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.

Middling

This probably won’t be the best thing I’ve ever written. And that’s okay.

I mean, it probably won’t be the worst either, but something about comign to terms with that is extremely freeing. A friend of mine, a PhD student and super duper smart lady, retweeted something that said along the lines of “Your next job probably won’t be your last job. In fact, it probably won’t. And that’s okay”, as mostly a message towards academics not to worry about being locked down into a singular research/teaching oriented job their whole lives.

Now, as the eleventy-hundred other posts about the topic might have alerted you, I struggle a lot with anxiety and procrastination. It makes me dread doing the things that give me joy as well as the typical drudgery stuff (in fact, in a lot of cases, the drudgery stuff ends up feeling EASIER to do). I’ve wracked my brain to figure out why I have so much trouble, and I think a piece of the puzzle lies in the above frame of thinking.

Thinking of the next thing I create (the next video, the next blog article, the next test) as the thing I’ll be defined by, it turns into this BEHEMOTH of a thing that will make or break me, and, like someone avoiding the final quest in a game because they don’t want it to end, I find some way to put it off or force myself to momentarily forget that it exists.

But the reality is that, for better or worse, I’m not going to know whether or not this is The One, or just another of the thousands of iterations on my way to it, until well after the fact. Hindsight is 20/20, but I would add the addendum that forecasting is fantasy. No one knows the impact or irrelevancy of anything that they do until after they do it (beyond a certain point anyways), least of all with art.

So basically, my fellow lovelies, my passionate artists and headcases of every stripe, I would say: Make mediocre shit until you make something that isn’t. There’s a good chance you won’t know the difference until you’re finished anyways.

Inspire Through Struggle

I had a bad day today.

Not because anything in particular happened, but rather because it didn’t. I’ve done just about nothing all day, despite having the whole thing to myself. Doing basic stuff like shaving, brushing my teeth, and getting some milk from the store constituted the most productive things I’ve done today.

Essentially, I’m dealing with a lot of negative self-talk in my head. In particular, the re-appearance of one of my longest running mental “scripts”; that being the “you’re not working hard enough, doing enough, trying hard enough, you’re lazy/you could be successful if only you’d try harder” script. It’s a voice I’ve been hearing going back all the way to elementary school, and any day where I don’t completely clear off my to-do list (and some days when I do) it comes roaring back. I’m working through some exercises in the book Superbetter by Jane McGonigal, and they’re helping, but this is such a deeply rooted script that it’s going to take a long time and a lot of work to dislodge.

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Cult of Positivity

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of positive thinking. Particularly because I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. It seems like a fairly reasonable idea at first glance (“If you’re sad, why not think happier thoughts?”), but I think at the end of the day the problem with it isn’t that it’s WRONG rather than oversimplified. At my work (which shall remain nameless for obvious reasons) there’s a lot of lip-flapping about “creating a positive atmosphere for customers/members/workplace, etc”, but the practice of this version of positivity usually involves the punishment of those who speak of anything negative or critical of the company or its management to anyone other than the management in a one-on-one basis. It’s this sort of thing that led to my realization that a lack of negativity and the presence of positivity are not the same thing. All it resulted in was this latent tension as everyone is aware of things that are wrong but are too afraid to say anything (or are cynical because they’ve followed the prescribed procedure and nothing was done to improve it). It’s almost more stressful than an outright negative environment because of the amount of fakeness and performance involved.

But aside from the specifics, I think the cardinal sin of those in the cult of positivity is failing to understand the factors that lead to a positive mindset. And I think that’s it: having a positive (or Challenge, credit to Jane McGonigal and her book SuperBetter for teaching me that word) mindset is different, more complex, and more difficult, than the kind of fast-food drive-thru advice that people give when they say, “Just think positive!”

Essentially, it’s a means, not an end. It’s a result of a hundred different little skills that all take effort, to overcome a hundred little nightmares that haunt the people who struggle with them. The steps also vary from person to person along with how their struggles manifest, and I feel like that’s what not a lot of people understand. That even though one person may not find X problem a struggle, that does not make it less real or difficult for person Y. Especially with mental and emotional health, I think one step we can take towards better understanding is getting rid of the illusion that all pain is measured on a singular scale, rather than branching out like the subway from hell.

I get the distinct feeling whenever I hear that bullshit prescription, the only good it’s doing is helping the person who is saying it to think that they’re elevated in some way above the person asking for help. And it’s the perpetuation of that illusion that makes me pity them the most.

 

Stimulus/Response

One of the things I’ve noticed on one of my walks is how often I’m running from things. Not literal things. God no. If that was true, I’d be in way better shape than I currently am. For me, it’s sensations.

Feel tired? Immediately respond with caffeine.
Feel anxious? Immediately react by vegging out to video games for hours.
Feel depressed? Go out and get some form of carby, sugary junk food.

These responses have become so ingrained that I barely even think about them anymore. It’s like a little “click-whirr” motor in my head that goes off like a Rube-Goldberg machine and sets it in motion. Half the time, I’m three quarters of the way to the corner store before I even ask myself whether or not I’m actually hungry, or whether I can actually afford to eat out again for a while (spoiler: the answer to both is mostly no).

But I continue to do it, and so I had to ask myself why exactly that is. The conclusion I’ve drawn is that I’ve developed such a strong… aversion to any kind of internal unpleasantness that the MOMENT one of the aforementioned feelings arises, the subconscious first response system kicks in and I go into one of my coping mechanisms.

I’ve tried to replace them with more healthy coping mechanisms, with little success. What I think now is that I’ve skipped a step; namely, addressing that frantic, almost animal-like need I have to flee, run, hide from whatever I’m feeling in that moment by whatever chemical means necessary. Whatever I’m doing (or wanting to do in that moment) immediately gets pushed to the back of the list when this emotional fight-or-flight mechanism takes precedent.

As you can imagine, it makes it very difficult to do any work when I feel at the whims of my sympathetic nervous system. Medications help, but they’re only part of the solution. I think another component, the one I’m trying to address now, is the ability to not only be present and mindful (something I’ve been trying to do for a very long time), but also to… endure when being in that present moment forces you to have to share space with something unpleasant, uncomfortable, or even scary. It’s like being stuck with a smelly, hairy, oversized commuter on a bus who is constantly twitching and murmuring abusive things at you. Add the fact that there’s not even any guarantee that being willing to sit next to your very own Hobo of Self-Destruction will make him go away, and it doesn’t sound like a very appealing sentiment.

However, what I’m just starting to understand is that while those feelings may not abate entirely, being willing to endure them in that moment at the very least provides me (I don’t want to speak for anyone else) with the powerful knowledge that you can weather the storm. That if you decide to not hit that oh-so-tempting eject button and go hurtling towards your coping mechanism of choice, you won’t fall to pieces. And once you withstand the hurricane and find you’re still standing, it can take a lot of the wind out of its sails the next time it tries to pay you a visit.

Snakes, Shame & Silence

I’ve been having a real rough time of it this November. Becoming more and more reclusive, not leaving my room or doing almost anything I enjoy. My schoolwork has gone undone, and now I’m combatting the constant feeling of futility as I battle to get late papers done and handed in, though I know the late marks will decimate my grades regardless. A big part of that struggle is shame. Shame that I’ll have to spend another semester in university, shame that even with meds and being in a better living situation, I can’t get what I need to get done, done, and about 36 other colourful flavours of shame I won’t get into.

One of my favorite writers I’ve been introduced to lately is Brene Brown. A shame and vulnerability researcher, she talks about the power that shame is given when we choose to be silent about it. I talked to a friend last night about what I’d been feeling, and while it wasn’t enough to spur me to work, I felt considerably better. This whole month (and longer) I’ve been totally silent about it, not even writing or daring to say my thoughts out loud. The whole time, the sensation of paralysis from all these dark thoughts felt like a python wrapped around me. Every cycle of rumination was like those coils getting tighter and tighter, to where I could barely move enough to leave my house, let alone attend to my responsibilities and own well-being. When I spoke to my friend over Facebook, I felt that binding loosen a little, so I wanted to write about it a little on here, both for myself, and so that maybe someone who feels something similar can read this and know that they’re not alone.

There’s this odd precipice with this blog, where I always enjoy writing in it and putting up something new, but when I write frequently enough, it’s like a switch gets flipped in my brain, and instead of an enjoyable activity, putting up a new post becomes an obligation. The fear of expectation comes into it. “People are expecting new content!” it says. I imagine (somewhat narcissistically) the followers of my posts impatiently tapping their toes as my page goes un-updated for days, weeks, even months. The whole experience is enough to keep me from writing in here for (surprise, surprise) days, weeks, even months. I feel like it’s the same with my school work. I get a little behind, maybe have a day where I’m feeling out of it, and immediately see the professors judging me for not handing things in or attending class, my mom being disappointed in my inability to apply myself… and the shame python starts to squeeze the life out of me one self-destructive thought at a time.

I don’t know if this will actually help, but I know for my own sanity I have to hit that pressure release valve on my psyche and get this out there. Have any of you guys had the same or similar feelings? What did you do?

A year and a half later…

So yeah, it’s been a while. Like, even longer than usual. I’d list all the things that have happened, but that would take an entire post on its own. Point is, I realized I have to come back to doing this or I’m going to go insane from all of the voices buzzing around in my head (which, given that I just referred to them as ‘voices in my head’, is ironic).

Right now, I can’t sleep for all the catastrophizing thoughts flying around in there. As a context-setter, I have two papers already late and accumulating late marks, and a third that’s due Tuesday I haven’t started yet. I also haven’t been to the gym in over a week. Also, due to the stress of all this i haven’t exactly been keeping my diet where I want it to be either. As a result, my brain feels like a sandstorm of thoughts like:

“Even if you get that Greek/Roman Philosophy paper done, it’s still going to get docked enough marks that you can’t save your mark. And even if it doesn’t, you STILL have the Indian Philosophy paper to do. WHY did you wait so long? You’ve fucked yourself and it’s hopeless.”

“Look at your body, you’re flabby and weak. When was the last time you even did deadlifts? Can you imagine how much your BMI/body fat percentage has gone up by now, and how much your lifts have dropped? No, of course not. Because you haven’t check them in months because you’re afraid of what you’ll see.”

“Oh, but of course, buy that Haagen Daz you weak-willed fuck, because it’s the only thing you CAN actually get yourself to do, you’re too paralyzed with anxiety to work on anything.”

“All your friends who would understand are gone, and anyone you talk to won’t get it because they don’t really know you. You’re all alone.”

And so on.

I keep trying to slow my thoughts down and itemize what I want to do tomorrow to start sorting through the mire, but there just seem to be so many different worries and fears I have to serve as cracks in my armor that every time I do, I get derailed by one of these thoughts. It’s like trying to do calculus while sitting in the middle of a hurricane while debris is flying everywhere.

I’m most afraid that I’ve messed up so bad that I’ll have to stay another year without graduating, and hear another semester of “What year are you in? This has got to be your last, right?” and remember how much longer I’ve been here than I should have.

I’m trying to list out the things I’m proud of, and listen to those voices instead, but part of me is just afraid that if I do I’ll let myself off the hook and just make my life worse. Also, when I do try to do that, that’s the perfect trigger for any of the gremlins who pop in to say, “Hey, just here to remind you not to forget: you’re a lazy, fat, useless, ambitiousless piece of shit who will never live up to his potential. ‘Kay bye!”

I’m hoping that by doing this, it can serve as a bit of a release valve to let off some of the psychic pressure building up in my head so that the crowd in there can at least simmer down enough for me to get a word in edge-wise. Here goes nothing. Again.

Vince Smith is a writer, podcast host, and dyed-in-the-wool geek of all trades. You can check out other articles and videos by him over at The Rogues’ Gallery, or drop by his Facebook Page, Vincent Smith: Writer, Scholar, Gentleman for other musings from the catacombs of the Internet.