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.

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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.

This Is Going to Be a Good Autumn

For a couple of years now, the coming of autumn always meant trouble for me: won’t a rainy October deject me? Will I have gathered enough strength to be able to get up from the bed every morning? Won’t the persistent thoughts that I’m worthless and should’ve died long ago come back? Oh, those regular autumnal thoughts; moods quite fitting for the unfriendly autumnal weather.

“This autumn, though, is going to be a good one,” I’m thinking now, even when the wind is raging all around me, all I can see in the darkness is some lights reflected in the wet asphalt under my feet, and all I’m dreaming about is to finally stop this trudge-along and fall asleep in the warmth and quite of home.

This autumn is going to be a good one because this autumn I let myself do just this: take care of myself when I’m feeling so bad, and cold, and gloomy. It doesn’t mean that every time I get back home from work, I hit the bed right away. Sometimes it means that when I’m irritated, I turn on Yukari’s “Echo”. When I feel lonely, I reach out to a friend, or just think about the few I have. When I haven’t slept well at night, I put off this damned difficult task I’ve planned to finish today until a better time.

There’s no point in nurturing irritation; that parasite will devour the greater part of your energy with much enthusiasm if you let it do so. I won’t do myself a favour if I go on pondering the loneliness of my existence, either. It’s better to go back a couple of days or weeks, and recall that it doesn’t always feel this way. And what about work, what about sacrifice? I value both very much, but not more than my own well-being. The world needs me? Well, it probably does, but probably not too much; not to the extent where I’d have to carry on all stressed out and exhausted.

But what about autumn, and the wayward thoughts it will bring me all the same? …I can tell you that this year is the first one when I feel that I don’t have to yield to them. I already know those thoughts well enough to be able to stop the one that, running at full speed, would hit me and send me flying downwards a murky autumnal depression. They are my thoughts, and I can do with them whatever I want to — not the other way round.

So this autumn, instead of picking up all the fatigue and dejection that autumn will inevitably bring me as if it was the greatest of gifts, I’m going to take care of myself. I’m strong enough now to make it a plan, and I think I’m strong enough to keep to it, too.

And that is all. But this little is enough to say that this is going to be a good autumn.

P. s.: You can read a Polish version of this post at uczesiemowic.blogspot.com.

What Would You Like?

The question that our title
has cast in deathless bronze
is painful yet so vital,
we owe it a response.

~ K.I. Gałczyński, trans. S. Barańczak and C. Cavanagh

We all have dreams – I could start by saying this if I didn’t know better. Dreams never come true – I could also start by saying this if I wanted to discourage you from reading my blog. This post is going to be about dreams and disappointment – I start by saying this because I don’t feel like trying to sound clever.

It would be nice to believe in what we get from films, books, and people who are perhaps too lazy to think over the old truths that they repeat: that all of us have dreams. But unfortunately, not all of us, and not in all circumstances, can keep up enough hope to sustain a dream.

All it takes is to face a terminal disease, extreme poverty or violence. In other words, if your life falls apart, you may become temporarily unable to dream.

A tragedy is not always the case, though. Some people, at certain points in their lives, simply don’t have dreams. And I’d think it’s perfectly all right if only I couldn’t be bothered to think about the reasons. But I am bothered, I am indeed very much bothered by the reasons.

There might be a multiplicity of them, and I might not be able to account for all of them here. All right, all right: I’m actually able to account for only two reasons, namely that:

  1. We’re happy with our lives as they are, and at this particular moment we just want to enjoy it, and dreams get kind of sidelined, or…
  2. We’re afraid of disappointment… which is completely understandable because disappointment is unpleasant. If it felt pleasant or neutral, I guess it wouldn’t be called disappointment anymore.

Well then, let’s be afraid of it, I’d say if I didn’t know that this fear might become unhealthy and lead us to give up on dreams.

It’s a very simple mechanism. If, as children, we were repeatedly told that we can’t disappoint other people because we hurt them by doing so; if, all too often, we saw other people being unable to cope with disappointment; if we experienced disappointment ourselves and couldn’t cope with it – we’re almost sure to be afraid of disappointment later on.

But there’s nothing to be afraid of… or at least there shouldn’t be, don’t you think? Disappointment is part of life and, in most cases, the human psyche is strong enough to cope with the pain it brings.

However, that is not enough for us to stop being afraid. Perhaps those of us who are will never stop being afraid. So, perhaps it’s worthwhile to learn how to cope with it? Learning a few coping methods should help to relieve anxiety, no matter the cause of it.

But who are we supposed to learn from if so many of the people around us are so clearly not good at handling their own disappointments? So many of them, resenting life that it’s not as good as they expected it to be, obstinately offended, neglect their own, and sometimes also their loved ones’ well-being.

I don’t know. I don’t know who to learn it from and, as you’ve probably noticed by now, I haven’t come up with any tricks of my own either. So far, I don’t think I have answered a single question I asked myself on this blog – I just write them down as homework to be done in the future.

But I already know one thing: I don’t want to give up on dreams for reason number two. I don’t want to forget how to dream just because I am afraid of disappointment. I don’t want to linger in this special kind of apathy which prevents us not only from making our dreams come true, but in the long run, also from knowing what they are.

That’s why, for a start, I suggest pulling your old dreams out of the waste bin and examining them closely – perhaps they still fit? And if not, I suggest asking yourself once again, bravely, in a demanding tone, this one important question: what would you like?

It’s painful yet so vital – you owe it a response.

Have a good day,
Renata

Post scriptum: You can read a Polish version of this post at uczesiemowic.blogspot.com.

Ugly Emotions

“I hit you in my sleep.”

“What have I done?” he asks jokingly.

“Nothing, I wanted to hit somebody from my dream but I hit you in reality,” I say, all brimming with guilt.

“Doesn’t matter. Come here.”

***

One of the most important lessons I’m taking in therapy continually is about accepting my emotions as they are. High or low, strong or weak, nice or… ugly.

Before I began therapy, it seemed kind of natural to dismiss all kinds of emotions that I didn’t experience as “nice”. I just wanted to see myself as a nice person, you know? And nice people don’t hate others or feel angry at them. Nice people, you know – they forgive.

Or whatever it was they taught me in religion classes. Did  you have religion classes, too? Doesn’t matter. I’m sure there are plenty of us out there – people who would prefer to be incapable of anger, hate, jealousy, reluctance, or spite. Because then, in the end, we could be sure we are the perfectly acceptable “nice” people we want to be.

I guess we could all blame our pushing the “ugly” emotions away from ourselves on religious teaching, on the expectation that every girl should be a nice little angel, on our failing parents… you name it. But the origins of this habit matter very little once you realize that it is doing you harm.

Suppressing emotions is bad for you, we all know it. You may, for example, end up having terrible dreams where you fight someone who made you angry ten years back, and be hitting your significant other in the present. Or you feel tense all the time for no apparent reason, or your body eventually says “no more of this” and falls ill. But if we all know the consequences of suppressing unwanted emotions, why don’t we stop suppressing them if we know it?

Because it’s not so easy. You probably already know that, too. It’s not easy to admit to emotions that you have been denying for a long time. Because, in a sense, you have been acting rationally – you have been denying them for a reason, and with a purpose.

Why, then? Why do we deny the existence of the “ugly” creatures that inhabit our minds – the snakes, the rats, the lizards? We do that precisely because we think of them as “ugly”. Cumbersome. Undeserving. We don’t like to burden ourselves with the difficulty of facing them and owning them.

And what for do we suppress those lovely – “ugly”, you probably still think – creatures of our minds? Quite simply, we do that to feel better about ourselves. It may also help you to avoid conflict with other people; but above all, it allows you to avoid conflict with yourself: you are now, without any doubt, the “nice” person you wanted to be, so everything must be okay.

It works so well that you may not even notice it that it has become your way of being. You don’t pay attention to feelings of frustration or jealousy when they appear around the corner; you tell your feelings to shut up when you’re angry at someone; you keep all the “ugly” stuff neatly hidden under the carpet. It makes you a super-nice person…

…who sacrificed an important part of themselves to achieve that goal. And if you think about it – was it worth it?

In my case, I think it wasn’t. Sure, this habit of keeping “the ugly” out of sight has been making my life a lot easier by providing me with a sense of security. I always knew what to do when an “ugly” emotion crept out of the dark: shove it back there! But you know what? I like to think of myself as an animal preserve. In that preserve, each animal has its own niche, and each should be fed and taken care of so that the ecosystem is – well, preserved, because that’s what preserves are for.

And each animal, including the “ugly” ones – my hate, my anger, my sadness – should be there, not out. Otherwise, I’d lose something very important. I think I don’t have to explain what it is.

So, what do I do to stop suppressing my emotions? What have I learned in therapy so far? Admittedly, no more than I what I have ranted here about up until now: that the “ugly” emotions that I’m afraid of, and that I would rather keep in a very dark, forgotten place, are just as good as the “nice” ones, and that all emotions need to be experienced.

And what do I do with that knowledge? Well, I just repeat it, and repeat it, and repeat it until I’m completely bored with myself talking. In this way, I’m coming to believe in this simple fact of life more and more…

I’m a slow learner, that I must admit. But even if you are a slow learner, there are lessons out there really worth learning no matter how much time it takes – and worth sharing, too. If you want to share what you’ve learned, or any other thoughts, you know where the comments section is.

Have a good day!
Renata

Post scriptum: You can read a Polish version of this post at uczesiemowic.blogspot.com.

 

Tolstoy’s Thoughts while Cleaning

Reading an article about the language of poetry, I came upon what you could call a super-serious shower thought by none other than Leo Tolstoy [*]. Only it wasn’t technically a shower thought, but one conceived while cleaning. I guess they didn’t shower in those days.

I was dusting the furniture and as I walked up to the settee, I couldn’t recall whether I had dusted it or not. Because the activity is of the simple and unconscious sort, I couldn’t recall it, and felt that the moment was gone. So if I had dusted the settee but didn’t remember it, i.e. I acted unconsciously, it’s like it hadn’t happened at all. If someone had been consciously watching it, they could recall it; but if no one had been watching it, or if someone had been watching it unconsciously – if someone’s whole life passes without them being conscious of it, as it often happens, then it’s like they never lived.

And I just thought, what an ending to this otherwise mundane story.

Because it happens all the time that we do things, go to places, talk to people, etc. automatically, and then forget that we’ve done something, been somewhere, met someone. It’s not bad at all. In fact, with the amount of information our brains are flooded with every day, it’s only healthy that we keep some of it out.

But what if this forgetfulness, on a higher level, brings us to a tragic ending?

A woman once asked me at the end of an unconscious rant, during a severe bout of schizophrenia, “So I’ve managed to live my whole life in oblivion?” It was then that I realized that ruining your life doesn’t have to be this one-time event that produces enough Wolverine-style guilt to hold out for all your remaining days on earth.

It can be the small things: the fact you gradually came to terms with teachers calling you a moron, and stopped caring about your education; the important decisions you let your parents take for you; the longer-than-bearable time you spent in one flat with your ex; the hundred times you decided to go to work instead of to a doctor when you felt ill.

Because we’re all conscious of the fact that it is our responsibility, and ours only, to keep ourselves satisfied, free of misery and healthy, right? But then, life in general, and our inner lives, too, are so full of everything that we sometimes neglect this responsibility.

Take it from me, then: before it all comes to an unhappy ending for you, or for anybody else — yes, I mean: do that quickly! — go and do something good for yourself.

Whatever you choose to do, let it be the thing you need and/or want most right now. Something that will make you happy, or put an end to you feeling unhappy, something that will make you grow, something you’ve never experienced but always dreamed about.

Or at least make a plan and keep to that plan, okay?

Regards,
Mulan

[*] The excerpt comes from Tolstoy’s diaries as quoted by Victor Shklovsky in “Art as Device” and translated, for the lack of an English translation at hand, by myself.