What Stories Are You Telling Yourself?

In one of the best books on translation that I read during the course of my studies[1], there was a theory of collective narratives by which people live. The specific example was of the American dream narrative, told and retold by many people in different walks of life, subconsciously subscribing to the idea that their life should be some version of the rags-to-riches story. 

Kurt Vonnegut, in one of those books I used to like so much[2], explained all to poignantly how depressing the American dream story can turn out for somebody who stayed in the rags. Many people realize that actual life may be more complicated than a story they tell themselves, and that if they don’t succeed the way their hero did, it’s not necessarily their fault, or a reason to be down. But even for them, this whole process can be rough. 

So why do we subscribe to those stories? Why do we narrow down the range of possible stories that we could tell with our lives? Not all of us do so, of course; some people don’t really see their lives as linear narratives.[3] But some of us do. And, as all things subconscious, it’s neither a bad thing, or a good thing; it’s just a thing we do. 

And if it’s a rough experience to discover that a particular story we believed was true about ourselves is actually hindering us in some way, I’m all for immersing in the roughness of it. Because finding out how your own autobiographical narrative affects your life can ultimately be rewarding. With some patience, you can go from that to tackling the potential hindrances that your story conceived. 

We can subscribe to such stories collectively or individually. One of the collective narratives I hear around me is that of powerlessness. As one of the narrators in a book I recently read[4] asserts, in Poland, there’s a hundred ways of saying “let’s wait patiently until this ends”’. By some dreary coincidence, one of my individual narratives is no less pessimistic: it’s one in which I can’t change the habits that make me miserable because it’s the way I am. 

What are the stories you tell yourselves? Do they hinder you or support your growth? Whatever your narrative might or might not be, I wish you all the best if you want to discover, interpret, and perhaps question it, too.

***

[1] Translation and Conflict. A Narrative Account by Mona Baker
See also Mona Baker’s official site.

[2] But whose title I managed to forget anyway

[3] “I am not a story” at aeon.co 

[4] Nie to/Nie tamto by Soren Gauger

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Overcoming Self-Abandonment

I so much wanted to get lost on the way
~ myself a few years back

I found a guy on the internet who accurately explains some of the ways in which I respond to difficult emotions. Pete Walker works/worked as a psychologist with PTSD patients, and has written extensively on the subject of recovery from the effects of traumatic experiences. In “Managing Abandonment Depression in Complex PTSD”*, he explains why and how people push away emotions they would rather not feel, how this affects them and what they can do to help themselves.

I suppose this can be useful for many people, even for those who don’t think they were abandoned or otherwise traumatized. People may react to difficult experiences in different ways. Some of us accept them and take care of ourselves to minimize the damage. Some of us criticize and punish ourselves for feeling a certain way. Some of us overwork to assuage an accompanying feeling of guilt. Some of us overeat or desperately look for someone to have sex with to make ourselves feel better. Some of us escape from the reality of our experience into imaginary worlds. For some of us, any kind of escape is much easier than staying present to our emotions.

I wrote a little summary of the points I found interesting in Walker’s article, and added some insights from my own experience with “making friends” with depression:

  • An unwanted emotion, for example depression, may trigger any of these four typical reactions:

becoming irritable, controlling and pushy;
busy productivity driven by negative, perfectionistic and catastrophic thinking;
becoming dissociated, spaced out and sleepy;
focusing on solving someone’s else’s problem and becoming servile, self-abnegating and ingratiating.**

  • The above described reactions are usually immediate and sufferers don’t realize them.
    For me, they seemed so natural that I just thought of them as my way of being.
  • Instead of learning how to handle their experiences, sufferers dissociate from them.
    This self-abandonment does not make the difficult emotions go away – they repeat, and repeat, and repeat, and repeat because they want to be “listened to”.
  • What can be done is, first, learning that all emotions are okay to feel.
    They are not right, they are not wrong. They can’t be fought or thrown out. They’re just… there.
  • For some, practicing mindful “listening” to their emotions is a good idea.
    This is because experiencing emotions is not that easy if you’re used to rejecting them.
  • Another good idea is to seek support from a friend, partner, or professional.
    Having someone supportive at your side while you’re going through a difficult time is invaluable. Some people are not patient enough for that – it doesn’t mean they are bad friends or partners, but if you ask me, it’s a good reason to look for professional help instead.
  • Learning to stay present to our emotions without judging ourselves and without running away is not easy. It takes a lot of practice.
    A loooot of practice.
  • It can be tricky, too, because some of our emotions may mimic physiological sensations, such as tiredness or hunger, which are easy to dismiss.
    It’s good to remember that, and pay attention to these sensations. They may guide us to the emotions we wanted to leave behind – and that’s where we can start learning to respond to our experiences in ways that don’t hurt us.
  • However difficult it is to stay present to your experiences, it’s totally worth it!
    It’s a great way to learn to be more compassionate and supportive towards ourselves. It also gradually reduces feelings of fear associated with the difficult emotions.


* Pete Walker, M.A. “Managing Abandonment Depression in Complex PTSD.” See http://www.pete-walker.com/managingAbandonDepression.htm.
** Adapted from the above.

 

A Non-Constructive, Life-Saving Coping Mechanism

A while ago, I listened to this short talk from therapist Gilbert Renaud where he talks about depression as a coping mechanism that helps us protect ourselves from harm:

Gilbert Renaud on Depression

To say the least, this is questionable because clinical depression is an illness that often takes lives. However, if we’re talking about a depressive mood that is handled with support from friends and/or professionals, Renaud nails it. A depressive mood handled with care lets us go through the difficult emotions of grief, sadness and hopelessness, without inflicting too much harm on ourselves. It gets us preserved throughout the bad times — like a pickle in a jar.

Difficult emotions need acknowledgement. We need to take the time to listen to them, and see what they can teach us. They may be telling us that we lost something important, remind us about something that happened in the past, or simply indicate that our present life is just difficult.

I was surprised to find out that letting myself be depressed and listening to myself may help me in any way. Before I first tried it, it just seemed so counterintuitive. But now, I agree with Renauld that depressive moods may protect our lives and, with time, deliver us to a better place — where we can grow. A place where we can learn new coping mechanisms that are more conducive to our well-being, where we can accept and appreciate ourselves, and experience an array of emotions — good and bad — that we have kept frozen.

Some time after watching Renauld’s talk, I met with a similar approach to coping in an article by Alicja Senejko:

Senejko Alicja (2017). Szczypta optymizmu, czyli różne wyjścia z sytuacji bez wyjścia. In: Gdzie się podziało moje dzieciństwo. O dorosłych dzieciach alkoholików (pp. 85—94). Kielce: Charaktery.  In Polish, pp. 53-57 at scribd.com.

Senejko divided coping mechanisms into constructive and non-constructive ones. The former are reactions to stress that actually help relieve the stress, such as discussing the possible ways of resolving a problem. The latter are seemingly irrational reactions that help us adapt to the stressful situation without really getting out of it. Examples that Senejko gave were avoidance of situations and people that we associate with the stress, and engaging in activities that help us temporarily dissociate from it.

Arguably, a depressive mood is one of the non-constructive methods of coping with difficult emotions. Without promoting progress, it allows us to adapt, and preserve ourselves until the time we feel strong enough to confront the stressful situation. According to Senejko’s research, people who use both constructive and non-constructive methods of coping, cope with stressful situations more effectively.

That’s a reason not to beat ourselves up for feeling low and apathetic, but to accept this state, and employ some constructive coping mechanisms as well, such as seeking support from other people and/or professional help.

I’m living proof that this combination works — after a long time of going through depression and staying in therapy, I’m in a place where I can grow, learning and trying out new things, trying to reconcile my past with the more self-aware person I’m becoming. Placing carefully there a strange thing and a known thing here… Carefully moving a perhaps fraction of flower here placing an inch of air there… Yes, spring is coming, and I had the urge to finish this post by quoting e. e. cummings.

Sociability Isn’t About Partying

Hey, fellow introverts! The internet says staying at home is a sociable thing to do. So… it must be right, right?

Why Truly Sociable People Hate Parties

Well, I think it’s about right.

Start Where You Are

I meant the thoughts I’d take into the new year to be more powerful and positive, but at the end of the last one I found myself repeating this one to remind myself that change doesn’t start somewhere you haven’t been yet — it starts where you are. A simple, neutral thought whose logic can hardly escape anyone.

Broadford, Isle of Skye | September 2017
Broadford, Isle of Skye | September 2017

Whether you want to change your profession, eating habits or attitude to adversity, you need to start in the place you are now. Not a place you want to be, probably. A bad place, perhaps. But it’s not possible to become the idealized image of yourself in no time.

It starts with realizing where you are.

It may take some courage and seriousness to take the first step towards change.

More courage and seriousness to step back and try again if the first step didn’t take you where you wanted.

A shit-ton of work to find the right path!

Patience to stay put if your heart, mind, lungs and the rest of your lovely self don’t quite keep up with the pace.

More work to keep searching, and stay on the right path if you’ve found it.

And perserverance.

And more of it.

 

Good luck, everyone.

A Lesson in Resigning

My twenty fifth birthday was one of the saddest so far. I didn’t feel like celebrating it, few people remembered about it, and at the end of it I couldn’t fall asleep: I was projecting the things I heard about being over twenty five onto my future. It made me cry. I was anticipating that I’d have the same problems I used to have, and that the only difference would be that I’d be less emotional about them. I was anticipating a resignation from my ambitious plan to gradually change the things that make me unhappy.

That’s what I heard people over twenty five become: emotionally cold, and resigned. Everyone gets those projections somewhere. They might be ridiculous and untrue, but they stay with us.

But, of, course they don’t have to define our future. We all have our needs, dreams, and plans that run against any bleak visions of the future that other people or the present feed into our minds. I, for example, need to listen to myself more. I dream about filling my life with interesting books. I have the ambitious plans I mentioned above.

And all of it didn’t go away when I turned twenty five. Quite the contrary: with each success and failure in fulfilling the above, I’m more and more aware of what these needs, dreams and plans mean to me… and in the end, it’s them that define me, not the projections.

Resignation is tempting, very tempting sometimes. It makes things so much easier to say: “this is too hard,” and give up. But I wouldn’t want to do so when I care about something deeply. And of course I care about my needs, dreams and plans deeply!

There is another kind of resignation, though, one I didn’t know until this year. It came unexpectedly naturally to me – a person used to fighting her own perceived weaknesses – after someone casually exposed my “people anxiety” by pointing out that I curled up when someone else sat beside me.

I always tried not to draw attention to my fear of people, wanted others to see me, ideally, as a confident person, and hated it when somebody made comments towards the contrary. I wanted to become confident, there and then, even if only in the eyes of some random beholders.

But at that moment, I resigned from pretending, and from my own hasty efforts to get rid of the anxiety (one of the things that make me unhappy, part of the big plan). I acknowledged the state I was in at the moment, and accepted the exposure, thinking: “yes, I am scared, why would I deny it?”

And, even though I’d never have expected any kind of resignation to be good, it was good for me. It had a calming effect. I’m not really sure how else to comment on this, or what to call this new kind of resignation, so I’ll just leave this discovery here for your consideration, and mine too. Maybe it will make us both more accepting towards ourselves…?

Post scriptum: Two days after I scheduled this post, during a yoga class, the teacher unexpectedly summed up my roundabout reflections on resignation by saying that all work starts from the place we’re in at the moment, and it can’t start from the place we would like to be in. It seems that everything around me conspires to teach me something.

Yalla!

Yet another piece from the collection Over Land, Over Sea that I translated as part of the Journeys in Translation project. This one, written by Trevor Wright, is actually my favourite one. What I like most about it is the powerful imagery that sticks in one’s mind long after one has finished reading. And the hope it brings, too.

***

Yalla

Shadowed by fissured rock,
fingers funnelling cooling sand,
the pull of the moon carving
the rhythm I need to pierce
the gloom, smell the horizon,
taste futures. I hunker down
to take soft hand to hand as
she quietly asks, who hears?
Who sees? Will land touch us?
Night folds in. Of course, I laugh.
The stars listen, the moon sees,
new land will find us. Yalla!

Yet another dawn,
chin to chest, rib to rib, my
last daughter curves in my lap,
exposed to a firmament fully
intent on pressing our shared
breath to the depths. I raise
my trailed palm, cool my brow,
wrinkled fingers stroke dreams,
residue all at odds with the tides.
Does anyone tune into the stars?
Who cares what the moon sees?
Will land reach out? Yalla. Yalla!

***

Yalla[1]

W cieniu spękanej skały
Palce przebierają stygnący piasek
A przyciąganie księżyca rzeźbi
Rytm, którego mi trzeba, by przebić
Mrok, poczuć zapach widnokręgu,
Smak możliwych przyszłości. Kucam,
By wziąć jej miękką dłoń w swoją,
Gdy cicho pyta, kto słyszy?
Kto widzi? Czy ląd nas dosięgnie?
Zapada noc. Śmieję się: oczywiście.
Gwiazdy słuchają, księżyc widzi,
Nowy ląd nas znajdzie. Yalla!

Kolejnego ranka,
Oparta brodą o moją pierś, ostatnia
Córka kuli się na moich kolanach,
Tuż pod sklepieniem, które usilnie
Chce zepchnąć nasz wspólny
Oddech w głębiny. Podnoszę
Rękę i schładzam czoło,
Pomarszczone palce głaszczą sny,
Osad, co powstał wbrew ruchowi fal.
Czy ktoś wsłuchuje się w gwiazdy?
Kogo obchodzi, co widzi księżyc?
Czy ląd poda nam dłoń? Yalla. Yalla!

[1] W języku arabskim wezwanie do pośpiechu: „prędzej”, „chodźmy”.