Give Me an Emotional Yardstick

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Give me an emotional benchmark I can learn to match, or adults modelling emotional intelligence and I will learn from it. Without some sort of framework, how am I, as a small child, to learn how to respond to other people?

This week’s EMDR session had some powerful learning and the one thing I realised was that as a small child no-one modelled emotional intelligence or even emotional maturity and therefore I had no-one to teach me how to deal with anger or upset from others, let alone my own.

My mother cuddled and reassured but wouldn’t do anything or go against my father.
My father would not acknowledge emotions and just tell us to get on with our homework as that is where the future would lie.
Together they never argued and if it was important, they never discussed anything at home where we might overhear so they would go out for a walk. Holding hands or a kiss on the cheeks was as intimate as they got in public. I never witnessed healthy argument or discussion between them.
My eldest sister screamed, shouted, threw things and burst into tears. My mother would freeze in response and my father would soothe her but never addressed the issue which caused the initial outburst.
My middle sister discovered god and her faith has stayed with her but she has acknowledged that the initial attraction of god was an authority my father couldn’t compete with and had no interest in. He did start reading books on theology so he could discuss it intellectually with her but was scared to challenge her actual belief.
So both sisters found their own very different ways of coping that wouldn’t have helped me any.

No-one therefore was in my day to day life who could model healthy argument, a bit of shouting, discussion, listening, compromise, co-operation and resolution, all of which are highly recommended if you plan on interacting with other people throughout your life.

My grandmothers offered some counterbalance but obviously I didn’t see them as much. I stayed with my father’s mother quite a bit so my parents could go on holiday without me when I was younger and she offered me her fairly undivided attention and we talked. We talked about dad as a child and his brother and she took me places. We went to visit ERNIE and to the Humber bridge (then the longest single-span suspension bridge in the world) on opening. We visited her cousins and walked their dogs. She took me to the hairdresser’s when I got a Lady Di haircut, much to my now embarrassment. She taught me card games and we talked about stuff. She wasn’t particularly good at emotions but she was excellent at just spending time with me doing stuff together. My other grandmother was good at emotions and would listen to me vent about my parents. She was also compassionate and a socialist. She was interested in people, especially odd people and she was saucy, teaching me songs well before I understood their meaning (“Roll me over, in the clover, roll me over, lay me down, and do it again”). She had a mischievous smile and a warm heart.

Just the way I write about my grandparents then, compared to my parents shows me the difference. I can recall so many happy shared moments with my grandmothers and the memories are overwhelmingly positive and even getting told off wasn’t that bad. Whereas I cannot remember that similar ease with my parents. I can vaguely remember opening Christmas presents but I cannot remember any specific toy or memory and aged under 8 that would have been important. I do not remember happy family moments at all.

All this was started by a memory of being with my sister and her boyfriend walking back, probably from the fair, and something happening that I’ve never remembered but that resulted in me going from liking him to absolutely not. My best guess now from our session is that he might have kissed her in a way that made her feel uncomfortable in front of me and possibly she protested a little, something that might be perfectly normal between two teenagers, but that I, aged 5 or 6, couldn’t process. I had no benchmark to compare it to.

That memory and what might have happened has haunted me as I wondered whether he had done something to me. I couldn’t guess what might have turned me against him so quickly but that my sister didn’t notice and I have always been well aware that my memory seemed to have blanked at that moment.

Trapped in the Past

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We had an “L” shaped living room and I had the far end of it by the front window to play in, with a toybox my parents still use today. My corner was behind the sofa as I recall so that my “mess” would not offend the grown ups. Hence I was present, but apart and in a way that seems to symbolise those years.

Did my parents have conversations with my sisters or without them that I overheard that I shouldn’t have? I don’t know. But the feeling that comes up in EMDR is that of playing quietly, making myself small and undetectable. There’s even a feeling that I was trapped behind the sofa because I couldn’t interrupt what was happening in the rest of the room in order to walk out.

And yet I remember being downstairs mostly, even of being scared to go upstairs in the day time. I don’t know whether I was told to stay downstairs so that I wasn’t hidden away or what. The overwhelming feeling that come up now is of not belonging and feeling trapped. Reading the beautiful RX, a graphic novel about mental ill health brought up tears when the author portrays feeling trapped. My tears have been turned off for many years for me and they have been gently there during the last couple of sessions.

My last EMDR session started off behind the sofa, with what that brought up and we ending up considering my parents. My mother as a young adult, pregnant at a time when being a single mother was not an option and how she must have felt and then, at greater length, how my father would have found it growing up in the circumstances he did. When I said that the mother he had was a lot harsher than the grandmother I knew we brought them together so that my grandmother could offer support to her younger self.

These are things I knew and explained to the therapist. But as with the previous week, it’s not so much about the facts but more that I’m experiencing some of their pain, that felt by my mother, father and grandmother at their times of suffering. It’s almost as if, by experiencing their emotions I can expiate their suffering which will somehow expiate mine. EMDR has, for me, to date, been about bringing the emotions back in the room, emotions that I may have blocked for self protection after years of daily tears, a block that has also enabled me to work through those years in therapy. I don’t yet know whether this will offer the release I need, but for the moment I’m going with it.

Dredging Up Memories

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Three sessions of EMDR and I’m feeling as if memory balls are stuck deep, deep down in the mud and therapy is trying to shake them loose but the mud is seriously sticky. And the balls are well heavy.

EMDR works very broadly by taking memories that still hurt and reprocessing them so that you can deal with the emotions that still arise from them and let go of them. This includes memories that aren’t really fully remembered and can even work with just feelings when there’s no sense of a memory.

The place I chose to start was a school memory, one that I listed earlier. Feeling ignored, sat on the floor at the back of the class, feeling punished for being able to read while the teacher did alphabet flashcards (or some such) with the rest of the class. Together with my team of protectors (wise man, warrior, nurturer) who flicker between being caped superheroes and my sons, and sometimes both I work my way to the front of the class and say something, wanting to be heard and, all of a sudden, the teacher morphs into my mother.

I hear a sigh of exasperation, followed by “what has she done now?” in my mother’s voice.

In the session, I don’t know whether my mother is talking about me or either of my sisters. The words and the sigh hang in a contextless void. So the following session we try going with feelings rather than a specific memory. I get unease, tension, lots of difficult feelings but nothing I can pin down.

So I’ve spent the last few days since then really pushing my memories. I moved out of that house when I was seven so I have a clear divide between before and after. In therapy I have focused on the years after with the school bullying and all the other noticeable dramas as I became more aware of what was going on with my parents. I thought my younger years were relatively happy.

If they were happy then, why, when I start listing early memories do I start feeling scared, afraid of what might happen, wanting to curl up into a small ball and disappear with all the physical body responses that go with. I don’t want to be there.

I spent an hour using Google Street View to remember the roads, school, cinema and library, trying to retrace my footsteps.

An then I phoned my sister. We spent an hour talking about those days and the unexpressed tension in the house. She left school, had an abortion and a breakdown before drifting away from home. My other sister discovered god. My parents didn’t have a clue how to deal with any of this and their focus was to put food on the table and encourage us to focus on our homework. None of the big stuff was discussed beyond the absolute minimum necessity of what needed to be done. My parents went for walks to talk things out; we never had a family discussion; there was never a raised voice. If there had been we might have turned out easier.

I don’t remember being aware of any of this. I didn’t know my sister had an abortion until years later. And yet I must have felt it. I must have felt the incredible tension brought on by two emotionally incompetent adults trying to raise two difficult teenagers without making waves. Just writing this makes me want to shrink down so I cannot be seen. I don’t know whether I accidentally overheard conversations that I didn’t need to hear or whether I just felt what was going on. But it was going on, above my head (literally) and I was excluded from whatever was happening. I didn’t belong to these stories. I couldn’t have understood them at the time.

All I could do was keep my head down, stay quiet and hope it would all go away, whatever it was.

None of this is new; I’ve known all this for years. And yet somehow I’m feeling it all as if for the first time.

Safe Place, Safe People

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I have been reading Getting Past Your Past, by Francine Shapiro to gain a better understanding of EMDR before I actually start it next week. One of the crucial preparations in EMDR before doing the trauma work is to consider a safe place.

A safe place is somewhere I can visit in my head. It is somewhere where I know the layout, the look and feel of it, but also the smell, the temperature, the sensations of it. It is somewhere I know well enough that my mind can take me there and feel safe in the same way that I would feel safe if I was actually there. It serves as a place to hold you where the bad things that might come up in therapy cannot get to you. And as such it’s important to consider the right safe place that has no negative associations.

For my mother this would be her mother’s garden, in the middle of nowhere in the south of France. The heady smell of wheat being harvested, the noise of cicadas in the morning, the life that is predominantly run by women. This would have been hers. I considered my favourite tree from there that I could sit in with a book, the perfect reading space. But the tree got blighted and chopped down. Just being in the garden anywhere would count except that it’s now my sister’s garden and I have so many issues about how that was handled that it is all tainted. That has been my go to place for so many years. So where next?

I contemplated this whilst sitting in my comfortable reclining chair in the garden in the sunshine alongside a book and a cup of tea. It was quiet and peaceful and I suddenly realised that this is my safe space. This has been my haven ever since we moved here. My ex hardly even came out in it so no shouting took place here. My children pop out occasionally usually to find me; I’ve sat out here with friends and family but for the most part it is mine. In the years that I have been here I have planted according to what I want to see and it has become a messy green thriving slightly chaotic and loosely bounded garden that is mine. This is my safe place and I was sitting in it. No wonder it was hard to visualise it inside my head when all I had to do was open my eyes and be in it.

My counsellor said “what a privilege” when I told her this and she is right (she’ll appreciate reading that). It is a privilege to consider part of my home a safe space when so many of us do not feel safe at home. I didn’t for many years because of my parents, siblings, partners, or simply being run ragged by my children. I have a safe place and I do not have to leave my own home to get there. That is awesome and it is a privilege.

I also considered safe people in the same vein. Not as a requirement for EMDR, but because feeling safe is a privilege and when so many people don’t make me safe, for reasons that are mostly about me rather than them it’s important to consider safe people.

Now I struggle to say this out loud as it feels like bragging (and gushing) but my children are my safe people. I am not saying that I want to discuss my deepest darkest woes with them, but I can and sometimes I do. I can offer my views and thoughts. I can talk about what I learn in therapy, my vulnerabilities and my fears. I might sometimes get a juvenile response of “sucks to be you” but even that is said with a warmth and affection that keeps any sting at bay and replaces it with a warm sense of belonging.

I am still considering what an absolute privilege it is that I have a really positive relationship with all my children. We do not shout at each other, at least not in anger; I literally cannot remember the last time we had a “proper” fight. I am by no means suggesting that my children are perfect because that would be a ridiculous notion. They are often wrong and we do disagree. But I belong to them and they belong to me and when we are together there is a strong sense that we can take on the world and win. I can relax with them. I can be me. I can talk absolute horse shit. I am accepted, occasionally appreciated, mostly respected and at times laughed at. But there is always love if rarely explicitly expressed.

I need my friends, obviously, and am grateful for those really close friends with whom I can be open and honest, who can be my safe harbour in times of need as well as a source of escape and different conversations. But really, my confidence gets boosted by spending time with my children and considering how it is an absolute privilege to look forward to spending time together, to enjoy being in each other’s company. They are my people and I consider myself lucky to have them.

Food as Memory

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I was going to have a stab at my self-development essay but this is what springs to mind. If we consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs then food is on almost every level. At the lowest, food is a basic necessity to keep us alive and there may be little pleasure in subsistence eating. The further up we go the more it can become about the pleasure of eating good food whether alone or with others. We may enjoy and/or share the preparation. It may be symbolic of belonging to a culture or faith, cooked and eaten as part of a ritual, or simply a birthday cake.

We have hang ups about our food. We may always clean our plate through fear of whether there will be a next meal. We may rush our food because someone else might take it. We may crave certain foods because we never had them as a child. There may have been forbidden foods due to parents’ culture or for health reasons. Attitudes to food vary across cultures and continents and between families. Books have been, and will continue to be written that explore our complex relationship with food.

All of which is a lengthy introduction to my food memories.

My paternal grandmother baked her own bread. The anticipation, as a child, of waking up in her house to the smell of home-made bread, and bacon that would go under the grill once I got out of bed spurred me to get dressed quickly. My mouth waters at the very thought. Wensleydale cheese was always present and went very nicely on her bread too. She was a good plain cook who didn’t make a fuss about food but just got on with it. I loved her steak and kidney pie or pudding, although I wouldn’t normally eat kidneys but not much else sticks in the memory. She made chocolate fridge cake which my children still love and what is now called millionaire’s shortbread. She was very un-snobbish about food. We would always visit the fish and chip shop and it was way into my teenage years by the time they replaced the fish counter that my father couldn’t see above as a child. Being in Yorkshire, it was all cooked in beef fat and there were scraps (or bits, depending on where you’re from). We would also walk down to the local ice cream dairy and get slabs of vanilla ice cream that we would eat between wafers or occasionally a cornet but the pleasure was in walking slowly back home, enjoying our ice cream and joint pleasure in it. We’d also enjoy eating them in cold weather (which made them last longer) and watching passers-by express surprise in their faces as they saw us. We did drink tea by the gallon and it would take me several weeks after a holiday  to return to merely drinking it by the pint. She would always have a small jar full of Midget Gems, a chewy fruit gum, that she didn’t mind me enjoying even when I didn’t have a tickle at the back of my throat.

From Yorkshire we travel to the south of France for a very different attitude to food from my maternal grandmother. She grew most of her own food, pretty much everything she could to supplement a small  pension and I learned to enjoy simple fresh food that was grown under perfect conditions. We got baguettes from the local bakery which made the best crunchy, chewy holey baguettes (and occasionally burnt) and croissants or pain au chocolat on Sundays. That was breakfast and when I was very small I would bring people breakfast in bed. Then, if I wasn’t paying attention, sometime between 10 and 11am my grandmother would cry out that she was feeling faint and needed help so I would go and pour out the white wine and we would have a glass or two while finishing off the morning chores and getting lunch ready. Lunch would be tomato salad, with “our friend Basil” if he was growing well, another salad, fresh bread, cheese, pate, rillettes and the much loved saucisson. It was a table spread full of ordinary local food that tasted fantastic. Unless too hot we would always start with my soup as my grandmother made the best, sometimes with vegetables going from earth to saucepan in a very short space of time but always with a lusciousness that attests the quality of home grown ingredients. Dinner would be much of the same, or especial favourites like black pudding (boudin noir), green beans and scrambled eggs. She wasn’t much of a meat eater and would only cook it if we were there. We drank red wine with our meals that came from the farm across the road who only made enough for themselves and a few neighbours. It varied in quality from rough to vinegar but it was what we drank. I remember as a child the price going up to a franc per litre and becoming aware of inflation. They would also bring over an occasional rabbit, skinned, considering my grandmother a softie for asking them to cut the head off first. If corn was being grown (for the cattle, not for humans) we would ask permission, get everything ready and then go and choose our own cobs, getting them into a pan to cook as fast as we could. We would spend hours round the table, sitting, chatting, drinking, discussing everything. Food was important to plan for as my grandmother was used to a visiting van which diminished from twice a week to once a fortnight and there were no shops within walking distance so we would consider food markets and supermarket trips a necessity of any holiday that would also help her stock up. We would have one gourmet meal out each holiday that may involve confit, magret, foie gras, rognons but we would also go out for more ordinary meals (although in that region, no food is ordinary) and go to Routier cafes where you get whatever they are cooking and one hotel restaurant we went to each year for the best cream of mushroom sauce ever until the proprietors died. Food was hugely important but it was part of life, interwoven with daily habits and views. Living in the agricultural countryside meant being aware of the rhythm of the seasons and growing your own food gave that personal and practical insight and awareness. A favourite book of my grandmother’s, Philip Oyler’s The Generous Earth, puts all this perfectly.

And so to my parents. All of I sudden I don’t want to write any more. They were fussy about food, talking about it at length. They liked European and Mediterranean/North African food and still do. They were adventurous within quite those quite limited boundaries. There were childish foods that were frowned on, like mashed potato, ice cream other than “adult” flavours of pistachio and coffee, junk food such as fish fingers, burgers take away pizzas etc. Having said that my mother and I used to have Toast Toppers for lunch. My father loved lemon so lemon sorbet, lemon tart, lemon anything was always good. We would have Chinese, kebabs or Indian takeaway, and of course fish and chips. If we had roast my father would say two helpings of meat is enough and then sit and pick at the joint for himself which I always felt very unfair. I could fill up on potatoes and veg, not him. He would always assume that if he was full, we would all be full and was at times amazed if one of us was still hungry. Mostly we talked or sat in silence and sometimes they did the crossword and I read a book. I learned to eat quickly and quietly and to not complain if I didn’t much like it. They taught me to value good food, whether it’s fancy or plain, to look at the quality of ingredients rather than the number of them. She did host dinner parties and I would always help, eventually being left to make pudding by myself and it was always my responsibility to set a nice table. After a supermarket shop my mother would at times treat me to a fast food burger and chips whilst staring at me in surprise that I took pleasure in eating it. I cannot actually think of dishes that my mother cooked that bring up the warm memories that I describe above from my grandmothers. I remember lemon meringue pie, crumbles, bolognese, cottage pies, roasts and later cassoulet, waterzooi but very few specific dishes and she made an enormous variety. That says something.

What have I retained; what have I passed on to my children?

I had joy in cooking until I had to do it every day for a variety of taste buds and lost it. Now I rarely spend more than 30 minutes preparing a meal) but I try to pay attention to what I want to eat and what I like, rather than what I feel I should. There are foodstuffs from my childhood that I absolutely yearn for, and others I am happy to have let go of.

I feel that food is the one area that I completely blew with my children although they are now making better food choices. My eldest enjoys cooking and experimenting. The second is not particularly bothered as long as there’s plenty of chocolate in some form and a minimal amount of veg. The third has more of an adult palate and shares my joy of salad, as long as there is feta. My youngest eating is very limited and he will get very stubborn about not eating foods he doesn’t like, which includes all fruit and veg. And yet he still grows.

I suppose what I have taught my children most food-wise, is that they are allowed to choose, to refuse, to like different things, to not clear their plate, to eat between meals, to have pizza for breakfast and muesli for dinner. I encourage them to try different/new foods/dishes but I don’t force it. I think they all recognise the difference between eating food as fuel because you’re hungry and eating something that gives pleasure to the senses as well. Between us as a family we eat chips with mayonnaise, ketchup, or vinegar, but never a mix.

Stress in Early Childhood

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I’m currently reading “Getting Past Your Past” by Francine Shapiro, inventor of EMDR. This is making me reflect on early incidents and pre-memories that caused negative feelings, if not trauma. I am not writing them out of a sense of  poor me, but rather as a need to acknowledge these early factors.

  • Stress in utero: My mother was hugely stressed whilst pregnant with me. They moved to a new city, with one child starting secondary school and the other a new primary school; my father always got anxiety or depressed when he started a new job (which he never acknowledged which made it harder to deal with); they weren’t happy with the move and returned to London shortly after having me.
  • Four hourly feeding: my mother will talk of the agonies of listening to me cry for three hours but four hourly feeding was the recommended practice at the time and she didn’t want to break the rules. I fed mine on demand and struggled to last a couple of minutes if one was crying.
  • Two weeks in Skye: it sounds like a lovely idea now, but my father carried me on his back for our first holiday in my first year. They still chuckle over the fact that I cried for the whole two weeks, apparently.
  • Move to London: around a year old, my father started a new job and we moved back to London, so more stress all around. My eldest sister was excited by moves whereas my middle sister was stressed out about them.

Actual memories (up to age 7 and the family’s next move) – I’m trying to keep to the ones that still piss me off or feel entrenched.

  • Being bored: I don’t remember feeling punished but in my first year at school I was left to keep quiet at the back of the class whilst everyone else did alphabet flashcards. I could already read and school didn’t know how to handle that.
  • Fear of an upstairs fire: I have no memory of being scared by an actual fire inside or out; I always liked fires; but I remember planning my route upstairs in the daytime, what I wanted and where it was, so that I could race to get it and be back downstairs in the minimum of time. I don’t know whether I was encouraged to play nicely downstairs and that put me off upstairs. I have no idea where that fear came from but it was very real and went away after we moved.
  • No choice walkies: whether day trips or holidays, staying at home was not an option. Sharing a tent with my sister and midges in the rain, trailing along behind, controlling hunger and thirst, not having a choice and having little time to enjoy the countryside. What’s not to like!
  • Pubs: my sisters and I all agree that after a walk we would get a packet of crisps and possibly a drink to share between us outside a pub while our parents went inside to drink beer and eat food. One of the few memories that we agree on.
  • Scrabble: I have no memory of this but my mother tells me it caused her to consider leaving my father and us children. He bragged to her that he had cheated at Scrabble and I hadn’t noticed and he had beaten me. My father, an adult, was ecstatic that he’d beaten a 5 year old at Scrabble. No wonder I never liked it. He hated losing any and all games.
  • Public meltdown in the playground: I didn’t want to go home with this girl to play but my mother needed me looked after and had arranged it. I wasn’t friends with this girl but she didn’t deserve my floods of tears as witnessed by all our class mates. Was it just that I had no choice?
  • First bully age 6: it was my first amateur play and I think he mocked me a little from the superior vantage point of being a few years older. I might have mentioned it to my mother but she would have told me not to worry, to ignore him or walk away. I had no idea how to respond then and I still struggle.
  • 30 second blank age 5: walking back from the fair? with my oldest sister and her boyfriend through a car park. I remember feeling happy, possibly holding hands and then he said or did something and I never wanted to see him again. Maybe he just poked fun at my sister and nothing more. My sister remembers nothing.
  • Injustice, not being heard: first year of junior school, through the swing doors. I read a book, 3 lines per page, 20 odd pages, in five minutes and went to change it. My teacher didn’t believe me and made me copy out the book for the rest of the lesson. She could have asked me about the story, checked my understanding but no, I was just punished for good reading. The injustice of it still makes me angry.
  • Car travel: I’d be sandwiched between my sisters when we all travelled. As the smallest I would be in the middle seat. All holidays had massive car journeys (Scotland, Wales, Lake District or France) and my car sickness was an inconvenience not to be tolerated so I learned to sleep through as much as possible, lying down in the back after my sisters had decided who would have my head and who my feet. Sometimes the car would have to stop so I could throw up.
  • being ill: A clear sign of weakness; my prompt return to school was my father’s concern. There is something about being ignored but I cannot put my finger on a clear memory. I remember having measles, and bowls of custard when ill but mostly being left to sleep away illness on my own in bed. One time I remember feeling grateful when my mother sat with me for an hour in the evening despite having guests as I felt so awful she couldn’t leave me be.

My sisters fought physically a lot, but I don’t remember being bothered by it. Nor do I remember noticing the stress my mother went through trying to get my sister to school before she dropped out, or discussions over her pregnancy and termination. Yet there must have been plenty of tension. My other sister discovered God at a similar time and that too would have caused some intense discussions behind closed doors (or more likely out on walks).

Then we moved and everything changed but the foundations to how I reacted to what followed were already set.

Change

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I have chosen change. I have chosen the harder path for my life that means fighting against my childhood and experiences that held me back in order to be free, in order to be an unfettered me.

The first time I actively chose change was when my eldest was born. On my return from the hospital with him I sat down and painfully contemplated the reality that one day I would have to divorce his father if I was going to protect my child by giving him a safer and more loving upbringing than I had. It took me a few more years to carry that out.

In the same vein the second time I chose change was when I threw out my then partner and father of my three younger children. That too took me a number of years to achieve and there was an incredible amount of emotional pain.

I chose change when I sought counselling. I later chose change when I chose to pay for private counselling, having chosen to believe that I was worth it.

Change meant rupturing the close relationship with my mother, by choosing to no longer collude with her against my father.

Change has meant accepting the relationship I have with my parents, and indeed the childhood they gave me, and to stop wishing it could be different.

Choosing change has meant thinking really hard about how I parent my children, how I bring them up with the minimum amount of hang ups (at least) to be decent human beings who strive for their own growth, capable of making their own decisions.

Through counselling and parenting I have considered how I have changed and what led me forwards. Considering who I am and who I want to be is in a sense the biggest change of all as I have always been either the product of my childhood, or a mother, but without a real sense of identity or autonomy beyond that.

My search for self has therefore led me to choose change again, this time to embark on what has turned out to be four years of learning about counselling with the initial aim of learning more about myself that had turned into a desire to become a professional counsellor.

What have I learned during these four years?

# to understand how the decisions that my parents made, and theirs before them, informed our family life and my upbringing, and in turn, not just to accept this and stop being angry at them but eventually to forgive them.

# to find, with the person-centred approach, a framework that helped explain how I was who I was and who I was, that made intuitive sense.

# to consider what I actually believe in, morally, ethically, personally, politically etc. To really consider my values and principles, what it is that I choose to consider important that isn’t an introjected view.

# to find, the parallels between the PCA and the child-centred approach that my parenting evolved into and through that external validation come to accept that I am more than a good-enough parent. I still hesitate to say that I am an excellent parent but I am proud of the adults that my children have become and am always grateful for the occasional explicit external validation from them.

# to begin, through pride in parenting, to develop a more positive sense of self, which is where the greatest struggle remains

Choosing change has always seemed to come with immense personal emotional pain, especially when it’s an important change. I accept that it may always be thus but shall not let it stop me seeking growth.

It’s All OK

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It’s OK to be kind.
It’s OK to need help.
It’s OK to ask.
It’s OK to say no.
It’s OK to have a voice.
It’s OK to look after yourself.
It’s OK to need people.
It’s OK to be on your own.
It’s OK to make your own decisions.
It’s OK to let go.
It’s OK to feel angry.
It’s all OK.

I dare to dream.

May I grow towards the light.
May I find peace.
May I be free.
May I feel good enough.

The Struggle for Self-Compassion

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There are lots of things I could be writing about in these current times but they aren’t the issue that is pressing. I wake every morning and my competing thoughts are what’s happened in the world overnight and I need to get on with my essay.

On the one hand writing essays seems trivial during world turmoil and it is indeed hard to focus. On the other hand the rest of life is slipping away in an irrelevance that gives me the space to focus, or at least to try.

As we had our last online college session before we broke up for Easter I came to the sudden realisation that the anguish I feel when approaching assignment writing is something that I only feel when I am writing assignments, not when I am doing any other form of writing. I feel anxiety when approaching lots of tasks in my life and have learned to manage that anxiety, to recognise it, accept it and to work through it so that I can accomplish whatever it is, even if I have to do it with a churning stomach.

So why is academic writing so special? I am doing a Diploma, Level 4 and this started with a Level 3 Certificate. For level 4 assignments are around the 5,000 words and for level 3 they were around 3,000. If you’ve done a full dissertation at degree level or above you will reasonably see these as trivial. And I would not disagree.

I could criticise the assignments themselves: they’re not essays where I can choose to explore ideas in response to a question. They’re 50 questions each which all have to be answered in a very tick-boxy way that must answer the exact question in the right way and no more, allowing very little room for creativity. Each of us on the course finds our own way through, some with greater ease than others.

For me though, my way of getting through these is with agony and lots of avoidance, that serve only to increase the anxiety. I delay getting started and then, once the deadline gets closer I delay getting started on a daily basis by finding lots of other urgent things I need to get out of the way before I can focus. Except that due to general lack of sleep I struggle to focus in the afternoons and even if I try relaxing in the afternoon I cannot come back to it in the evening so delaying getting started tends to ruin it for the day. This all sounds complicated and it is but it is how I justify my avoidance.

The realisation that all this anxiety was purely for academic writing gave me pause for thought. I had previously thought that anxiety over writing was due to comparing myself with my father who was a journalist and made a successful career out of writing. Naturally I compare myself unfavourably to him even though I rarely enjoyed his work and have never managed to get beyond the turgid first chapter of his second book (there wasn’t a third). I also let myself off the hook somewhat for having spent six formative years in a francophone school with no learning in English so the only writing I did was occasional letters to my grandmothers.

These on their own are not sufficient cause for the physical trauma that I relive in my body before approaching and assignment: I tremble, I feel sick to my stomach, my head goes all woolly and my capacity to think vanishes; it’s as if my brain has decided to shut down rather than work. It all hurts and I want to go for a lie down. It is genuinely exhausting and that’s before I’ve written a single word.

Part of writing this blog initially was to let me explore my ability to write without assessment, judgement or any form of external validation. Somehow doing it in a paper diary didn’t work for me. Over the years I’ve had to write boring clear letters on which much depended like funding for 2son’s future, legal and financial matters. They filled me with dread and then I got on and did them. Now the dread is a lot less. When I got my degree many years ago I did one module that required essays and really struggled with them, even though I enjoyed the material. So this is nothing new.

I re-read a post of mine on School Reports and what they brought up. Just reading through it brings up the physical dread detailed above. But made me realise that it’s not just the fear of being judged that is present but it’s the bigger fear of being belittled, of being mocked and laughed at, by both peers and tutors, as happened one way or another throughout my school life right from day one. It’s not just the fear of not getting external validation but that of getting ripped to shreds instead. My father reinforced this with his dismissal of anything less than perfect and telling me to get on with it and ignore emotions. So I learned to make myself small and that remained.

We’ve had a change of tutor this year and I do not trust either him or his colleague to mark my essays fairly or to support me if I raise difficulties. I do not think he is as bad as I feel but I had total trust in previous tutor, who had taught this course for too many years, and her ability to get us through and support us in getting assignments through. It was her and me united against the examining body whereas now I feel on my own. That doesn’t help solve the issue or help me make my way through it but it helps explain why it feels so much worse this year.

I was looking at an interesting piece of research on bullying and PTSD (and the role of the parental bond) and many of the participants’ comments about their experiences and reactions resonated with me. It also features CROPS, a child self reporting system for trauma. Out of the 25 suggestions ranging from “I daydream” to “I do some thing that I am probably too old for” I experienced almost all of them as a child.

I have flirted with the idea of having complex PTSD before, starting to work through a workbook on the subject. I have finished the book, but not the work. I did briefly talk to my counsellor about a short period with a specialist but that is currently problematic. I am honestly not sure how to proceed with this. Trying to dig it all up at a time of stress when I have got assignments to focus on seems counter-intuitive. If I could guarantee working my way through it in a short space of time then it would be worth taking time away from college for it. Is it optional though, can I get through the rest of the college work without it or do I need to work through to succeed? I don’t know.

I am however reading through Kristin Neff’s book on Self Compassion and thinking I could do with a bucketful of this. Whilst the personal pain I experienced taught me to be compassionate about others it did not teach me to be compassionate about myself. Learning to be kinder to myself helps counteract some of this emotional swirl I am experiencing.

Having put self-compassion in the title I haven’t made much reference to it. This time I asked for an extension on my essay that is not an essay rather than forcing myself to finish it on time. That is self-compassion. Even then I had to remind myself that it isn’t a race and it’s not about falling behind those of my peers who have finished. I can be kind and understanding towards them and their limitations but not to my own.

I am trying to fill some of my head’s empty space with consideration and understanding towards myself as well as acceptance and understanding but I have a nagging list of things to be done that shouts louder.

Here’s the Pressure

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Youngest is back at school. 2son is on the train back to college having a difficult journey. 3son is out somewhere and 1son is back at his dad’s. So situation is back to normal and I really feel a ball of anxiety.

I’ve got a water leak in the kitchen that has been slowly getting worse for three months now. Down to the council to fix but for various reasons they are still arguing about it. Not important but I have to mop up every time I walk into the room and I’m sick of both that and the daily phone calls.

Finance is worrying me. I am going to be OK for the next six months having tightened my financial belt but that means doing less stuff which is fun. Plus a bit more saying no to my children and asking them to pay me back when I buy tickets. I know counselling takes time to build up as a private practice let alone trying to find work within an agency so it’s not as if I’ll be going straight into financial safety once I’m done with the course (at least I’m not saying if).

I’ve got my first essay due in three weeks. Haven’t looked at it since before Christmas and am loath to pick it up and keep putting it off. 3son is about to go away for 10 days so will have extra peace at home.

We will start working on second essay when we go back to college next week and I don’t like juggling both simultaneous. That one is then due in March with two more by end of next term.

Then there is the question of whether I can find my way through my client work and actually learn to not fuck up the first few sessions. Which, given that this has been sitting on my mind all Christmas means that is is growing to epic proportions. I had an extra session with my therapist before Christmas and we talked through it which helped enormously. I shall discuss it in solo supervision this week and then see a new client next week and hopefully they won’t run away. I wanted to spend some time after Christmas really thinking about this but I haven’t had the time or space.

I’m also not looking forward to being back at college as I don’t feel willing, ready or open to sharing this difficulty with them which is going to make some aspects of working together difficult and feel false.

My sleep has gone completely to pot. I’m back using sleep stories every night and although I am sleeping fairly deeply I am also waking up 3-4 times a night so am not feeling refreshed at all. I am wondering whether the stress of the course is too much for me to cope with but then I wonder about the lack of alternatives.

I’m onto stable medication for my blood pressure that is so minimal I’m not sure it’s doing anything but am sometimes “hearing” my heart pounding wakes me up in the morning. My GP thinks having slightly higher pressure is OK for the moment. I’m not sure.

So in summary I feel that I’m skating on thin ice and am feeling really incapable of dealing with it. Life seems quite overwhelming at the moment with little to look forward to and no way through that doesn’t involve fighting in a way that I am totally bored with now. Meditation is currently a big struggle too, although I’m not dropping it. I feel as is I’ve gone back three years.

I am however overwhelmingly grateful for my children who are not causing me anguish, and my body which is very slowly changing shape in a good way. Those are the two good things I am hanging onto at the moment.