“I may disagree with what you say but I defend your right to say it.” Voltaire
SAYING THE UNSAYABLE
We are sometimes plagued by intense emotions that appear to have no logic and are often contradictory but that co-exist with other more “normal” emotions. What do we do with them? They are too embarrassing to say out loud and if we did express them, we’d be told that we were impolite, rude, hurtful or stupid. If they burst out in an unguarded moment, we feel guilty or are often made to feel so by the listener.
As a responsible mother, practitioner or friend, it is important for me to create a safe space for the person talking to me to be heard, while if I want to take responsibility for my own life, I have to make sure I find a similar safe space for myself. We all need a safe haven where we can express or absorb complex and contradictory feelings
So what do we do with these feelings? They are often not expressed: we keep them in or stuff them down and sadly they might then manifest as a problem. Suppressed emotions can cause depression or burst out as rage or even mania. People stuff emotions down with food which can become binge or compulsive eating or they could turn to alcohol, drugs or other substances to help them numb the emotions they don’t know what to do with.
Contradictory feelings exist at almost every stage of our lives. A toddler wants to play and be happy but gets frustrated by not being able to co-ordinate his limbs. A young child excitedly wants to tell a story but gets frustrated because he can’t articulate the torrent of ideas. A teenager has strong beliefs but is contradicted by adults. Young people want freedom but have no money and transport. They love their parents but hate them for setting boundaries. A working person likes having a job but is restricted by corporate rules. A mother loves her children but they can make her feel inadequate and miserable. A husband loves his wife but she makes him furious when she nags. A person loves his sibling at the same time as feeling jealousy. Some people may be intelligent but have no education or skills. In midlife we could be happy, independent and successful but can be frustrated by our bodies that aren’t as strong as they were. Women may be educated and enjoy freedom of speech and association, but in a patriarchal society their individuality is often not acknowledged, which causes an overwhelming lack of self esteem and possibly even anger. I don’t want my ill friend to die but, if she did, it would be a relief from the pain she’s in. Somebody dies and I am overcome by sadness but also feel angry. I may be looking forward to retirement but also questioning my value, now that I’m not working.
Contradictory emotions abound. They are intense, opposing and can exist at the same time. It is imperative that these emotions are expressed in a safe place. They need to be acknowledged and heard so as to keep them in perspective and not allow them to grow, fester and take control.
THE RIGHT TIME AND PLACE
But where are we supposed to voice these often embarrassing emotions? I believe that the suppression of these emotions can cause major problems. They contribute to stress and can manifest as a physical illness or they can cause emotional distress and manifest as a mental imbalance. We need to find and use appropriate outlets for these emotions before they disturb us with their “inappropriate” nature, or overwhelm us with their forcefulness.
Nowadays we want reasons for our problems and are quick to label behavioural, mental or emotional imbalance as an illness. There are ever- increasing numbers of definitions, along with medications, offering assistance.
It is said that mental illness can be caused by a chemical imbalance in the body. However, not dealing with powerful emotions and the stress that this can generate can also cause a chemical imbalance in the body and brain. This is like the question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”
Other than with medical labels and medication, is there another way to handle this mental illness “epidemic”?
PREVENTION IS BETTER THAN CURE
I like the preventative approach. If something works preventatively to keep you well and maintain balance and harmony, then it must also work in the extremity of a crisis.
I suggest that it is vital for each of us to have a safe means of expressing contradictory emotions, having recognised that it is perfectly acceptable to experience these contradictions.
If we are interested in our health it is our responsibility to find this means of expression with someone such as a parent, partner, friend, counsellor, support group etc. There are other ways of expression such as writing, dancing, painting, cooking, gardening, playing music and singing. In fact, anything you do with creativity can help give voice to deep-seated emotions. It is also good to have a healthy, positive approach to one’s sexuality. In addition, exercise can help with transforming some of the emotions and bringing in balance by working off the fizz of excess energy or by stirring up lethargy.
It is your responsibility to set this up and maintain it. Moaning “my partner doesn’t understand me,” simply means you have to find another way.
If we are interested in helping anyone else, then we can offer a listening ear which is not judgemental. The quality of our listening determines the quality of the speaker’s thinking – so it is important to actively listen, with no interruptions and without trying to fix the problem. If we listen well enough, they will come to hear themselves and maybe even find a solution themselves. Our solution may be brilliant but it is more relevant to ourselves, so take your own advice but keep quiet. The real benefit for them is working it out for themselves and finding their own solutions.
As a healer and a mother, I find this almost impossible – but I seem to be getting better at it the more I practise. All I seem to want to do is take the pain away from the person I’m talking to. Ironically, that is the most unhelpful thing to do and, now that I know that, I find myself biting my tongue a lot!
In a crisis of threatened suicide or dangerous maniac behaviour, I believe the truths don’t change. The person still wants to be listened to and respected. The mental health slogan goes: “Nothing about us, without us.” Nobody wants to be told what to do, or be forced or manhandled – but what do we do if they are behaving in an unacceptable or dangerous manner to themselves or others?
WHAT HELPS AND WHAT DOESN’T
I suggest keeping away the people who are making them worse (even inadvertently). This is difficult, as the spouse or parents, for example, are the ones who provide the support but also can often be whom the intense emotions are aimed at and thus their presence often seems to make the situation worse.
There is no logic in the emotions (ever, I think) but in a crisis everyone is in emotional turmoil. A caregiver who doesn’t push the buttons is helpful; someone who is trusted and can be kind. Everyone involved can help the most if they can do something to keep calm, look after themselves physically and deal with their own emotions and fears. Make sure the person in crisis is physically safe and listen to what they say they want. Don’t tell them what you think they need. It is also helpful if the carers can listen to each other and honour their different approaches. There is no right and wrong here; it’s imperative to act with integrity and mutual respect. Within this space of respect, you are all more likely to do the appropriate thing.
Medication can help control the situation and keep things safe – but these emotions, now rampant, have to be expressed. I don’t believe it’s necessary to process all the “stuff” that’s happened in the past but it is vital to recognise the emotion now i.e. what it is, not why it’s there.
It seems that this idea could assist significantly in the prevention of imbalance as well as in the crisis itself. We must listen without interrupting and without judgement. Try to remember that an anagram of “listen” is “silent”. When the speaker has finished, wait and see if there’s more, or gently say “Tell me more.”
If we did this to our children they would learn that these potent and contradictory emotions can co-exist and it can be safe to express them without fear of judgement. As a mother, it’s hard to be told how ‘horrible’ I am, to see how much ‘hatred’ there seems to be towards a sibling and how much hurt there is from so-called friends. My task is to hear all this, not take it personally and not make them feel bad for what they are saying. I just want to acknowledge their emotions. If they can’t say it to me then where can they go? It’s not easy to listen like this, but it’s worth it.
When you think you’re good at this with a friend, test your listening skills on your spouse, parents, siblings or children! I trust that you will come to understand a profound conundrum …the way to be heard is to listen.
Suzanne Leighton, HealthWise, Complementary Health Practitioner, firstname.lastname@example.org +27 21 794 2738Special interest reducing the stigma and mystery surrounding mental illness. For information about support groups, articles, self-help documentation and forthcoming workshops, or to arrange a tailor-made workshop, contact her at email@example.com
Needing support, guidance, a listening ear or a caring soul?You will find help under:
Below are the details for two workshops that might assist in ”Finding your Voice.”
|Saturday4 Sept||“The Story Within”Art and story workshop||tba||Mirjam MacleodBridging Polarities through Art teacher 021 788 6942
|Saturday 11 Sept
Once a month maybe
|“Finding your Muse”Writing workshop||Southern Suburbstba||2-5pm||R300 pp per session||Cheryl Hewson 021 6854966Life coach and writer
Suzanne Leighton firstname.lastname@example.org
Compl Medical Practitioner & writter