, and mom’s who all loved what they do for a living and they were perfectly content – all except those who couldn’t afford to live decently. Why aren’t people working at jobs that give them purpose and fulfillment? Why don’t they have access to them? Why are only some jobs considered socially desirable? Why do more difficult and laborious jobs often pay less? Why do artists have to struggle? And more importantly, how can we change this?

In sum, the stress response is telling us something very important. We feel out of control, not only because we lack autonomy in a society that glorifies it, but we also lack the freedom to reach out and ask for love in healthy ways. Our needs as human beings are going unmet to the extent that premature death is sometimes the result. In the meantime there is a wealth of research on society and its impact on health. Maybe we should start talking more about that.

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Trust, Vulnerability, and Snails: A Personal Update

I have several books and blog posts in the making right now but for weeks I haven’t been able to bring myself to write a single word let alone post any of them. I get fleeting ideas for good topics here and there, but I can’t retain enough focus to properly compose anything.

In fact I can barely sleep or eat.

My mind is currently consumed with thoughts. I am living with anxiety, scarcity, insecurity, sadness, anger, emptiness, and disappointment. I have an abundance of (kind and caring) people in my life who want my attention but the things that they do and say lose my focus within seconds.

In addition to big life changes recently, something unfortunate took place. The miscommunication was prolonged, confusing, and ultimately tragic. Mostly because it simply doesn’t make sense. Why did it become so complicated? I am left with no closure, wondering whether my vulnerability and trust have been greatly misplaced…

There is an excellent Ted Talk by Brené Brown on trust. A wonderful counsellor told me about it recently after I opened up to her, shared the details of some recent life events, and asked her if she saw evidence that I struggled with trust. In the midst of the conflict I was having at the time, I was questioning whether some of my feelings and personal values were based on a “trust issue,” or whether they were valid. What she had to say really opened up my eyes to distrust, what that means, and what my own personal relationship with it is. Naturally I did a ton of research in order to verify and expand on her account.

Here are some key realizations:

  1. I learned something awesome about myself: as a person, I definitely do not struggle with trusting and I am actually capable of being extremely vulnerable. I don’t fit the criteria for having “trust issues” at all (super proud of myself considering certain events from my past = personal development success!).
  2. I have an incredible power not only to feel but also to acquire knowledge and resources that I can trust in, completely self-sufficiently, and use them to solve almost any personal problem that comes my way. I am powerful.
  3. Being Canadian I naturally and recklessly share personal information about myself and my life – no strings attached. Maybe it’s a boundary issue in theory but I think we really just like feeling close to each other 🙂 If there is something that I am not sharing then there is probably a valid reason for that which is most likely a harmless, temporary side effect of some circumstance.
  4. I understand now how trust in others needs to be earned. It is earned not just by sharing information about yourself but even more-so by the things you do and say to show someone that you are (or want to be) a stable, consistent, supportive, dependable, nonjudgemental, and caring person in someone’s life.
  5. In a circumstance where you are lacking proximity that may involve telling them explicitly what you want, how you feel, and making plans with them. If you don’t tell them these things they will be left to make an educated guess based on limited information. They will tend to make generous assumptions if they are good-natured. But for anyone, this will eventually become tiring and unsatisfactory and ultimately make them feel unappreciated and undesired. Nobody should have to guess.
  6. Trust can go up and down, especially if someone’s behaviour is inconsistent.
  7. If you trust someone more than their level of investment merits then you are being harmfully reckless, not vulnerable. As Brené puts it, you need to share the details of your life selectively and slowly over time as you see the other person making “trust deposits” into your account. If you share inappropriately it’s a sign of a personal boundary problem and it shows a lack of self care.
  8. Your own personal intuition is always right. You should trust it above all else.
  9. I thought of three things that I felt I personally needed to trust someone in a romantic context. My counsellor showed overwhelming agreement that this was standard and she even added essential numbers 4 and 5 to my list. This validation made me feel really good so I shared the list with others who’s opinion I have high respect for. Everyone agreed it’s common sense. I’m not crazy.
  10. Deep connections are created over time as trust is built.

There is a theoretical model of trust that reflects a lot of this:

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Credibility is the level at which a person’s words are backed by knowledge and experience.

Reliability is the consistency factor – do they consistently do what they say they will do when they say they are going to do it? Do their behaviours match their words? Have they ever supplied words to match their behaviours?

Authenticity is the level at which they are in touch with their real thoughts and emotions and whether or not they express them openly to you, particularly the difficult topics and their insecurities. To be authentic often requires vulnerability as well.

Perception of Self Interest is the level at which the other person seems to be in the relationship for their own personal benefit. Do they acknowledge your feelings, needs, and desires? Do they validate you? Or do they see their own agenda and rationale as more important/superior?

Trust is a lot trickier than we think. Unfortunately there is no universal truth about when you should trust, who you should trust, and in what ways you should express your trust. It is completely dependent on a mesh of interconnected subjective experiences. Maybe some people place more importance on authenticity and the equation looks slightly different for them. Or maybe someone just wants to see people acting out of care for the best interests of everyone involved. Maybe someone had inconsistent parenting as a child and if you show them reliability then you score major trust deposits in their account. But by what coefficient? And what coefficient indicates a “trust issue” or mental illness? The questions we could add to this list are endless…

This is why we have the social sciences. People are complex. It’s also why the DSM changes as society changes and as research progress is made. We are slowly waking up to the fact that there are simply no universal truths in the social sphere – change appears to be the only constant.

It’s also why we need to validate the feelings, needs, and desires of others as equally valid to our own. Our experience is not superior to anyone else’s experience – it is simply different. Your trust equation therefore cannot be illogical. What is right for someone else is not always right for you and that is OKAY.

One question you may ask then is: can you still make a relationship work if your equations are quite different? Could you still be compatible? The answer is YES (of course! If we all trust a bit differently then we have to find a way to get along somehow unless we want to be totally alone forever). It ultimately depends on whether or not you want the person to be a part of your life.

Furthermore, whether or not you should welcome that person into your life should be based on how good they make you feel (since our emotions are the most reliable indicator of what we truly want and need).

When we find these people we accommodate them in our life by being flexible and adapting to their needs in order to make them feel safe (without crossing our own personal boundaries of course). In conflict, we need to meet them halfway. It’s a small sacrifice in our personal rationale that we have to make. It’s perspective taking. It’s compromise. It’s fairness. It’s what we do if we genuinely care. Because when we genuinely care about someone we’re not happy if they’re not happy. It should be something we actually want to do, even if we think we’re right and they’re wrong. And so if someone else does not compromise with us they are not worth our time.

Note: Sometimes we may have the same needs but different ways of satisfying them. If you are struggling to come to a compromise with someone, find out whether you are incompatible in terms of your positions or your interests. Positions are the things you say you want, whereas your interests are the underlying motivations for wanting those things. You can compromise on your positions, but you should never compromise on your interests. I have another article in the making discussing this topic in depth. I highly recommend trying an exercise called “The 5 Whys” with your partner in order to begin the process of coming to a compromise.

My counsellor also said that this kind of conscious bonding is sometimes the only way to heal certain wounds from the past. Sometimes we literally aren’t capable of healing them on our own and we need others to show us certain kinds of love first in order to learn how we can start giving it to ourselves (I have an unpublished blog post expanding on a theory which posits that marriage is an excellent tool for taking this even further. I will eventually update this post linking to it.). This has HUGE implications but goes sadly unrecognized. It is baffling how western society still continues to glorify individuality and actualization so much despite the wealth of evidence that connection and belonging are so much more fundamental for personal health and safety. But I digress…

Brené concludes her talk on trust by saying that we need to learn to trust ourselves above anyone or anything else. This is where intuition comes in. Teal Swan made a pretty great YouTube video about trusting yourself by learning to harness the power of your intuition. TLDW: discover your true needs and desires by paying attention to your emotions, identify what things feel good and right for YOU, and keep the people in your life who make you feel good. That is the #1 key to fulfilment.

It also brings me to my current dilemma though: sometimes following your intuition can be really difficult.

What happens when you are given only some of the essential variables for trust (and in a great quantity) but little or nothing of others? Aren’t all of the variables at least somewhat essential for everyone? What if there is a massive elephant in the room and they’re completely ignoring it but at the same time showing other signs of trustworthiness? What if your intuition says “yes” but there’s a whole lot of the evidence telling you “no” and THAT starts to make the situation not feel good? Are trust of the person and trust of the situation two different things? What if you wanted to be closer to that person so, for a while, you were vulnerable, trusting, and shared your inner world despite the lack of evidence that they wanted to be in your life but that started to go on for a long time, achieving nothing tangible? What if all along you couldn’t reach a compromise because you were trying to discuss your interests while they were disputing positions? What if you just needed to hear the person explicitly say “you can trust me because I want X” (where X = some fair, tangible, good, and mutually desirable outcome). And then everything could all be good and natural from then on?

Or what if their behaviour instead became reckless and apathetic and now you’re just too disappointed and tired to keep trying? Or what if it’s actually your fault because you should have trusted your own intuition and said “I’m sorry but I can’t do this because it simply doesn’t feel right for me to do it this way” from the start? Like, WAY before you started to care.

My counsellor told me that I have deep and solid knowing of what I want and what’s socially “normal” but I am sometimes easily susceptible to doubting myself when under the influence of others (a drawback of empathy)… add to that equation the 21st century and it’s overabundance of information, painful past experiences, and a geographically local dishonesty crisis. What then? It makes sense for someone to need standard fucking social practices and to be rational rather than torture themselves emotionally in order to accommodate the preferences of others.

In addition to this relational chaos, here’s something real: right now I feel like a failure in some ways. If there’s anything I have accomplished it’s a great deal of personal development and self awareness. I can trust, cope, be vulnerable, solve difficult problems, take good care of things, create beautiful things, think big, and love deeply. But I feel like I don’t really have anything real and meaningful to show for that. I finally entered an amazingly fulfilling career as a behavioural instructor therapist but I may have to leave because it’s not giving me enough hours yet. My skin, hair, and nails suck at the moment. Excessive lifestyle demands consume a lot of my vitamins and energy and leave me little time for self care. I’m almost 30 and single af because my great capacity for deep love is also a great weakness as a tool for other people’s power and control. Whenever I get to the point where I start caring, I’m always the one who cares more. Literally, always.

Like a snail, things have sometimes been painfully slow for me. My life has been full of joy and wonder but also some obstacles and setbacks. Sometimes it can feel like I am moving forward accumulating nothing but the weight of a constantly growing protection mechanism on my shoulders. I am not quite where I want to be at this point in my life. I know that the solution in this case is to be content as things are now but that’s easier said than done. Even if you finally achieve that state of internal peace you can still be brainwashed into thinking it’s not good enough again.

These aren’t nice feelings. I am not my best self right now. It makes me want to withdraw from the world to be in solitude so that people won’t see how much of a failure I am. It makes me emotionally unavailable to them anyways. I have nothing worthwhile to give or to show to them right now.

These feelings of insecurity are naturally the hardest to share… but sharing them anyway is the strongest indicator of courage, authenticity, and vulnerability. And maybe if I was trying to get close to someone else and they felt similarly then we could connect on that and it would bring us closer…

Here are some random facts about snails:

  • They are small and adorable 🙂
  • Most are completely harmless.
  • In some cultures snails are a symbol of joy.
  • They have big families and they like to dine together. They love.
  • Snails carry the same shell for their entire life; it grows along with them as they themselves grow and mature.
  • They are capable. They can spend their entire lives scaling rough terrain because they are protected by their own slime. They could crawl over a razor and still be ok.
  • They are emotionally fragile however. When they are threatened they sometimes feel the need to retreat into their shell to protect themselves until they feel safe enough to come out.
  • Despite their size, they are very strong – they can lift up to 10 times their own body weight in a vertical position.
  • They are notoriously slow, traveling from 0.013 – 0.0028 m/s. This has some downsides but it also means that they are patient and won’t “run away” from you the minute you don’t show them your best self.

To be vulnerable and expose your weaknesses you have to be strong, especially when you are fragile. It takes courage. Snails are awesome. I’m proud to be one 🙂

The moral of this story is: just be vulnerable as you begin to feel that the situation is right for you. Anyone who is worth your time will wait or compromise.

This is the most real (if not the only) thing I could possibly write about right now. So here you see art in action; a glimpse into my soul, the part of myself that I am experiencing and acknowledging at this moment over a tear-soaked keyboard. Half of it probably sounds weird or doesn’t make sense to you. A lot of it makes me feel incredibly exposed and and I’m posting it here for my 1K+ followers to see anyway – those who are waiting for my professional, “informative and practical” content. I do it while knowing that some may cringe in embarrassment for me. But it’s vulnerability. It’s essential for establishing trust.

It’s also the first step to healing new wounds 😦

So I do hope, in some way, you found this informative and practical.