Emotional Neglect and Being Human

I just recently finished reading a book on emotional neglect entitled Running on Empty by Dr. Jonice Webb. I can highly recommend it for anyone who feels like they’re struggling with a lot of the emotional stuff that should be easy in adulthood but for whatever reason… isn’t. Y’know, things like forcing yourself to do stuff that you don’t want to do, knowing how to self-soothe in healthy ways in response to stress, how to be firm but kind with yourself about your mistakes instead of beating yourself up.

Through reading it, I essentially learned that while contemporary culture tells us that these are inborn character flaws that we should look down on and tsk, tsk people for having… like many other things, they’re skills that for whatever reason, a lot of people didn’t learn growing up. You can learn them as an adult (and indeed, that’s what I’m trying to do now), it’s just hard.

It also lead me to come to terms with my situation in my adolescence in a way I hadn’t before. You see, the book is titled “Overcoming Childhood Emotional Neglect”, and emotional neglect in particular paints a particular picture of the caregiver that… I don’t know, perpetrates it, I guess. Specifically, a picture that tends to paint them as a villain in the mysterious case of “why am I so fucked in the head?”

But at least in my case (and I’m willing to bet in others, as well), I don’t think that’s true. What’s closer to fact is that my mom was in an untenable situation and did the best she could. Essentially my dad left us when I was at the end of elementary school, and left us in such dire financial straits that my mom took on a second (and sometimes even a third) job. Even when my dad came back, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and a lot of my mom’s energy went towards trying to make sure he took his medication, getting him to apply to jobs and just generally even do the basic kind of helping out around the house one expects from a partner. My dad himself had effectively been absent as a father figure since the day he left, and continued to be up until the day I severed ties with him.

As a result, I didn’t really get… PARENTED (at least not emotionally) when I was in high school. My mom always worked, or if she was at home, she was either catching some brief rest before going to her other job, making sure I had something to eat, or using the few threadbare moments she had to keep HER sanity intact. She believed that, since I was a bright kid, I had things handled. At the time, I enjoyed the freedom, but it’s only just now that I’m learning what the cost of it was.

I didn’t get, and then internalize a loving but firm ‘inner parental’ voice that I could use as a guide when I made mistakes, letting me deconstruct where things went wrong so I could learn from them. I, like many kids, had to make my own, and the result was an unbalanced voice that ranged from complete permissiveness (“It’s okay, just don’t let it happen again”) to outright abuse (“Why are you so fucking stupid?! What’s WRONG with you”).

I didn’t really learn how to self-soothe or practice many elements of self-care. When I was upset as a kid, we went to McDonald’s. Or my mom would bring home a treat. As an adult, I routinely eat emotionally… and over-eat, at that. I never really learned to grapple with and accept my emotions (even the distressing ones) as okay to have: I learned to bury them alive in a shallow grave of carbs, or otherwise to just ‘not think about them.’

All that fueled a lot of anger I had for a long time, first towards my dad, and then even towards my mom. But through reading Running on Empty, and thinking more about my mom’s situation at the time has lead me to be a lot more empathetic. If I’d been in her shoes, what more could I have done? We were holding on by the skin of our teeth as best we could, trying to keep the basics intact as far as a roof over our heads and food on the table. A mentally ill, largely unsupportive and increasingly alcoholic husband and a teenage son grappling with anxiety, depression, and unresolved abandonment and self-esteem issues would be overwhelming for even the most emotionally well-prepared person. Essentially, I’ve learned that even though I’m going back and understanding what I didn’t get emotionally growing up, the reasons I didn’t receive that emotional nourishment isn’t necessarily “my mom/dad/caregiver was a bad person.” A lot of the time, they’re the same as anyone else:

Scared. Broken. Dealing with unresolved issues of their own. Doing their best.

No one is given a how-to guide on raising an emotionally healthy family. Until very, very recently, it was just expected that we all knew how, and that silence has let a sickness of ignorance spread that claims thousands of lives and stunts the potential of millions more.

In the end, it’s not about placing blame. It’s about healing through understanding. Less about trying to go back and undo what was done (or wasn’t done), and more about seeking out and giving yourself the love, knowledge, and emotionally nourishing connections I need now, as an adult.

Thoughts on A Philosophy Blog? (And Philosophy in General, I guess)

So, I’m a philosophy minor. More than that, I’m a big fan of thinking about things (sometimes too much, as the number of posts on here about anxiety will attest) and picking them apart. However, one thing that bugs me about mainstream philosophy (if there is such a thing), is how…. limited in scope it is.

I find as I ascend in years at university, I find the questions get smaller and smaller. For instance, in a Theory of Knowledge class I had, the question that the entire semester revolved around was that of what the professor called “Epistemic Akrasia”, or the question of whether or not you could rationally do something that you were aware was against your own self-interest.

Now, to me that question DOES sound interesting. But the class, as philosophy often does, devolved into minutia about questioning the definitions of “rationality” and “what we could define as ‘awareness’, as well as the usual questions about free will that normally seep into many a philosophy class like a gas leak (and potentially just as explosive). That in itself isn’t necessarily BAD per say, as one of philosophical thought’s most valuable traits is teaching the ability to tease out people’s assumptions about meaning and put them to the test. The problem I had was the heavy feeling I had in the pit of my stomach after the class was done. The feeling of “Where did we get to? What was the point of this?” and the general dread that it felt like a pointless exercise in nigh-masturbatory nitpicking.

I feel like when we engage in philosophical questioning, a good thing to do might be to take a step back and also ask “Why are we asking these questions?” “What are the implications for operations within the real world for the things we might glean from their investigation?” Too many times I’ve read a philosophical paper or essay that included the statement that “Answers to question X may have important implications for A, B, and C”, but then fails to go on and give any kind of detail as to what those might be. For a sub-branch of philosophy as potentially useful as epistemology for affecting how we relate and engage with one another both individually and societally, to spend hours and hours quibbling over the definition of “aware” not even in general, but for the hypothetical purpose of a single PAPER, seems like a tremendous waste of mental energy.

Meanwhile, so-called ‘serious’ academics scoff at what someone might disparagingly call “self-help” philosophies, notably the rise in the interest people have in scholars like the greek Stoics. As if it’s a sign of weakness or intellectual frailty to look to philosophy for ways to live a good life, to improve our outlook on the world, or deal with its pain and difficulties. I feel like I have to ask: if philosophy isn’t making peoples’ lives better, what GOOD is it? Having dealt with the usual assumptions from people outside the field that we’re all a bunch of closeted eggheads with interest only in pointless discussions, views such as the above make me shake my head. Is it any wonder that universities defund philosophy programs, or that people don’t want to even talk to philosophers, when all we talk about are topics that have exactly ZERO relevance to the average person’s existence?

It’s in this line that I’m wondering about making a dedicated philosophy blog. I use “dedicated” in the loosest possible sense, as I mentioned above that I’d want to keep it as open as possible in terms of topics and ideas. Philosophy is something you can do with ANY topic, no matter how personal, cultural, or global, and it can help provide comfort and healing in times of darkness, perspective in times of confusion, and a potential path forward when the road seems muddled and confusing. I just… don’t want to start it, and then be afraid to start writing because of potentially having an audience. Ugh.

A Turning Point (hopefully)

So I started anxiety meds two days ago. I haven’t gotten a restful sleep either night since. I don’t know whether to blame this on the meds themselves or the myriad of thoughts I have squirreling around in my head keeping me awake. I just got smacked down by a midterm this past week, have two papers due by the end of the month, as well as a Statistics Lab Exam this upcoming Thursday. I’m really beginning to feel the pressure, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to stay focused on maintaining academics while not letting my health deteriorate.

The last two weeks I pulled nighters, and am just generally fucking myself over with my lack of time management skills. The new meds (my doc put me on Zoloft) do seem to, I don’t know, quiet down my internal monologue a little bit. Sometimes it seems like keeping a consistent train of thought going in my head is like talking to a room full of kindergartners hopped up on pixie sticks. The main voice of the instructor keeps getting drowned out because the kids keep shouting out the random things they see/do/think. Those “voices” (I hate using that word, it makes me sound like I’m experiencing auditory hallucinations) are still there, but at least in the past day or so I’ve found them to be much quieter. Part of me keeps pointing out that I shouldn’t jump to conclusions, and that this may very well be a placebo effect. But I really, REALLY hope not.

I want to change. I don’t want to keep having to exhaust myself of willpower everytime I have to force myself to do ONE THING I don’t want to do, because the anxiety (and the thoughts that come with it) are too high a mountain to overcome. I don’t want to keep wasting so much time talking myself back from the edge of dropping courses/dropping out of school/saying “fuck it” to whatever happens to frustrating my goals at present. I WANT SO BADLY to be able to jump into the mindset of, “Okay, that sucks, but this is how we’re going t o fix it,” that I had in Vancouver.  I want to be able to start working on something/go to the gym/studying/reading WHEN I want to, and not when I feel stimulated to, and not having to spend several minutes paralyzed with analysis over the pros and cons of every fucking decision I make.

I need this to be a turning point.

NOW. NOW. NOW.

So I’m really fucking impatient. With just about everything, including myself. My therapist mentioned this at my last appointment, and I’m more and more realizing just how correct he is.

When I make a mistake, I immediately go to work identifying the cause of what went wrong. And if I correct it, and things don’t IMMEDIATELY improve, I get frustrated, down on myself. I ask “WHY ISN’T THIS WORKING? I DID THE REQUIRED STEPS!!” I call myself weak-willed, incompetent, lazy… because clearly if I’m not getting results, I’m not trying hard enough.

When I’m not making progress in my workouts, I feel like shit about my body AND my efforts. Things feel pointless, and it feels like biology is forever laughing in my face. But I’vel earned lately the credo  that results both take time AND consistency. Making little adjustments every week is continually robbing me of the latter, and just… I need that. Part of the problem, I think, is the self-consciousness that comes from the fact that Shauna 9the woman from the previous post) is now coming with me to the gym. It was nice to get the extra motivation from someone to actually GO, but 1) Now I feel more self-conscious and unable to just focus on THE WORK while I’m there, and 2) I need a place I can be alone without anyone I know, and where I’m not doing schoolwork or whatever. Someone to meditate, to be totally self-focused, alone with my thoughts, the whole deal. With her with me on the bike-ride, timing her workout to end with mine, I’m not getting that. I’ve awked her to go on ahead this morning for precisely that reason. I need space and time to myself. To reflect, to gather myself, to be as selfish and self-oriented as possible. I need this place of meditation. I like being in a place where it’s just me and the iron.

Well, I’m going to head off now. Going to try being a bit more forgiving of myself. I need to do SOMETHING, because this just… isn’t working. Or who knows. Maybe I’m just not giving it enough time.

Thrown for a Loop

Man it’s been a while. AGAIN. Longer than possibly ever before. I’ve been avoiding this (or excusing it) because initially, I was ashamed for not keeping up with it. Then I rationalized it away as, “It probably won’t help anyways, and it’s just a waste of time, which I don’t have.” I’m beginning to notice this pattern of Shame—>Rationalization in many areas of my life, leading to a perennial tendency of aversion to effortful tasks. So for the next week, I am going to focus on using those same rationalization skills to remind myself why it IS important that I keep doing this.

Because if I’m honest, even if no one is reading this, I need this decompression. To spit out my thoughts, feelings, troubles on a page to look at them. To dig my way through the rubble of my own cognition, trying to find a loose thread of flawed logic that I might be able to pull on so that my neuroses can begin to unravel into nothingness.

Part of the issue is that I’m feeling like I’ve been knocked off kilter as of late. There’s a woman (of course there is, says one of the many members of the peanut gallery in my head). We have tons of chemistry, she’s geeky, analytical, as into weightlifting and fitness as I am, driven, creative, independent, all that good stuff. Unfortunately, we’re hosuemates. Unfortunately, she just broke up with her first-ever boyfriend not long ago and doesn’t want to see herself in a relationship-type context right now. I know, because I attempted to ask her out, and that was the response almost word for word.

Now I’m in this weird pattern of behaviour when I have feelings for someone, where I’m trying to be on my “best behaviour” to try and show that I’m someone she’d want to date later on when she IS wanting to date. But this leads to the only areas of my life that receive nourishment are the ones she is also privy to. I devote more energy into acting “good” than a lot of things I should otherwise be focusing on (ie. going to class, maintaining my diet, getting my various writing and reading works done on cammpus or on my own). It’s like the sniper reticle of my willpower and focus is firmly placed somewhere OTHER than it should be. The rest of my life isn’t in TATTERS, YET, but I’ve noticed this pattern before back when I was dating Jay, and I can’t let my concern for how she may or may not feel about me motivate my decisions during the day. I realize this is just a basic human reaction and I shouldn’t beat myself up for it. But it also doesn’t make it okay to let myself off the hook and coninue with it.

The point: she’s awesome, we get along great, and she’s my friend. But she is just one person. I can’t let the guiding light of her emotions guide my life. I have too many balls in the air right now to afford to do that. Besides, remember that when she first met me, she was interested before I started FOCUSING on flirtatiousness and whatnot.

On another note, I’m going to start writing not as a “sit-down big project”, but as a nervous energy reduction method. Also drawing. I need outlets, because frequently getting stuck stewing in my own thoughts is not doing me any favours. It paralyzes me, I get nothing done, and I feel worse about myself both because of the self-destructive thoughts AND the lack of productivity.  I need to acknowledge the present of my talent, and not just my duty to use it. Not to use it out of duty, but just cuz, y’know, I fucking FEEL LIKE IT. Not everything needs to be planned. Hell, on my desktop background, I have the word “START” in giant white letters. So here’s my first attempt at doing so.

I Plan To Live

Bleck. Decreasingly productive days at the tail end of last week led into a pretty slothful weekend which, even now, bathes my mind like the fog of a fresh hangover. So here I am, trying to put the pieces back together of precisely why it occurred in the first place.

First, as it was elucidated to me in a conversation I had with a few friends at our campus coffee shop, I perform much better when I DO track everything that I do. Without tracking what I eat, I feel less accountable for eating crap and then feel depressed when I feel sluggish and not feeling like going to the gym. When I don’t write down my workouts ahead of time, I end up feeling directionless and wasting time while I’m at the gym, or worse, make excuses not to go in the first place (because I’d need to put together workouts first, and I “just don’t have the time.” Bullshit. You’d have the time if you’d actually managed to keep up with your schoolwork earlier on in the week…). My day-to-day tracking of task completion helps me notice patterns and blind spots of productivity I might not otherwise notice, and I need to remind myself of this fact. My ravenous desire for knowledge about the world and about myself is possibly the deadliest weapon I have in my arsenal, and this is one of the best ways I can make use of it.

I feel like the reason I periodically stop tracking things is part laziness, but also part negative self-judgment. I’m still self-conscious about being considered “weird”, or “obsessive”, or hearing people’s worries that I’m pushing myself too hard by doing this. Ironically, it seems in the last few days, quite a few words of wisdom have aligned themselves in my sight, and as such have helped to give me some direction. The first is a quote from Seth Godin, entrepeneur and public speaker: “You will either be judged, or you will be ignored.” I’ve been struggling against the tide of caring about what others think about me, and letting it distract me from doing what I need to. I have a primal drive to reach towards what I want, but sometimes those years of conditioning are too much to overcome, and I lapse into conformity. But a fear of being ignored? Or being irrelevant? Or being forgotten? It chills me so deeply that somewhere along the journey the isolating cold turns into this burning fury; a driving anger: One that says, “I REFUSE to be forgotten. I WILL be heard. I WILL change the world, and god DAMNIT, people are going to know that I was here.” And that gives me the desire I need to pick up and keep moving forward again.

The second set of wise words comes from the incomparable Henry Rollins, whose work I’ve been foolishly ignoring up until now, to my detriment (a pattern I hope to cease in the near future):

To not be afraid to work your ass off, and to have someone who also comes from a working-class background acknowledge what it feels like to not come from money, and have to struggle for things that so many people around me take as given because, well, they were given it… it’s incredibly vindicating. And just… the encouragement that, YES, you will have to work harder than you ever have before, and that the one thing you can never afford to give up is your personal dignity, your identity, your morality… just… FUCK. I’m reminded of the famous Morgan Freeman quote from Shawshank Redemption: “Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.” I feel like I’ve spent the grand majority of my 21 years on this planet drifting, isolated, awash in a womb of apathy and sloth, afraid to reach outside for the fear that my hand would be slapped away, and I would be shamed for my attempt.

With today’s culture, which revels in the delight of watching people fail at their dreams (take a look at the ratings for the American Idol tryouts to see…), thereby validating their own choice not to try, I now recognize that to some degree, I WILL be ridiculed or shamed. I will be put down, criticized, told to give up, even by people who care about me. “We just want what’s best for you”, they’ll say. But there comes a time that I just can’t listen anymore.

I’m Vincent Smith. I’m 21. And I plan to live.